The unwelcome impact on political campaigns of big money from rich donors is aggravated by the tax-exempt status and donor anonymity enjoyed by so-called social-welfare organizations.
Groups such as Republican political consultant Karl Rove's Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies and a comparable Democrat-supporting group called Priorities USA use loopholes in the federal tax code to pour millions of dollars from big companies, labor unions, and individual donors into campaigns. This year's campaigns are likely to set records for spending on the presidential and congressional races.
Shareholders can't find out which political campaigns or causes got a company's money. At the same time, the TV commercials that some of the donations fund do not have to disclose whose money helped deliver the message.
Such "social welfare" groups use the bulk of their money for issue advertising that they insist is educational, not political. But they furnish money for ads that attack candidates they oppose.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee for president in 2008, says he is concerned that foreign money, which is excluded by law from American political campaigns, may find its way in through the anonymity provision.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against three of the organizations: Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity, and the 60-Plus Association. The committee charges that these groups' activities violate the Federal Election Campaign Act. That argument would be stronger if Democrats did not have similar groups supporting them.
Unfortunately, there is not much hope for definitive FEC action to end the pretense that these are social-welfare organizations. Americans' best defense is to give the political messages spread by these groups' money the skepticism they deserve -- and to pressure Congress to reform this part of the tax code.