The Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision gives corporations, along with labor unions and trade associations, wide latitude to jump into the election fray. Not only may they directly pay for the "Call Congressman So-and-so" ads, but they can now fund and run the ads that say what they really mean: "Defeat Congressman So-and-so."
We know, anecdotally, that corporations have taken advantage of this decision, but there is little evidence of a corporate takeover of our campaign finance system. Note that I do not say, "corporations have not taken over our system," but just that we have "little evidence."
This should not be comforting.
I would rather know how bad it is than know nothing. The high court theoretically agrees. By an 8-to-1 margin, our justices this year said disclosure is important. But by a 5-to-4 margin, they said current disclosures protect against corruption. Rest easy; we've got transparency.
In fact, we at the Center for Responsive Politics believe our work and our site, OpenSecrets.org, have played a significant role in helping to boost disclosure over the years. And yet we are the first to say it is not good enough — certainly not this cycle, in the face of all of the money being spent by outside groups.
When tens or hundreds of millions of dollars are targeting these midterm elections and our votes, but their origin is unknowable, one has to wonder whether someone isn't trying to pull a fast one on us.
OK, so we get a disclaimer naming the coalition that runs an ad. Maybe that disclaimer names a group with some vague, innocuous-sounding moniker. Or it's a group signaling that it has many "citizens" or "Americans" behind it. However, these groups often have no publicly known members, donors or contact info.
Nevertheless, they want us to think they are credible sources of "important information" that we need to consider before we vote. Even certain organizations that must, by law, disclose their donors need not do it in real time, meaning weeks, or even months, will elapse before people know who's truly behind the ads.
Why do they insist on anonymity? What's the harm in knowing whether it's a million Americans or just one American fueling the multimillion-dollar influence campaigns of shadowy organizations purporting to represent the body politic's best interests? Why is it so risky for these individuals and corporations to be exposed as donors to right- or left-leaning outside interest groups?
We certainly know high-profile individuals such as David Koch and George Soros have given big. Currently, conservatives boast a deeper bench: Carl Lindner, Harold Simmons, Bob Perry, Rupert Murdoch and a few new guys have been pulling out their pocketbooks.
Thanks to weak federal disclosure laws, it's all but impossible to determine who else might be signing big checks. What about Fortune 500 companies that want to eject uncooperative members of particular committees? Or big corporations that want supportive letters from Congress as they pressure for or (more likely) against agency implementation of the laws that Congress has just passed? Oil companies, health insurance conglomerates, financial firms and pro-business groups all have gripes against Congress these days.
And unions play the game, too: As usual, members' dues are fueling millions of dollars in political efforts that conservatives consider patently anti-business. They should not be able to hide their support for pro-Democratic groups, and any outside group that they are giving to should also have to disclose its donors.
We charge the voters with a serious job. Surely they deserve the opportunity to consider what motives might explain the largesse of those attempting to influence elections and policy. Commonsense dictates that Congress should act to defend transparency, the voter's right to know and the democratic process.
Meanwhile, TiVo will be a powerful tool this week to avoid being barraged with all of the shocking, intriguing but ultimately false information directed our way. A working remote, a double dose of skepticism and an eye on the money will likely come in handy on Nov. 2, and far, far beyond. So long as federal law effectively says, "see no evil, hear no evil," we must never trust that organizations bent on influencing us will simply volunteer to speak no evil, as well.
Sheila Krumholz is executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.