Why is an Iowa-based group spending big bucks on the Kansas attorney general race? Why did an Ohio group run attack ads during the GOP primary for the 4th Congressional District? What are their agendas? Where does their money come from? Is any of it from Kansas donors?
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to impossible to get answers to these and other questions, because many outside groups don’t have to disclose their funding sources.
That’s unfair to voters and an abuse of the campaign system. And it’s why Congress needs to require greater disclosure of campaign donations and spending.
Ironically, these secretive groups began springing up after Congress’ last major campaign-finance reform. Rather than remove big money from politics, as was its intention, the McCain-Feingold law drove money underground.
Donors could avoid campaign donation limits to political parties by financing independent groups that spent money directly on campaigns. And if the groups register with the Internal Revenue Service as 501(c)(4) organizations, they don’t have to disclose the names of their donors.
The U.S. Supreme Court also helped open the floodgates when it ruled in January that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money campaigning for or against political candidates.
Because they don’t have to disclose where their money comes from, these shadowy groups can produce negative ads making misleading or false claims, and there is no one to hold accountable. The candidates benefiting from the ads deny any involvement, and the public is left wondering who is really behind some generic-sounding group — such as Common Sense Issues, the Ohio group that ran radio and television ads attacking 4th Congressional District candidates Wink Hartman and Jean Schodorf.
The New York Times was able to uncover connections between the ethanol industry and American Future Fund, the Iowa group running negative ads against Attorney General Steve Six. But it is unclear why this group cares who is Kansas’ attorney general.
Congress did try to increase disclosure requirements on campaign spending this year. The DISCLOSE Act passed the House, but GOP lawmakers filibustered it in the Senate. Though the act went overboard with some requirements and had politically motivated exemptions, the main goal was on target: greater transparency.
Unfortunately, lawmakers tend to be more concerned with gaining a partisan advantage than with helping voters. As a result, Democrats didn’t seem to care much about third-party groups when they were the main beneficiaries. And now that the groups overwhelmingly favor GOP candidates, Republican lawmakers are no longer champions of disclosure, as they used to be.
In the meantime, voters are left in the dark. As usual.