The American Action Network (AAN), for example, is targeting House Democrats who voted for “Obamacare” with $1.2 million in digital ads, mailings and other efforts. As a tax-exempt “social welfare” organization, the group is not required to identify its funders to the public.
“How far will they go to protect Obama’s agenda?” a narrator asks in one digital ad, which equates a trio of New York Democrats with the Three Stooges comedy troupe. “Tell congressmen Bill Owens, Tim Bishop and Louise Slaughter to repeal the health care tax.”
Two donations to the group have emerged publicly from the health-care sector: $3 million in 2011 from insurance giant Aetna and $4.5 million in 2010 from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA), Washington’s biggest drugmaker lobby.
Aetna and PhRMA officials say their contributions were made in support of general policies, not political ads.
The effort underscores the secrecy that pervades many of the political ads inundating voters this year, particularly in a dozen crucial swing states that are likely to decide the presidential race between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
The spending is part of a broader debate over whether companies and trade groups should be required to publicly reveal their funding sources, particularly in the wake of court rulings that have freed corporations to spend unlimited money on politics. Democrats, who are bearing the brunt of the attack ads by independent groups, failed in attempts last week to pass disclosure legislation aimed at forcing some nonprofits to reveal their donors.
“So many of these ads are cloaked in secrecy,” said Bruce F. Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability, which lobbies corporations to disclose their political expenditures. “In a democracy, the public needs to know who is providing the funding, who the players are, whether you have folks engaging in duplicity or hypocrisy. Are the companies saying one thing but doing the opposite secretly?”
Some corporate political spending does spill into public view from time to time, often to the consternation of the firms doling out the money. In 2009, even as they publicly pledged support for elements of Obama’s health-care reform efforts, a group of major health-care firms funneled $86 million to the Chamber of Commerce for attack ads and lobbying efforts against the legislation, according to leaked records and news reports.