Not so long ago Senetor Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) agrued we need to embrace public disclosure of campaign contributions so that “voters can judge for themselves what is appropriate.” However, just last week McConnell turned his back on his 1987 statements supporting the idea that voters need to understand how and what influences our elected officials.
Instead, McConnell is leading the fight against the DISCLOSE act that would plug legal loopholes that allow campaigns to keep their donors anonymous. He now argues that disclosing the multi-million dollar donations from corporations and millionaires (and billionaires) to groups running political attack ads is somehow a violation of free speech rights. As Donald Cohen from the Cry Wolf Project puts it, this means, “informed democracy is, well, anti-democratic.”
Even forward thinking laws fail to anticipate the complex schemes of corporations and the wealthy that pump money into American politics. Tax exempt groups such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Chamber of Commerce are taking advantage of blind spots in the U.S. tax code. This allows these groups to run “issue based” attack ads without being subjected to the donor disclosure requirements by the Federal Elections Commission that candidates and independent political expenditure campaigns must follow.
While most of the donations are done in secret, some have been made public by investigative journalists, political watchdog groups and, in some case, voluntary disclosures. For example, Aetna Insurance gave more than $3 million last year to the American Action Network that spent millions attacking Obama’s health care bill. American Electric Power gave $1 million last November to the new Founding Fund, set up by former Koch Industries staffers whose lobbying firm represents Wal-Mart and the American Chemistry Council. The Chamber of Commerce has received millions from corporations including Prudential Financial, Merck and Dow Chemical to fund the Chamber’s $50 million political advertising budget this year.
Without enforced disclosure rules, these groups provide anonymity for America’s wealthiest and most well-known corporations as they spend millions on fighting reasonable clean air laws, consumer protection against predatory lending, and lots of other common sense safeguards for consumers, workers, and the environment.
Is it safe to assume they’re hiding something if they don’t want their donations to be disclosed? “Their real concern is that informed voters will reject the power grab of the already too powerful, just as consumers rejected unsafe and unhealthy food, dangerous toys and risky drugs once the ingredients and dangers were disclosed by earlier laws,” says Cohen.
Democracy is threatened when voters don’t know who’s behind multi-million dollar political attack ads. It restricts the ability to evaluate the content of the ads, understand the motivations of the ad buyers, and slashes the insight on what they hope to gain .
Opinion polls show that Americans believe that government serves the interests of the wealthy and powerful over the needs of the many. Disclosing who is paying for these attack ads would make clear just how true that is and therefore just might influence how people vote. In the end, the secrecy campaign is a straightforward effort to preserve and protect corporate power and influence. It’s about winning in politics and success in the marketplace.
(Donald Cohen is the director of the Cry Wolf Project via Huffington Post)