Passing the Disclose Act would shed some light on stealth campaign spending

Thursday, September 23, 2010; A26

THE PROSPECT of secret money flooding into federal elections has progressed from disturbing theory to full-fledged reality. Groups with anodyne names like Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Job Security and Crossroads GPS are, with no legal requirement that they reveal the names of their donors, spending millions of dollars on television advertising and other activities designed to support favored congressional candidates.

Tax laws permit a certain degree of political activity by nonprofit advocacy groups and trade associations without requiring reports on the source of the spending. Corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals that want to influence elections without revealing their involvement can use such entities to do so. But the Supreme Court invited even more of this activity with its decision in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums to target particular lawmakers for election or defeat. In advance of the November election, especially on the Republican side, that opportunity is being taken up with vigor.

This development is unhealthy for democracy. As the Supreme Court itself explained in the portion of its Citizens United ruling rejecting a challenge to existing reporting requirements, "The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages." The current disclosure void threatens that balance, with an electorate clueless about the interests trying to influence their votes.

The Senate has before it a measure, known as the Disclose Act, that would fix this mess; the House has already passed its version. Unfortunately, it has not been able to attract any Republican support and therefore is short of the necessary 60 votes. In its current form, the measure would go beyond expanding disclosure requirements to prohibit certain kinds of corporations -- for example, government contractors -- from seeking to influence federal elections. But supporters are said to be willing to strip out all but the disclosure portions of the legislation and to delay its effective date until after the upcoming election.

That should be enough to pry loose a Republican vote or two; the most obvious candidates are Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe. It should be enough -- but it hasn't been so far. If that remains true when the Senate votes on the measure Thursday, we hope that they or others will reconsider after the election and take the necessary steps to turn off the secret-money spigot.

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