Editorial | Sunshine elusive for Pa. political donors

January 27, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday.

A group cynically calling itself All Votes Matter funded an effort to make sure all of Pennsylvania’s votes would not matter in the 2012 presidential election.

But because the group took advantage of the state’s notoriously weak ethics laws, the source of the money remained obscure for years.

Until recently, voters didn’t know that the group financed lobbying to rig the state’s electoral vote in favor of the Republican candidate. And they didn’t know that it was bankrolled partly by the petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers, who have a business interest in tamping down environmental protections, to which Republicans have generally been more amenable than Democrats.

The source came to light after an investigation by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

As impressive as the group’s work was, no one should have to go through such gymnastics to find out who or what is influencing policy. The information wasn’t available when it mattered because the state legislature has favored cash and lobbyists over voters, leaving the sources of money opaque.

Congress has made the same poor choices.

A campaign-finance disclosure bill has languished in Congress since 2010, even though flawed court decisions and abuses of the tax code have enabled a flood of political money.

Congress may face another challenge if the Supreme Court strikes down individual contribution caps in a pending case, which would allow wealthy individuals to buy even more influence.

That would compound the damage done by the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, which allowed corporations to give unlimited funds to political committees supporting candidates.

The result of that and other rulings was an overwhelming influx of $1 billion into federal elections in 2012. About $300 million of that was from donors whose identities were not even disclosed.

Politicians are not inclined to turn off the spigot because they are benefiting from the unlimited secret money.

In New Jersey, where outside money is playing a growing role in elections, legislators abandoned a bill that would have forced outside political groups to disclose their donors.

It’s worse in Pennsylvania, which has no contribution caps and where lawmakers have shown even less interest in reducing the corrupting influence of money.

Polls show most voters have figured out that unrestricted, secret money bends policy toward wealthy corporations and individuals.

Amid more and more sophisticated money-laundering schemes, lawmakers must at least require swift and thorough disclosure.

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