Super PACs and Secret Money Undermine Elections

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The New York Times looked at this week’s Super PAC filings with the FEC and demonstrated—again—what we knew would be the result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision: The specter of hundreds of thousands of dollars of hidden money influencing our elections and those who will be elected.

The times notes that, “some checks came from sources obscured from public view, like a $250,000 contribution to a super PAC backing Mr. Romney from a company with a post office box for a headquarters and no known employees.” But, while the public remains in the dark, it would be naïve to think that the identity of the donor (or donors) of that generous contribution is unknown to Mr. Romney. So, what does he or she want? Favorable tax treatment? Fewer regulations for a pet industry? A bailout? An ambassadorship? It is possible that the money came from a generous citizen who simply believes Romney would be the best man for the job. But the system of secret dark money now in place means the voters will never know.

The Supreme court relied heavily on the theory that transparency would cleanse the unlimited money that would shape our elections as a result of their decision in the Citizens United case, noting, “A campaign finance system that pairs corporate independent expenditures with effective disclosure has not existed before today.” Unfortunately, the Court failed to realize that such a system of disclosure does not yet exist.

There is a solution. Sunlight proposed the SUPERPAC Act as one way to shine more light on the dark money infecting our elections. It would impose a regime of disclosure and disclaimers that would lift the veil of secrecy under which large donors may hide. But Congress needs to act. So far, we’ve heard talk. House Democrats say they will re-introduce a slightly paired down version of the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that failed to be enacted last year. And on the other side of the Capitol, Senator Schumer has promised hearings on disclosure by Super PACs.

These are important steps. (Although, arguably they should have happened well before the election season got under way.) Disclosure legislation is a critical tool in the fight against the undue influence secret money has on our campaigns and our elected officials. Unless Congress acts, we can be sure that we have only seen the tip of the dark money iceberg that is undermining the fundamentals of our democracy.

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