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Citizens United Seen As Root Of Evils By Editorial Writers Across Country

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The United States Supreme Court.
The United States Supreme Court.

The New York Times editorial board has been on a tear lately about the deluge of money overwhelming the 2012 election campaign.

In the last several weeks alone, the newspaper has published multiple editorials on the current state of campaign finance. The Times editorial writers called for a criminal investigation into candidate-specific super PACs because "[l]imits on spending used to prevent donations from becoming outright bribes, but now the limits are gone, and the path to corruption is clear."

The Times demanded that the Internal Revenue Service crack down on "partisan operatives ludicrously claiming to be 'social welfare' activists under the tax law." The paper criticized the GOP attack on public-financing options "just as a new era of unbridled corporate and special-interest money engulfs the 2012 elections," and berated the toothless watchdog that is the Federal Election Commission for "blocking an attempt to unmask the secret donors flooding the 2012 hustings with unlimited special-interest money."

But the editorial writers at the liberal Times are hardly alone when it comes to seeing the nation's deeply-flawed campaign finance system as a seminal issue worthy of a lot of attention.

At newspapers all across the country and (nearly) all across the political spectrum, editorial boards are expressing profound alarm at the outsized effect of money on the political process, particularly since the Supreme Court -- especially its January 2010 Citizens United ruling -- blew an enormous hole through the post-Watergate contribution limits two years ago.

Why are editorial boards so much more sensitized to the effect of money in politics than other members of the media -- or the general public?

"We tend to be a pragmatic group," said Froma Harrop, a member of the editorial board at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, and president of the Association of Opinion Journalists.

"Every day we go into our offices and write prescriptive editorials trying to solve problems," Harrop told The Huffington Post. "We've been writing about these same problems year after year after year, and you're wondering why they're not being solved. And very often the reason they're not being solved is because someone is basically being paid off."

Editorial writers will often find themselves making what they consider reasonable arguments to elected officials who are simply not persuadable because they're "beholden to moneyed interest groups and individuals," Harrop said.

At newspaper editorial boards hailing from the left, right and center of the political spectrum (although not from the far-right) the absence of rules that effectively limit the effects of money on politics -- particularly secret money -- is widely seen as grave and very real threat to democracy.

The conservative San Diego Union-Tribune asked: "If campaign contributions are equivalent to speech, and corporations and unions have the same free speech rights as people, how can the country deal with the ever-increasing amounts of money in federal political campaigns?"

And while the paper opposes public financing, it endorsed the goal of finding some way "to combat the corrupting influence of money, or the appearance of such influence, on candidates."

The Raleigh News and Observer editorial board has also expressed alarm: "Corporations now can simply pour money into independent campaigns through various committees, and for them the game is no-limit," they wrote.

"What possible chance will reformers and regulators have when industries that want to eliminate regulation or enjoy big tax breaks are like ATM machines with no limits on withdrawals? The answer: no chance."

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called on Obama to "wake up the sleeping watchdog that is the Federal Election Commission," adding, "There are few issues facing the country more important than the integrity of elections."

The Sacramento Bee editorial board wrote: "The president could nominate five members on the six-member commission, but he has not sent any names to the Senate for consideration. Undoubtedly, Senate Republicans would seek to block his nominees. But if he truly believes in transparency, Obama ought to confront Republicans."

The Detroit Free Press decried the fact that "ostensibly independent organizations outspent the candidates themselves by a 2-1 margin" in Iowa, "precisely the outcome we predicted ... when the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for such toxic surrogacy."

The Los Angeles Times urged an IRS investigation of Karl Rove-linked Crossroads GPS and similar organizations.

The San Jose Mercury News called on Congress to rein in the "huge, destructive donations by wealthy individuals, organizations and corporations that now can anonymously wield extreme influence on elections."

"Our political system increasingly responds to the rich and powerful, but the trend has steepened since the most recent presidential election," the Mercury News wrote.

USA Today railed against secret donations, writing: "Allies of President Obama and a slew of Republican hopefuls are taking advantage of loose campaign-finance laws, a toothless Federal Election Commission and a 2010 Supreme Court decision that equated big money with free speech. The result? A system that Ohio political boss Mark Hanna would have loved in the wild, anything-goes campaign days of the 1890s."

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote that Congress "should place stricter disclosure rules on super PACs. Loopholes in current law allow them to keep their donors secret until after the first four big political contests of the year. That's an advantage for the special interests that hope to influence the outcome of those key early races -- but it's not so good for voters."

The Press Democrat, in Santa Rosa, Calif., decried the fact that "for the first time in a century, corporations and unions are free to shovel as much money as they choose into a presidential election" and wrote that "nobody should be left to guess who is bankrolling the campaigns and what favors they might expect from the winner."

The Baltimore Sun encouraged President Barack Obama to sign a proposed executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political donations to third-party groups.

"If Joe Bag-of-Doughnuts gives $50 directly to a candidate for federal office, that modest donation must be disclosed to the world. That's the law," the Sun wrote. "Why should corporations be able to hide behind third-party groups when they give $50,000 or $50 million? Exactly whose free speech is being slighted?"

The latest and hottest financing issue in the 2012 race has to do with coordination between candidates and the ostensibly independent super PACs that back them.

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote: "If Super PACs, the bottomless political money buckets of choice for corporations, wealthy individuals, and unions, are allowed to work hand in glove with a candidate's campaign, the 2012 political races will become a carnival of boundless influence peddling."

And the Washington Post decried the creation of "parallel campaign structures without the annoyance of contribution limits." Noting that the "Supreme Court's shaky rationale in Citizens United was that independent expenditures do not pose such a risk," the Post concluded that the "risk of corruption in candidate-specific super PACs is as great as the size of supporters' checkbooks."

Some ideologically hard-right newspaper editorial boards, of course, resist any limits at all. The Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal recently blamed the problems with the current system on "misguided reforms" by the "campaign-finance scolds" -- and argued instead that if the candidates were "allowed to raise unlimited funds the way they once could, super PACs wouldn't be needed."

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Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. You can send him an email, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter or on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get email alerts when he writes.

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