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Senators say 'no' to sunlight

The U.S. Senate's rejection of the DISCLOSE Act is yet another reason for Americans to distrust their elected representatives. The act would have required more transparency regarding campaign spending by special interest groups. It would have required those organizations to reveal the sources of their funding.

The act was introduced in part as a response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said corporations and unions could spend as much as they pleased on political campaigns and candidates. The act did not attempt to reverse the court, but rather would have required outside groups to disclose campaign expenditures in a timely fashion.

The legislation also would have required that financial disclosure be posted online, in real time, in a single searchable database. It also would have required Senate candidates to electronically file their campaign contribution reports. In other words, the act sought to bring campaign finance information into the 21st century.

Opponents of the bill said it was an erosion of free speech. Nonsense. The act in no way would have abridged free speech. All it said is that those who exercise free-speech rights in the form of paid political advertising should do so in the sunlight.

The transparency the act called for is important because of the proliferation and financial clout of special interest groups that might not be directly connected to a candidate's election campaign. Expenditures by these stealth groups fund millions of dollars' worth of advocacy advertising, but the source of the money behind the groups need not be revealed. That lack of transparency is a disservice to voters, because they can't know who is spending huge sums of money to influence them. Thus, they can't even learn the motivation of the moneyed interests behind the ads.

Even as the Supreme Court was giving corporations and unions the green light to spend whatever they want on political campaigns, the court said "transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages." Voters can't do that if they don't know who is paying for the "speakers and messages."

The Senate vote guarantees the public has lost a chance to get a more complete picture of the intersection of money and elections. It was a mistake not only because transparency in election finance is the right thing to do for democracy, but also because the vote fuels the belief among increasingly angry voters that senators have something to hide. -- The Forum