The New York Times has an important editorial on how this election cycle is shaping up to be the most secretive "since the Watergate years," thanks to subterranean rivers of corporate campaign cash flowing through non-profits known as 501(c)4's.

As Michael Luo reported in The Times last week, the battle for Congress is largely being financed by a small corps of wealthy individuals and corporations whose names may never be known to the public. And the full brunt of that spending — most of it going to Republican candidates — has yet to be felt in this campaign.

Corporations got the power to pour anonymous money into elections from Supreme Court and Federal Election Commission decisions in the last two years, culminating in the Citizens United opinion earlier this year. The effect is drastic: In 2004 and 2006, virtually all independent groups receiving electioneering donations revealed their donors. In 2008, less than half of the groups reported their donors, according to a study issued last week by the watchdog group Public Citizen. So far this year, only 32 percent of the groups have done so. [NY Times]

One excuse for not regulating political spending is that political spending is speech. The fact that corporations can give in secret undercuts the argument that political spending deserves First Amendment protection. It's hardly speech if nobody knows you gave it.

[Photo credit: World of Good, Creative Commons.]