Sadly, as the New York Times demonstrated this weekend, you no longer can. NYT reporter Mike McIntire set out, a la Michael Moore in Roger & Me to find out who was funding an anti-health care reform TV ad sponsored by a group called Coalition to Protect Seniors. He couldn't do it. Why? Because nonprofits don't have to disclose their donors.
This hasn't been much of a problem in the past because nonprofits are, well, nonprofits—and they didn't have a lot of cash lying around to fund political hit pieces. Political Action Committees could contribute, but PAC contributions were limited and disclosable on their end.
However, the recent Citizens United ruling has allowed corporations to directly fund these TV ads (known legally as "electioneering communication") without any limits or disclosure requirements.
These new rules have had an effect in this year's U.S. Senate race here in Washington State. There have been four such ads against Sen. Patty Murray. (There has been one independent ad against Dino Rossi, but because the group, called Commonsense 10, filed as an independent expenditure committee with the Federal Elections Commission, they are required to disclose their donors.)
Murray has been hit by: a $1.4 million ad buy from Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS; a $750,000 ad buy from a group called American Action Network; a $300,000 ad buy from a group called Truth in Politics; and a $300,000 ad buy from the National Taxpayers Union.
That's $2.7 million in political ads. And the public has no idea who's paying for them.
The anti-Rossi ad cost Commonsense 10 $400,000. Commonsense 10 has registered with the Federal Election Commission, which means they will eventually have to disclose their donors.
The Democrats sponsored a bill this year called the DISCLOSE Act, which would have forced the top donors who pay for any ad to identify themselves—the same way politicians have to do in their own ads. So, for example, if Goldman Sachs funds an ad by a group called Main Street for Real Wall Street Reform, the CEO of Goldman Sachs would have to sign off on it. Likewise if a big union funds an ad.
However, the Republicans filibustered and killed the bill late last month.