Campaign power in wrong hands

Our elections should be a marketplace of ideas. Instead, they increasingly look like an auction that rewards the highest bidder. The damaging influence of money on our campaigns dates back decades, but the Supreme Court opened up the floodgates with its woefully misguided Citizens United v. FEC decision. Powerful special interests and corporations now enjoy the same free-speech protections as individual Americans. 

 The result? Huge sums of unregulated, unaccountable money by super-PACs are flooding the airwaves. An endless wave of attack ads, paid for by billionaires hovering in dark corners, is poisoning our political discourse. 

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The American public, rightly so, looks on in dismay and disgust. As this election year unfolds, the checkbooks are out and the money is gushing. And too often we don’t even know whose hand is on the faucet. 

Today, a corporation can push “dark money” into a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization anonymously. And then the 501(c)(4) slips the money into a super-PAC to run campaign ads. 

In any world other than the shadowy world of campaign finance, that would be called money laundering. And yet, so far in the 2012 primaries, about 40 percent of TV ads — worth more than $24 million— are funded by nonprofit groups that don’t reveal their contributors. 

I believe that the scope of the problems with our campaign finance system is so great that a constitutional amendment is needed to achieve comprehensive reform. 

My colleague, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and I introduced an amendment last year that would allow Congress to take back its power to regulate the federal elections and clarify the power to regulate state elections. But, an amendment is a significant undertaking, and it will take time. 

Meanwhile, we have the proverbial thief in the dark of night. This thief does not want the family silver. He wants the electoral process itself. If, for now, we cannot stop the thief, let’s at least get a good look at him. 

To this end, I am a sponsor of the Disclose Act of 2012. This is a commonsense reform that we can pass now. The Supreme Court has issued many misguided decisions about campaign finance laws over the last four decades, but it has also indicated that disclosure requirements are clearly constitutional. 

The Disclose Act of 2012 will shine a light on where the money is coming from and where it is going. Any covered organization — including corporations, labor unions, nonprofit organizations and super-PACs — that spends $10,000 or more on campaign-related disbursements during an election cycle would have to file a disclosure report with the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours. It would also have to file a new report for each additional $10,000 or more that is spent, detailing the amount and nature of each expenditure over $1,000 and the names of all its donors who gave $10,000 or more. The report also would include a certification by the head of the organization that the disbursement was not coordinated with a candidate campaign. 

The Disclose Act of 2012 says to special interests that you can spend but you cannot hide. It would include a “stand by your ad” disclaimer, requiring major donors or top executives from these organizations to take responsibility for political ads by putting their names on them. 

This is a practical, sensible measure. While it doesn’t get money out of our elections, it will at least bring some sunshine into the shadows of campaign finance. 

A similar bill in the last Congress had broad support, garnering 59 votes in the Senate and passing the House. Now that we are seeing the real impact of the Citizens United decision on our elections, the need for this legislation has become even more apparent.

Money can have a corrosive effect on our political process. This has been widely noted on both sides of the aisle. The toxic effect of unaccountable campaign spending has sounded an alarm that is truly bipartisan. Elections should be about the best ideas, not the biggest checkbooks. 

The effect of Citizens United has really meant citizens denied. Denied a fair playing field. Denied an equitable influence in our political process. Denied the right to even know who is spending all this money. 

There is a great deal to be done to fix campaign finance. But, at a minimum, the American people deserve to know where this money is coming from before they head to the polls.


Udall is a member of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.