Over the last few years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly undermined even the most reasonable attempts to limit the corrupting influence of money in politics. In desperation, Democrats in Congress have tried at least to open the shadowy campaign finance process to public view. Yet even that has failed so far.
Twice, they have sought to pass the Disclose Act, which would shine a welcome beam of light into the realm of "dark money" that governs American political campaigns. A third iteration of the bill, recently introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), would require unions, corporations, super PACs and any other organizations that spend $10,000 or more on a "campaign-related disbursement" to file a report with the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours, detailing each expenditure over $1,000 as well as the names of all of the organization's donors who gave $10,000 or more. The bill would also prohibit 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) nonprofit groups from acting as conduits for anonymous political spending — a method of donation beloved by corporations seeking to avoid scrutiny by the public. It would become difficult to use shell organizations to mask contributions.
Voters deserve to know who is trying to influence their votes. In 2011, a mysterious company called W Spann LLC gave $1 million to the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC Restore Our Future — and then was dissolved. The true donor of that enormous political sum was able to remain anonymous until pressure from Democrats and the media prompted Ed Conard, a former business partner of Romney's at Bain Capital, to reveal that he had "formed and funded" W Spann. In late 2012, the Washington Post reported that Cancer Treatment Centers of America founder Richard Stephenson and his family had anonymously routed a staggering $12 million in donations to the tea party-associated organization FreedomWorks, which spends on behalf of (and against) candidates.
In 2008, in the last presidential election cycle before the Supreme Court's troubling Citizens United decision, independent spending from undisclosed sources was $69 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the 2012 cycle, that figure exceeded $310 million. Seventy-eight percent of it went to negative advertising, and more than $250 million of it favored the GOP.
Even Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who authored the unfortunate decision in Citizens United, wrote: "The 1st Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way."
The Republican leadership disagrees, citing worries that some donors might be harassed if their identities were made public. But that was not the view of the party before Citizens United. In 2003, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told NPR's "Talk of the Nation": "Money is essential in politics, and not something that we should feel squeamish about, provided the donations are limited and disclosed, everyone knows who's supporting everyone else." He and his party should stand by those words today.