Millions of Americans took offense—and rightly so—last year as millionaires and corporations pumped billions of dollars into campaigns for the presidency, Congress and governorships across the country.
But with Congress divided and 2013 taking shape as a tale of never-ending fiscal cliffs, it seems unlikely that lawmakers will do much to rein in the Super PACs and dark money that made the 2012 campaigns among the least informative and most distorted in American history. This year’s two marquee election campaigns, for the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia, figure to be flooded with big money, and more uncontrolled spending is already on its way to the 2014 congressional races.
Fortunately, one major reform can be implemented immediately, without legislative action or a court order. All we need is for an independent agency, the Federal Communications Commission, to enforce a campaign finance disclosure requirement that is already on the books.
Section 317 of the Communications Act (47 USC § 317) requires on-air identification of the sponsors of all advertisements, political as well as commercial. Explaining the rules it wrote to implement the statute, the FCC stipulated years ago that political ads must “fully and fairly disclose the true identity of the person or persons, or corporation, committee, association or other unincorporated group, or other entity” paying for them. “Listeners are entitled to know by whom they are being persuaded,” the commission said.
“True identity” means just what it says. If a special interest group calling itself Citizens for Purple Mountain Majesties and Amber Waves of Grain is a front for a chemical company refusing to clean up a toxic dump or an energy company looking to buy friendships on Capitol Hill, the law says we as citizens need to know that.
Estimates are that the 2012 campaigns cost as much as $6 billion. The largest chunk of spending went to purchase TV ads. “Left in the Dark,” a revealing study by Free Press—a media reform, research and advocacy group on whose board I serve—documents how the broadcast and cable outlets that aired these commercials rarely bothered to inform viewers about the groups behind them. When our public dialogue is short-circuited by deep-pocketed individuals, corporations and other groups operating on the smug premise that elections should be bought by the power of big money rather than fought over the power of ideas, something is amiss in our democracy.
The FCC disclosure mandate has lain dormant for more than twenty years, while special interests devised multiple new ways to inject money anonymously into our elections. A petition filed with the FCC nearly two years ago by the Media Access Project calls for the law’s disclosure requirements to be applied to this changed environment. This petition has thus far gone unaddressed. Yet all that is needed is a modest updating of the rules to ensure that viewers are able to know where all that money is coming from. Using the normal FCC notice-and-comment process, this needn’t take longer than ninety days.
Of course, the barons of big money will howl, deploying their legions of lawyers and lobbyists against anyone taking on this out-of-control campaign money trafficking. (They will probably buy anonymous TV ads to make their case!) But the statute is already in place, so all that is required is some old-fashioned intestinal fortitude at the FCC.
More potentially good news: campaign finance reform may have an unlikely ally. Hidden away in the Supreme Court’s otherwise outrageous Citizens United decision, the source of so much damage to our political system, is this sentence, in effect backed by eight of the nine justices: “Disclosure is the less-restrictive alternative to more comprehensive speech regulations.” If the High Court itself is talking disclosure, isn’t it time to get on with the job?
The ball is in the FCC’s court. Three votes from the five-member commission can carry the day for disclosure—and democracy. At a time when many people are “learning” more about election campaigns from political ads than from the consolidated media companies that have fired thousands of reporters and crippled hundreds of newsrooms, the fissures in our democracy will only widen unless anonymous money is brought to account. It is time to move our campaigns and our country into the bright sunlight of full disclosure.
John Nichols writes  that the moment may be at hand when campaign finance reform becomes possible.