At least tell us who’s behind those big-money hits

The News TribuneOctober 29, 2012 

The first election campaign in the post-Citizens United era is nearing an end, and it won’t be quickly enough for most Americans.

They’ve been bombarded by billions of dollars worth of TV ads, most of them negative. That’s especially true in critical swing states. At least Washington residents can thank the fact that this state’s electoral votes for president are all but sewn up, sparing us the national ad onslaught plaguing battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Colorado.

Still, plenty of outside money – from the so-called super PACs, interest groups, unions, corporate donors and wealthy individuals – has poured into Washington to buy ads trying to influence statewide and congresssional races. How to tell which ones they are? Generally the tipoff is that they don’t end with a candidate saying, “I’m so-and-so, and I approved this message.”

There’s good reason for that. Many of the ads are sleazy and even downright deceptive – often taking a candidate’s past votes or actions wildly out of context. Honorable candidates wouldn’t – or at least shouldn’t – want to be associated with them.

For this mess, we can thank the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that, essentially, removed most controls on big-money campaign spending by extending First Amendment free-speech protection to contributions.

A constitutional amendment could change that, but it would take many years to pass. What could be done fairly quickly is congressional legislation requiring the timely disclosure of contributors. That could have a huge effect. Like online commenters who behave better when they’re not allowed to be anonymous, campaign ads that identify who paid for them tend to be more civil.

After the ad armageddon of Election 2012, support reportedly is building in Congress for at least some controls. Even many Republicans who favored taking the lid off contribution levels are frustrated – especially those who were targeted by negative ads funded by secret donors.

Disclosure requirements would probably pass muster with the Supreme Court. It ruled in support of Washington state’s release of names and addresses of those who sign initiative petitions, for instance.

For citizens, there’s always another option: Change the channel whenever one of those ads comes on.

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