Campaign financing shouldn’t be done in the darkAugust 29, 2012
As the GOP convention builds to a crescendo, it seems like a good time to wonder just whose money is behind all the hoopla. Two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down limits on corporate political contributions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Citizens United may be among the most important Supreme Court rulings of our time, because it shifted the focus of campaign fundraising from individual donors to corporations and other organized entities. Think, for example, of super-PACS that fund millions of dollars worth of highly partisan advertising while pretending to stick to the issues or, even worse, the 501(c)(4) social welfare groups. What makes them worse? Simple. Super-PACs have to identify their donors, but 501(c)(4) organizations don’t. They provide a venue for wealthy donors to secretly contribute millions more than they could as individuals without any public accountability. No wonder 501(c)(4) contributions have come to be known as “dark money.” Candidates can coax millions of dollars’ worth of supportive advertising out of super-PACs and 501(c)(4)s without having to choke down so much as a single rubber chicken dinner. I’m skeptical that any candidate can accept that much financial support from any source without agreeing to something in return, and there’s often no easy way for voters to know who’s behind the curtain when grossly misleading ads appear.
I’d like to believe that American voters are smart enough not to put the White House or any other elective office up for sale to the highest invisible bidder. Unfortunately, though, political advertising must be effective – if it weren’t, politicians wouldn’t bother with it. Last week, for instance, the National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled its financial support from Rep. Todd Akin (he of the unfortunate “legitimate rape” remark). Mother Jones quotes Republican pundits as saying that Akin’s campaign was doomed without the support of the GOP’s biggest fundraisers. Translation: without the help of big money, a candidate can expect to go down in flames even if the voters might have shared his views. I think that’s wrong. It wouldn’t break my heart to see Rep. Akin lose his Senate bid, but it should happen because the voters disagree with him, not just because wealthy donors failed to float his campaign.
And why, you may ask, am I raising this issue now, when the Republican National Convention is in full swing? Simply this: AllGov.com reports that the two biggest 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations are Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity. They don’t identify their donors, they’ve reportedly spent almost $60 million on TV ads already (which puts them ahead of all of the superPACs combined), and they’re pushing a hard right-wing agenda without revealing whose it is. To my knowledge, the Democrats have nothing that comes even close. Those 501(c)(4)s will pour millions over the Romney campaign, and the American people deserve to know who’ll be trying to buy their votes. Dark money has become an unfortunate fact of political life in America. It’s time to bring it into the light.
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