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Big money in politics in the dark

The flow of money into 2012 political campaigns is intensifying like a spring flood on the Red River. The amounts already spent by Republicans vying for a chance to challenge President Barack Obama are staggering. But more staggering, and far less transparent, are the huge sums being raised and spent by so-call super PACs, political action committees that allegedly have no connection to candidates but can buy advertising that supports or trashes candidates.

The super PACs represent a loophole in campaign finance reporting that is big enough to drive Mitt Romney's campaign bus through. It's big enough to accommodate Newt Gingrich's ego. And it's about as transparent as a North Dakota blizzard.

That latter characteristic is the problem. If an independent organization refuses to reveal its donors, there is nothing in law compelling it to do so. In many of the campaigns of the Republicans seeking their party's nomination, the unaccountable PACs have been spending more than the candidates' campaign organizations, which, by the way, have to report their donations and expenditures.

What makes the situation all the more troubling is that many of the people running in-the-dark PACs previously were key players in campaigns. The law says PACs and campaigns can't cooperate or communicate. But when the same person running a PAC was, just a few months ago, running a campaign now backed by the PAC, it fails the smell test.

Big money in political campaigns is not going away. If anything, more and more money will be poured into 2012 campaigns than ever before. While all those dollars for political ads and other campaign expenditures might trouble some observers, money in politics is nothing new. If candidates can raise money, if they want to spend it in presidential primary states or for congressional races in their own states, more power to 'em. The campaigns are obligated to reveal amounts and donors. Perusal of those lists can provide engaged voters with useful information about a candidate's supporters.

But when independent organizations lard the campaign season with their dollars -- often more dollars than individual campaigns can spend -- voters are disserved by a flawed campaign financing system. They have no way of knowing who is putting up the money. They have no clue what their motivations might be.

It's an important factor in the campaign finance equation because the agenda of those mystery money people is to place their friends in public office. When public policy is manipulated by the dark money of political campaigns, it affects not only the donors but the American who does not have the resources to buy influence with a potential officeholder. That's why more transparency is essential to a healthy, open democracy.

Let them spend all the money they can round up. But let's make sure voters know where it comes from. -- The Forum