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Capping the secret money gusher

Saturday, October 30, 2010; 6:56 PM

IT'S POSSIBLE to make a plausible argument that for all the focus on which candidate has raised the most and which party has more in its coffers, money doesn't really play a determinative role in politics. Or that gushers of campaign cash in the 2010 elections are not a troubling indication of financial power trumping message but welcome evidence of a robust public debate. Or that for all the Democratic belly-aching about outside groups' spending this election cycle, the two parties and their ideological allies have managed to spend to a draw, with neither side enjoying that much of a financial edge over the other.

What it's not possible to argue - not plausibly, anyway - is that the proliferation of outside groups that spent heavily but kept their donors secret is a healthy development for democracy. These groups have existed in previous election cycles. But their number and clout during this election has been the most worrisome development of the campaign season. There is an important place for anonymous speech and a rationale for protecting the cloaked pamphleteer but not in elections. To have campaigns underwritten or votes swayed by money whose source is not known is the antithesis of a well-functioning democratic system.

This development could have been averted; it should be in time for the 2012 campaign. The essence of a proposal known as the Disclose Act is to tighten the tax code to require nonprofit groups and trade associations that intervene in elections to report that spending and the funding for it. The groups would be free to shield the identities of those giving for other activities, protecting the aforementioned pamphleteer.

The measure has passed the House but has been blocked in the Senate by unified Republican opposition, in part because of other provisions that go beyond simple disclosure to prohibit campaign spending by certain corporate entities, such as foreign-owned companies and government contractors. Passing a stripped-down, disclosure-only version of the Disclose Act should be at the top of the agenda for the lame-duck Congress.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but some Republicans seem to agree - including a few who could be in a position to make it happen. "The transparency should be there," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said last week. "If people are bothered by [the law], then the Congress needs to change it." Rep. Mark Kirk, who could become the next senator from Illinois, said at a recent debate, "I think all of the groups entering Illinois to support my opponent and the ones trying to support me should reveal their donors and be fully transparent." Likewise, Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck: "I think it is important that people know who is paying for the ads."

So do we. If Mr. Kirk or Mr. Buck end up in the Senate, we hope that they - and other colleagues will cut off the flow of secret money before even more gushes forth in 2012.

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