Gabriele Schneider: Who’s buying our elections?

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March 11 to 17 is known as Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. In recognition of the week, today’s opinion page content is centered on transparency in campaign finance and needed reform. Today’s opinion pieces are courtesy of www.sunshineweek....

Welcome to a new era of exponentially more unlimited and undisclosed campaign spending.

This is the first presidential election since game-changing rulings by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and a federal district court in SpeechNow.org v. FEC paved the way for a small group of elites to spend unprecedented sums — with little or no transparency — to influence voters.

Since then, outside groups often called “super PACs” have proliferated, stimulating new ways for big donors to influence elections — often in secret.

Super PACs have already wielded enough power of the purse to change the typical course of the Republican presidential primary season. Their spending power is prolonging the campaigns of candidates whose own coffers are depleted.

In effect, they are shadow campaigns.

And, only several weeks into the election year, presidential super PACs have spent to the tune of more than $52 million (as of Feb. 21) to support or oppose presidential candidates.

While we know what super PACs spend on in near real time via the FEC’s website, we have to wait to learn who is giving them money because of disclosure filing rules.

And, even then we don’t get the whole picture.

That meant voters in the Iowa Caucuses and three early primaries had to wait until after they cast their votes to find out who was trying to influence them — even though the technology exists to disclose within 24 hours.

More alarmingly, we are also witnessing a proliferation of completely undisclosed “dark money” in the presidential race.

Well-heeled donors can conceal their identities by giving to social welfare groups (known as 501(c)(4)s for their tax exempt status) that do not have to disclose who funds them.

So, even though we eventually learn who gives to super PACs, sometimes those donors are actually one of these 501(c)(4) groups, which funnel money from people who want to remain anonymous. Consider it a super PAC shell game where democracy is the biggest loser.

Many super PACs have affiliated 501(c)(4) groups, like the Karl Rove-founded super PAC American Crossroads, which spun off a 501(c)(4) named Crossroads GPS (that subsequently saw its fundraising spike). On the other side of the aisle, the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action has a sister 501(c)(4) organization, Priorities USA.

Who says there’s no bipartisanship in Washington, D.C.?

Moreover, the law allows 501(c)(4)s to make direct election expenditures, and some have during the presidential race. That means they can spend money to influence races without ever revealing the sources of their funding.

All of this allows innocuously named groups to shelter the names of powerful individuals and corporations.

During the 2010 mid-term election (the first after Citizens United) $126 million of the $455 million spent by outside groups came from these “dark money” groups.

To address this problem, Congress should take immediate action and pass the DISCLOSE Act, recently introduced in the House. The bill is an update to a previous version introduced two years ago in the last Congress, and goes straight to the problem: the lack of transparency for unlimited, secret super PAC money and the influence it has on our elections and our elected officials. This simplified bill, stripped of controversial non-transparency provisions the previous version contained, is a good solution to the “dark money” problem. The DISCLOSE 2012 Act will require:

• Public reporting by corporations, unions, super PACs and other outside

groups to the FEC within 24 hours of making a campaign expenditure or transferring funds to other groups for campaign-related activity (of $10,000 or more).

• Corporations and other outside groups to stand by their campaign ads —

with their leader and top financial contributors disclosed in the ads.

• Corporations and other outside groups to disclose campaign-related

spending to shareholders and organization members.

• Lobbyists to disclose campaign-related expenditures in conjunction with

their lobbying activities.

Disclosure remains a crucial antiseptic to the corrupting influence of money in politics. The Supreme Court believes disclosure is the cure to these ills, and even prescribed online transparency as the antidote to address any concern about the new landscape of campaign finance it created.

The disclosure regime the Supreme Court references does not yet exist, but it can, if Congress passes the DISCLOSE Act now. If political money is “speech” as the Supremes argue, shouldn't we be able to know the identity of the person who is speaking to us?

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Comments

BenDoubleCrossed 2 years, 9 months ago

"This is the first presidential election since game-changing rulings by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and a federal district court in SpeechNow.org v. FEC paved the way for a small group of elites to spend unprecedented sums" - From the article

The above statement from your article is incorrect. See Buckley v. Valeo In a lengthy per curiam decision issued on January 30, 1976, the Court sustained the Act's limits on individual contributions, as well as the disclosure and reporting provisions and the public financing scheme. However, the limitations on campaign expenditures, on independent expenditures by individuals and groups, and on expenditures by a candidate from personal funds were struck down.

"Super PACs have already wielded enough power of the purse to change the typical course of the Republican presidential primary season. Their spending power is prolonging the campaigns of candidates whose own coffers are depleted." - From the article

Buddy Roemer, former governor of Louisiana, has been denied the right to participate in Republican Presidential debates by the media networks that hosted same. And Buddy is for campaign reform and has limited how much he will accept from donors. Would it be evil if some billionaire were to back Buddy? Would that legitimize his campaign or just enable a weak candidate to continue?

"While we know what super PACs spend on in near real time via the FEC’s website, we have to wait to learn who is giving them money because of disclosure filing rules." from the article

Not knowing who paid for speech forces listeners to focus on the message rather than the messenger. Is that a bad thing? I am a senior citizen and have always vetted the message not the messenger. Anonymity was important to the Committees of Correspondence that led up to the American Revolution. Historically anonymous speech is an American birthright.

"If political money is “speech” as the Supremes argue, shouldn't we be able to know the identity of the person who is speaking to us?" - From the article

If the corporate media were to carry political ads for free wouldn't that remove the need for most money in political campaigns? Yes political money is speech!

All campaign laws seek advantage for their party, candidate or side of an issue by rationalizing why the speech of the opponent should be censored.

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Andrew Russo 2 years, 9 months ago

("Who’s buying our elections?")

Doesn't much matter in this plutocracy, the new boss is the same as the old boss and the next will be the same as the last. Wealthy members of a political party in a two party, winner take all system of which there is absolutely no mention, of either political parties or a two party system, in the U.S. Constitution.

Yet they rule government at both federal and state levels. And they will keep it that way. Divide and conquer, continuity of government as it is being the main objective under the guise of "the good of the country."

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Andrew Russo 2 years, 9 months ago

("Congress should take immediate action and pass the DISCLOSE Act")

While they are at it, they should have long ago passed a right to vote amendment, there is no affirmative right to vote in the U.S. Constitution.... http://www.fairvote.org/ FairVote acts to transform our elections to achieve secure access to participation for all, a full spectrum of meaningful ballot choices and majority rule with fair representation. As a catalyst for change, we build support for innovative strategies to win a constitutionally protected right to vote, universal voter registration, a national popular vote for president, instant runoff voting and proportional voting.

("If the corporate media were to carry political ads for free wouldn't that remove the need for most money in political campaigns?") "Corporate media" would have to include TV, radio, billboards and the Internet for starters, no doubt I've missed something. Publicly (government) financed campaigns would be a better solution, IMO. Giving every candidate the same, set amount to spend as they wish. As far back as 2006, a Senator had to raise $10,000 a DAY, from the day they are elected, to finance their next campaign.

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