If the courts insist on allowing no limits on what outside groups can spend to influence elections, they can at least require those groups to publicly disclose the donors of the millions spent on attack ads flooding the airwaves. Now there is some hope for more openness. A U.S. Court of Appeals panel in Washington this week declined to stay a federal judge's ruling requiring tax-exempt groups that run election ads to identify their donors. Voters should know who is paying to influence their decisions, and the U.S. Supreme Court should uphold the ruling.
This case is the first positive breakthrough for campaign finance reform in years, and it follows several wrongheaded U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have resulted in a tsunami of outside money corrupting elections that is often impossible to trace. A 2007 Supreme Court opinion lifted a ban on corporate and union campaign ads in the final weeks leading up to an election. The 2010 Citizens United court opinion further opened the spigot by lifting the longtime ban on corporations directly spending money to support or oppose federal candidates. The only remedy now for the corrosive influence of special interest expenditures is more public disclosure.
A federal judge in March took a positive step by overturning regulations that permit tax-exempt groups to hide their donors, and it is that decision that the appellate court refused to set aside this week. This does not affect the so-called super political action committees, which exist for political purposes and already disclose their donors. It does affect tax-exempt groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other conservative organizations such as Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity that air attack ads against President Barack Obama and other Democrats. Liberal tax-exempt groups also are affected but spend far less on election ads.
If the ruling stands, the U.S. Chamber and other such groups will have to disclose all donations received since the beginning of 2011 if they air ads that refer to federal candidates, without advocating their election or defeat, and that run within 30 days before a primary and 60 days before the general election. The Chamber, which already has spent more than $3.4 million on these types of ads, is squawking. Other tax-exempt groups already are looking for another loophole to avoid disclosing their donors.
This is one campaign finance opinion that should stand. Voters can make more informed decisions about how to weigh the endless attack ads when they know who is paying for them.