As campaign spending soars, transparency key

April 1, 2014 | 2:47 am

By Dubuque Telegraph Herald

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This is what the most expensive U.S. presidential election in history looks like.

The 2012 presidential campaign last week passed the $2 billion fundraising mark. Those of us in Iowa and Wisconsin have a front-row seat for a disproportionate share of the television advertising, radio ads, robocalls and direct mail. The campaigns are heaping it on “battleground” states.

Who is sponsoring all those ads? That’s the catch: We don’t fully know.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, corporate political spending has no limits. The way the Supreme Court saw it, that unlimited spending would be accompanied by unprecedented transparency. Justice Anthony Kennedy even wrote in that decision, “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.”

Only that didn’t happen.

The push-pull between campaign finance accountability and the First Amendment to finance public speech is decades old. There are important values on each side of the equation. We respect that citizens and corporations should have the right to express political opinions (and are willing to put their money where their mouth is). But we also feel that it is reasonable for voters to know who is funding the messages. After all, free speech is not necessarily free.

Just about the same time as the Citizens United ruling, special-interest groups started organizing under a tax code that allows donors to remain anonymous. The 501(c)(4) designation is for groups whose intended purpose and focus is something other than politics. A union, for instance, or a chamber of commerce. Because their donors might be giving for reasons other than politics, the identities of these groups’ donors may be secret. This glaring loophole was a factor in the 2010 election, and politicians vowed to change it.

That didn’t happen, either.

The Disclose Act of 2012 failed to win Senate support this summer. So now political mudslinging is in full force, the half-truths are flowing like water and no one knows who is behind much of the advertising or what their motives might be.

Consider what happened in Iowa in 2010 when hundreds of thousands of out-of-state dollars flooded into the campaign to fire three Iowa Supreme Court justices. Nameless deep pockets from out of state threw Iowa’s impartial judicial system into question. The attack resumes this year concerning another Supreme Court justice.

Secret money poisons the political process. Big money can create a quid pro quo corruption in which candidates feel beholden to the interests that touted their campaigns. Knowing what those interests are would at least help voters hold elected officials accountable.

The way the system is set up, there’s nothing to prevent even foreign interests from fueling advertising to directly influence U.S. elections. We wouldn’t even necessarily know it was happening.

Congress must get back to the Disclose Act of 2012, or something like it, to fix the lack of transparency in campaign spending. Here in battleground states, surrounded by hotly contested congressional races, undecided voters will be subjected to a flood of ads in the next 10 days. These messages will play on voters’ fears and proclaim half-truths. That the names and motives of those paying for those ads is unknown creates a troubling dynamic in the electorate.

 

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