More secret money is being pumped into politics than ever before. For that ignominious milestone, we can thank Chief Justice John Roberts and his four Republican-appointed pals.
Here’s the kind of magic number that only fat cats and special interests could love: In the 2014 midterm election, expenditures by groups that don’t disclose their donors has now surpassed $100 million. That’s way more secret money (or “dark money,” as it’s more commonly called) than has ever been spent on congressional races in any previous year at this point in the calendar. And the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tallied the amount, says that we can probably expect dark donors to pony up another $100 million by election day.
Virtually all of this dark money is spent on TV ads, the kind of ads sponsored by groups with amorphous names that provide no hint of their true partisan intent. In fact, as the The New York Times reported the other day, after crunching the numbers, 55 percent of all broadcast ads in the midterm season have been bankrolled by groups with secret donors. That dovetails with the new stats compiled by the Brennan Center, a think tank which says that more than half the outside-group spending in the nine key Senate races comes from dark donors. And – natch – the brunt of those bucks have been spent to help Republican candidates, by a ratio of four to one.
Thanks a lot, Supreme Court.
In a series of rulings that culminated in Citizens United, the five Republican appointees – wedded to the notion that money is speech, and that the more money you have, the more speech you deserve – have unleashed the purchasing power of fat cats, corporations, and the special interest groups that cater to both. The result is that the average voter has no idea who’s paying for politics and who stands to benefit.
No wonder cynical Joe Citizen thinks the game is rigged. It is, to a greater degree than ever before. And because the dark money is mostly spent on negative TV ads, further fueling our polarized climate, candidates are well-motivated to remain partisan once they take office. As public-interest activist Robert Weissman lamented the other day, “How are they supposed to get along with the other side the day after the election?”
A great line from the columnist E. J. Dionne (wish I had thought of it): “More than ever, politics is the only profession that regularly advertises against itself.”
It’s nauseating to see how naive the high court was, back when it opened the floodgates. In Citizens United, the Republican majority’s basic message was that, yeah, the rich should be free to buy more speech than the average person, but don’t worry, folks, because it’s gonna be a transparent process, the average person will be able to see who’s buying what and thus be able to judge accordingly.
Anthony Kennedy, who authored the opinion, argued for “adequate disclosure. With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable…and see whether elected officials are in the pocket of so-called moneyed interests.” (I love that qualifier, “so-called.”)
But clearly, these justices needed to get out more. Because in the real world, there are all kinds of ways to hide the identities of donors. Under the tax code, you need only to organize as a 501 (c) 4 “social welfare” group or a 501 (c) 6 trade association, and pledge not to spend most of your money on politics. Under those nonprofit designations, you don’t have to reveal your donors. And as a bonus, you can spend most of your money on politics, because the supposedly fearful IRS rarely polices those pledges.
For people like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers, this is a great deal. Lately, it’s been an especially great deal for something called the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition. (You’ve got to love these names. What’s next, Concerned Citizens for the Betterment of Mankind?) The KOC is one of those shadowy “social welfare” groups – we don’t know who its donors are, but its treasurer is an ally of Karl Rove – and its apparent sole purpose is to dump $7 million into ads attacking Mitch McConnell’s Senate race opponent, Allison Grimes. That $7 million (which will likely go higher) is 28 percent of all the outside money that has flowed thus far into the Kentucky race.
Naturally, conservatives never complained that the “unelected judges” practiced “judicial activism” in rulings like Citizens United. Conservatives don’t trot out those empty phrases when the high court rules to their liking, and dark money freedom is certainly fine with them. Most Americans actually disagree – a new bipartisan poll says that 63 percent of voters favor “new rules that include disclosure” – but the Reagan and Bush appointees have spoken.
And until some distant day, when perhaps Congress can summon the wisdom to enact disclosure requirements (an effort that has failed twice already), or when perhaps a new court majority shelves the notion that money is speech, we all have to live with the consequences. Which is why dark money spending is expected to post a new record high in 2016 – and, in all likelihood, drive us to a new low.
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