Disclose donors in political ads

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Published

December 29, 1997
U.S. News and World Report

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Political candidates are a lot like purveyors of processed meat. Both deal in unsavory ingredients they would prefer to keep to themselves–but are obliged to some extent to disclose. Thanks to Congress, the public has a better chance of knowing about meat “byproducts” than it does about big political donations.

Meatpackers must list hot dog ingredients plainly on the label, where shoppers can see them. True, the euphemism “byproducts” can hide a lot of unappetizing stuff, but at least it hints at what the meatpackers don’t want us to know. Politicians get off easier. They only have to file lists of contributors with the Federal Election Commission. It’s public information, but imagine if you had to call the Food and Drug Administration to find out the chemicals in your shampoo–possible, but unlikely. Politicians must also put tag lines at the end of TV ads, but these are generally meaningless: “Paid for by Citizens for Snodgrass,” for example. A similar hot dog label would say, “This product contains ingredients.”

The reason politicians get away with this obfuscation, of course, is that they write the laws. Some in Congress have tried to head off limits on fund-raising by proposing quicker disclosure, perhaps on the Internet. Faster is better than slower, but speed is not the main issue here. The issue is where information appears–and doesn’t. Unless voters learn about donors at the same time the politician is asking for their votes, the information does little good.

This problem would not be hard to remedy. The names of at least a few big contributors should appear on all brochures, fund-raising letters, and the like, as well as at the end of TV and radio ads. The information should be prominent, not in tiny 6-point type. It should appear continuously during TV spots, just as ingredients appear on a product label. For maximum effect, each campaign’s opponent would select–from a current list of all donations–the contributors to be identified. That way politicians would think twice about taking any money they would prefer voters not know about. To the extent legally possible, we should require the same level of disclosure by organizations–environmental groups, say, or the Christian Coalition–that try to influence campaigns.

After the hurrahs. Disclosure shouldn’t stop with an election. Voters need to know the money behind the person who represents them, not just who is asking for their votes. So the names of a handful of the biggest donors, again selected by the losing opponent, should appear prominently–on office stationery, newsletters, and so forth. Taxpayers pay for these materials, so use them to identify those who helped get the lawmakers elected.

Defenders of the current system, such as Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, argue that Americans spend more on yogurt than politicians spend on campaigns. Perhaps. But shouldn’t we get to know as much about campaign financing as we do about what’s in yogurt?

What about front groups with innocent-sounding names? How would voters know that “Citizens for Prosperity” was really made up of casino operators or bill-collection agencies? They would know because the opponent, in choosing the names to be listed, could cut through the front group and name actual donors. Voters would get to know who is actually paying for their votes. Real disclosure would do much to drain the political-money swamp, and it would inject something sadly missing in American politics today: a dose of good old-fashioned shame.

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