Here comes the cash

Our view: New rules allow corporations to spend freely

September 20, 2010

Now that the primaries are over, here comes the big money. Freed by a Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to use their own cash to pay for campaign ads, Republican leaning groups are mounting impressive fund raising efforts to support their candidates in this fall's congressional elections, matching and likely exceeding Democrats' traditional sources of cash. But unlike the unions and moveon.orgs that have fueled campaign spending in the past, the new players in the world of campaign finance can directly advocate for the victory or defeat of a candidate without identifying themselves or the sources of their money.

Business and conservative groups interviewed by The Wall Street Journal say they plan to spend $300 million on this year's elections, some of it funneled through so-called 527 organizations, which spend money themselves rather than giving it to candidates or political parties and are now freed of restrictions on direct electioneering. Democrats have long had the edge in such outside expenditures, but starting in August, spending on political television ads by Republican third party groups has swamped that spent by Democratic groups. That's a problem, not because of the shifting balance of the political landscape but because this fall's election threatens to become a battle of fat but anonymous checkbooks rather than a clash of ideas.

And Maryland is likely to have a front-row seat with the much-anticipated rematch between state Sen. Andy Harris and Rep. Frank Kratovil, a Democrat who is viewed as one of the most vulnerable members of Congress.

Big money and political campaigns have long been bedfellows, but what is novel and troubling in this political season is the lack of disclosure. By funneling money into trade associations, contributors can often escape detection. That eliminates the one safeguard our porous campaign finance laws had previously afforded — if politicians were being bought, we could have at least figured out by whom.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York have proposed legislation that would require organizations involved in political campaigning to reveal the identity of large donors and to disclose their identities in any political ads they sponsor. The resulting legislation, called the Disclose Act, passed the House but stalled in the Senate, where without Republican support it failed to get the required 60 vote margin to overcome a possible filibuster.

Democrats have been much quicker to complain about the effects of the Supreme Court ruling in the case FEC vs. Citizens United, but requiring transparency benefits Republicans, too. As the recent primaries show, the conservative side of the political spectrum is full of angry populists. They appear to be as unhappy with embedded interest groups as they are with entrenched politicians. If there is one theme that underlies the Tea Party movement, it is that Washington listens not to the people but to special interests, and its members could turn their considerable ire on office holders unwilling to stop the flow of unlimited and secret contributions.

Short of public financing for Congressional elections — an unlikely event in this political climate — what is needed are regulations mandating clear and timely disclosure of who is spending money on political campaigns. The Senate should pass the Disclose Act. But that's not going to help with this year's election. In the meantime, voters must be all the more skeptical of campaign advertising and make their selections at the ballot box carefully.

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