Here's a new priority for the candidate who wins today's special election for U.S. House District 13 in Pinellas County: Pledge to increase transparency in federal campaign contributions and spending. Voters should not have to go to the polls guessing who paid to promote the candidates' campaigns and who might want a favor from the newest member of Congress.
As Tampa Bay Times Washington Bureau chief Alex Leary detailed Sunday, the race to succeed the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young was the most expensive in history for the district. It even eclipsed the cumulative total of Young's last 33 years in office. The two major party candidates, Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly, have spent $3 million combined. That's nothing compared with the $9 million in misleading television and mail advertising that have been purchased by third-party groups.
Exactly who is bankrolling those groups is often a mystery, due to large loopholes in federal campaign finance law that allow some to cloak their donors forever — or at least until after the election is over. It's a by-product of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that unleashed so-called "social welfare" groups and super political action committees that can accept unlimited donations. And it has given rise to a political campaign industry far more vested in campaign firefights than in building a better democracy.
Just how absurd has it become? Even as candidates are barred from coordinating their campaigns with such groups, they aren't barred from a passive assist. As Leary noted, both parties have provided candidate photos, video and oppositional research on public Internet sites to make it easier for a third party to hit the messages that are expected to help tarnish the opponent.
So voters may think they know where Jolly and Sink stand on the Affordable Care Act or on abortion rights after being inundated with third-party messages. But what about their views on veterans' affairs, higher education financing, climate change, deficit reduction or beach renourishment? Sorry, third-party groups weren't interested in telling voters that.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such spending is a matter of free speech, but it should not be a matter of anonymity. Third-party groups should have to adhere to the same donor disclosure requirements as the candidates and political parties. The newest member of Congress from Pinellas County should make that argument.