While the Federal Election Commission may be hopelessly gridlocked along partisan lines when it comes to campaign-finance regulation, another arm of the government is providing journalists and citizen watchdogs with an important new tool for understanding who is trying to influence the election and how much is being spent to do so.
On June 24, the Federal Communications Commission began requiring the nation's radio broadcasters and cable television stations to upload all of their political ad contracts to a public online database. TV broadcasters have been doing so since the last presidential election. The FCC's decision to expand its online public file is important in the context of campaign 2016 because it vastly expands the field of vision for reporters and citizen monitors who are trying to track the efforts of dark-money groups to influence the elections.
Dark-money groups refer to political organizations masquerading as social-welfare non-profits. Since the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, they have become popular venues for big political donors who'd rather remain anonymous. Because of their tax-exempt status, such groups never have to make public the sources of their funding. And because they are considered corporations, they can, thanks to Citizens United, raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. Unless outside groups' expenditures come within 60 days of a primary election or 30 days of a general election, they never have to be reported on campaign-finance disclosures.