A Grain of Salt

"The year 2000 may go down as the last year we had the moral authority to send Jimmy Carter out to supervise third world elections. From now on the United Nations may force America to accept observers from Pakistan and Chile to make certain our own voting is honest for everyone and dumbed down for Floridians.Those observers will learn that, unlike some undemocratic nations, we do not use gun butts and bayonets to influence voters. Instead, we use unending TV commercials that trash the personal integrity of just about every candidate running. After enduring some months of it, the observers may well advise us to try gun butts and bayonets.The slashing negative ads paid for by candidates are bad enough. But they're ice cream socials compared to those aired by what are called 401C3 groups - the much-publicized soft money Sen. John McCain and company are targeting.A 401C3 group is tax exempt and its contributors remain anonymous. Their tax deductions increase the tax burden on the rest of us. And, as long as they don't specifically ask us to vote for or against anyone, the whole thing is stark raving legal. These ads simply educate or inform.You've seen them. They're the ones suggesting you call Maria Cantwell and tell her to stop robbing the Social Security Trust Fund. They're the ones suggesting you tell George W. Bush to show some genuine concern when African-Americans are dragged to death in Texas.These call and tell words are the fig leaves behind which the most viscous personal attacks of the year were hidden. We recognize and respect some of these groups. But most of these rabid gangs skulk around as Citizens For Something Or Other. Who the heck are they?Are we powerless to act against them without destroying freedom of speech? Not quite. Most of these education groups will become a lot more civilized if we drag their contributors out from under the rocks and into the sunshine. They'll become downright courtly if we take away their tax exempt status.The law already requires federal candidates to reveal the identities of those paying for their campaigns. Plus, contributors to these candidates can't deduct anything from their taxes. The law must now require the same thing of anyone else attempting to lobby the American people.Many of these chainsaw negative ads would never be aired if the identities of those paying for them were public record. Some of the guys bankrolling this garbage are corporations, at whom we could get mad. And they're getting a tax break for it.Some are billionaires. Some are unions. Some are do-good groups with spotless reputations that would suffer by this sort of exposure. Bad taste is easier to support anonymously than publicly.And don't be swayed by the sob story that worthy organizations will go under unless they can educate American voters without paying taxes on the money. Why should the rest of us pay extra taxes to take up the slack, while they get a free shot at mauling candidates and shaping American opinion?We're not talking about the League of Women Voters holding a candidate forum. We're not even talking about a union sending letters to its membership. It is not beyond our power to craft a law that targets broad-based TV, radio and newspaper ads with a political ax to grind.Every candidate, every political party, every advocacy group, every education group should have to post it's contributions and contributors on the Net on a daily basis. News reporters, watchdog groups and we the people will have instant access to it. The technology is slam-dunk simple these days. The impact will be enormous.In a free country, no one should tell candidates what they may say, how they may say it, how often it should be said, or how much they should spend to say it. The same holds true for groups of citizens united together in common cause. Sorry McCain and company, exclusion is not the answer, sunshine is.Our constitution guarantees freedom of speech. On the other hand, it does not guarantee the freedom to spend hundreds of millions of tax-free dollars brainwashing the American people behind a cloak of anonymity. So call your congressman and senators and tell them to act this year, before the next soft mudslide begins.-------------Paul Newman is a political columnist for the Whidbey News-Times. "

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