By January 2010, though, at least 38 states and the federal government had come around to requiring disclosure for all or some independent expenditures or election communications — stipulations intended to deter potentially corrupting donations. Yet, despite these laws, many voters go to the polls not knowing who funded those political commercials running incessantly for the past three weeks. In fact, in federal elections, PACs have the option of filing reports on a monthly or quarterly basis, which often means that funds are collected and spent long before the legal filing disclosure is required.
To make matters more distasteful for voters, donors may list their limited liability company as the “donor” rather than their own name, as we saw when one super PAC originally listed a $250,000 donation from an LLC, but it was later revealed that the donation was actually from an individual who had set up the LLC to conceal his identity.
With the reality of the new frontier in campaign finance setting in, even Jim Messina, Obama’s re-election campaign manager, understands that it’s time for the Democrats’ donors to pay so that they can play: “With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and the Democrats unilaterally disarm.” You got it: The president and his campaign are steering potential donors to his super PAC, which, although it can’t coordinate with his official campaign, can provide valuable assistance through independent advertising and messaging.
Meanwhile, Romney, in embracing the Supreme Court’s super PAC decision, says, “My own view is I don’t like all the influence of money in politics, but I don’t have a solution that’s a lot better than saying let people contribute what they will, then report it. Let people know who gave what to whom.”
From my perch in the cheap seats, Romney’s position makes sense. Free, protected political speech — including transparent advertising funded by super PACs — should remain a prized right that must be protected, regardless of one’s politics. The integrity of our political system is threatened less when we know who is doing the giving and how much they gave!
The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put the issue of political speech into proper perspective: “[The Founding Fathers] believed that freedom to think as you will and speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth … the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Given the noise that the GOP and conservative super PACs are making, it appears that my friends on the left would like them to be a bit more quiet.
Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007. He is currently a political analyst for MSNBC.