Secrecy, a corrupting influence on democracy

Fred Wertheimer, president of the reform group Democracy 21, supports the disclosure of political television ad donors. Courtesy of LA Times.

Freedom of information and disclosure is as critical to our electoral process as freedom of speech.  Unfortunately, today’s free speech hides behind an iron curtain of secrecy, and the people are denied the opportunity to determine the funding source behind campaign ads funneled through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or Super Political Action Committees, as a result of the 2010 Citizens United ruling.

In our world of commerce we demand disclosure and truth for the purpose of protecting the people from insidious and corrupt marketing tactics aimed at exploiting consumers.  Yet, in the single most important political event in our country, special interest is allowed to hide behind organizations and not disclose their identity.  If these well-financed conservative nonprofit organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity wish to exercise their free speech then they should be required to stand up and be counted instead of cowering behind secret membership in organizations designed to promote special interests.

Our political system has taught us that big money loves more money than it does politics.  This was the case when ultraconservative zealot Rush Limbaugh referred to Georgetown’s law student, Sandra Fluke, as a slut and prostitute in a debate over women’s contraceptives.  It did not take long before Limbaugh’s talk show lost millions in advertising dollars.  And when the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing special interest group pushing a corporate agenda, was exposed for their support of unpopular social measures such as the privatization of education and anti-environment legislation, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods and other corporate giants ended their relationship with ALEC.

However, make no mistake—this is about revenues and politics and not the social conscious of Corporate America.  It is simply good business practice for companies to distance themselves from socially unacceptable activities that lead to a reduction in revenues.  This is why disclosure is everything to a democracy that claims freedom as its highest priority.  Privacy is not an entitlement when one dumps millions of dollars into a public forum designed to select our leaders.  This concept is so basic in principle and yet so difficult to achieve because of the influence special interest has in Washington, but all is not lost just yet.

This month a U.S. Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, declined to stay the enforcement of a federal ruling requiring organizations that run election-related television ads to disclose their donors.  This decision reinstates a 2003 regulation that mandates organizations paying for electioneering ads to report all donations of $1,000 or more dating back to January 2011.  Electioneering ads make reference to a federal candidate, but stop short of advocating for their election or defeat and air 30 days before a primary and 60 days before the general election.  These are typically mudslinging ads designed to exploit sound bites and employ smear and fear tactics to promote special interest.  They are not bound by truth nor are they required to divulge their source of funding—until now.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote in her decision, “Congress intended to shine light on whoever was behind the communications bombarding voters immediately prior to elections.”  Arguments advocating for disclosure claimed that current practices undermined the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act, a finance reform law requiring disclosure of funding sources.  Certainly the people of this country are entitled to know that a corporation opposed to a candidate’s position on the environment has been assessed $400 million in fines, penalties and judgments for violating environmental laws, as is the case for Koch Industries and David H. Koch, past chairman of Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

And while the Court of Appeals’ decision provides a glimmer of hope mandating disclosure, two advocacy groups sought a reversal, claiming it infringed on their free speech rights.  What special interest is truly asserting is “Because I am wealthy the rules don’t apply to me and I should have the right to say what I wish without recourse and not be required to divulge my identity.”  Secrecy is the cornerstone of corruption and freedom cannot thrive in a political system that does not place equal importance on the freedom of information as it does the freedom of speech.

Facebook Comments