Watch CBSN Live

Election Donors Hiding Behind Veil of Secrecy

Wondering who paid for that election advertisement? You may never know. Corporate spending for political advertising is set to soar this election season, but donors are increasingly hiding behind a veil of secrecy, said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C. advocacy group.

Public Citizen launched an investigation into campaign financing after the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year to overturn a ban on corporate-financed political advertising. The deeply divided court ultimately ruled that political advertising was a form of free speech. The public was not harmed by corporations financing those ads because federal election laws demanded disclosure of who was paying the tab, which gave the public the ability to evaluate the slant, according to the Supreme Court's majority ruling.

Since then, a host of corporate groups have publicly pledged to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into elections.

With that backdrop, Public Citizen decided to look into the accuracy and transparency of election disclosures, Holman said. The group focused on so-called "electioneering" ads, which are those that support a specific candidate (without going to extra step of saying "vote for him/her") and run within 60 days of an election or 30 days of a primary.

The findings: The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 was highly effective in ensuring campaign finance disclosures in 2004, but has become increasingly ignored. The reason is that the the public's election watchdog -- the Federal Election Commision -- has become a lapdog, said Holman.

The commission which is made up of three democrats and three republicans must get four votes to pursue an investigation. The FEC now deadlocks 16% of the time -- up from 2% of the time five years ago. Consequently, many election law violators don't get investigated, Holman said.

Electioneering adds are soaring -- up some 68% in 2008 -- from 2004. But disclosure about who financed these advertisements has plummeted. Where 46 of the 47 electioneering ads provided a list of donors in 2004, just 39 of the 79 run in 2008 offered similar disclosures, according to the report. The statistics have soured even further during the 2010 primaries. Of the 22 electioneering advertisements run through Sept. 2, only 7 disclosed their financing.

"They've essentially closed off the FEC's enforcement role," said Holman. "With that deadlock, it's a signal to any group, anywhere, that there are no rules anymore."

Federal Election Commission spokeswoman Judith Ingram declined comment.

What can be done? Holman has been trying to get Obama to replace one or more of the three FEC commissioners whose terms have expired, hoping that new commissioners will rise above politics to do their job. But Obama has failed to act.

The House of Representatives passed a legislative solution, called the Disclose Act, but it's been blocked from passage in the Senate, Holman said. It's unlikely that it will pass in time for this election season, he added.

"To be honest, we've given up on being able to do anything for the 2010 election," he admitted. "We just want to set up a system that will work in 2012."

Another election reform idea
While we're on the topic of election reform, would anyone else like to float the idea of a "None of the Above" option on the ballot?

In my humble opinion, both parties are doing a rotten job of representing most Americans, who believe in bipartisanship and moderation. Instead, legislators seem to be pandering to extremists who can either pay up or picket, which leaves the majority of the country unrepresented.

How about passing a law that requires members of Congress to follow the same rules as members of corporate boards, who increasingly are forced to resign if they cannot muster a majority vote? If no one could win a majority, the chambers of Congress would be empty.

I'm not sure that the country would be worse off if that happened. What do you think?

Photo courtesy of the White House
More on MoneyWatch
Congress Quietly Kills Bill to Cut its Pay
Senate Moves to Keep 401(k) Fees Hidden
2010 Grads: How to Become a Millionaire
The Couch Potato's Guide to Getting Rich

View CBS News In