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The Star-Ledger
Gideon Weissman

With Election Day right around the corner, we should know who is funding our political campaigns. It’s getting harder and harder to tell which corporations are trying to buy our elections and our politicians.

Here’s a start: reports that New Jersey’s biggest donor to federal campaigns is Finmeccanica, a multinational defense conglomerate, partially owned by the Italian government, that recently saw two high-level executives resign over corruption allegations. Finmeccanica’s New Jersey subsidiaries, through employee and soft money contributions, have given $220,000 to a wide range of federal legislative campaigns in the current election cycle.

Thanks to campaign finance loopholes, aided by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, corporations can make unlimited political contributions by creating and donating to super PACs. Corporations also can hide the bulk of this spending if they funnel contributions through straw nonprofits. Although super PACs are required to disclose their contributors, current law allows certain nonprofits to keep their donors hidden, a loophole that destroys the public’s ability to understand where super PAC money is really coming from.

Corporate contributions are already diminishing the political impact of regular citizens, but undisclosed political contributions truly cripple democracy. Without disclosure, there is no way to tell who or what is funding which candidate. If a political advertisement is funded anonymously, it can spread misinformation — with zero accountability. The makeup of political spending has already shifted dramatically — 47 percent of spending from outside groups now comes from groups that do not disclose their donors, up from 1 percent before the Citizens United decision.

We are seeing a loss of accountability around the country, and New Jersey is no different. Less and less political spending is reported within our state each year, and Jeffrey Brindle, executive director of New Jersey’s Election Law Enforcement Commission, lists the potentially increased presence of “independent outside groups,” such as these straw nonprofits, as a factor in the decline. In other words, reported contributions are declining in New Jersey, while undisclosed political spending is going up.

The $220,000 that we know Finmeccanica has spent so far could be just the tip of the iceberg: There is no longer a way to know the full extent of spending from any corporate donor, at a time when election financing has become a multibillion-dollar industry.

We have already seen the effect that corporate political spending can have on public policy. Oil and gas companies pumped millions of dollars into the 2008 elections just before the defeat of climate change legislation. Big banks continue to spend the money they received from taxpayer bailouts to cripple the consumer protections won through Wall Street reform.

Thankfully, there are a few steps we can take in the right direction. First, the Securities and Exchange Commission should put into effect rules requiring publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending. Second, Congress should pass Sen. Robert Menendez’s Shareholder Protection Act, which would require publicly owned corporations to hold shareholder votes before corporate treasury funds are spent on political campaigns. And third, anyone holding stock should demand full accountability for the political use of their money.

New Jersey residents dig deep to give what they can to candidates they believe in, candidates they believe can change things for the better. We should not allow a flood of secret corporate money to drown out the voices of real people. It’s time to start encouraging our lawmakers and government institutions to take the first step in reducing the role of big money in our political system.

Gideon Weissman is a program associate at N.J. Public Interest Research Group.

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