As the money pours in, will we know where it’s coming from?


As the 2010 election cycle heats up, voters will be exposed to the usual bombardment of campaign ads—many of them negative, and many engaging in deception, distortion or half-truths—that have become a staple during election years.  What is likely to be new this year, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, is that a great many of those ads will be funded by corporate and union interests.  And, if Congress doesn’t act to ensure that there is a centralized government database disclosing information about who is paying for these ads, there is a significant risk that voters will have no idea who is shaping the debate and even influencing the outcome of the elections.

As I noted here, the Congressional response to the decision has been the introduction of the DISCLOSE Act. The provisions of that bill that aim to uncover the real money behind political ads are crucial to ensure that those who pay for the ads are accountable for what they say, and that voters have the ability to evaluate the messages they hear.

But, for those disclosures to be of the most value to the public, Congress should amend the DISCLOSE Act to require that the Federal Election Commission make that information available to the public online, in a searchable, sortable format, within 24 hours of receipt. Moreover, the FEC should be mandated to ensure that all of the disclosure information is available no later than this fall—when the 2010 election cycle will begin in earnest.

As it is written, the DISCLOSE Act would require the entities that make electioneering communications to disclose information about who is paying for those ads on their own websites.  That’s important, especially for shareholders or members of an organization who have a specific interest in an organization and want to know what type of political activity it is engaging in.  But, that system means that if someone wants to know how much money a particular industry sector is spending on independent political ads, they will have to engage in an ad hoc search of myriad websites to come up with a likely incomplete and unreliable result.

The DISCLOSE Act is missing a requirement for a single place that reporters, public interest groups, bloggers and every day citizens can go to find out the big picture about who is shaping the debate in elections. Right now, the FEC provides one-stop shopping so voters can find out about other election-related contributions and expenditures.  Congress should amend the DISCLOSE Act to similarly require that the FEC be home to timely, detailed and easily accessible political spending by corporations and unions.