Can we all agree that secret money in politics is a bad thing?
OK, you’re with me. So far, so good.
And can we all agree that the Republicans have been hypocrites on this issue — having long declared that they were against secret money, only to flip-flop in 2010 and declare that they were for it?
OK, now I’ve probably lost half of you. But bear with me.
Thanks to a number of factors — a historic Supreme Court decision that has inspired wealthy donors to pony up, a tax code riddled with loopholes, and toothless federal watchdogs — a record amount of secret money, topping $250 million, is flooding the Senate and House races. We have no idea who these donors are, yet we’ve all seen their handiwork in TV ads. From the shadows, they create front groups with vacuously pleasing names — something like Concerned Citizens for the Betterment of Mankind, or Americans for Puppies, Apple Pie, and the Fourth of July.
By the way, even though it’s true that the Republicans have trumped the Democrats in the secret-money race by more than 2-1, I don’t mean to imply that the GOP is poised to win big Tuesday night simply because its anonymous donors wrote big checks. Nancy Pelosi may think so — the House speaker recently said, “Everything was going great, and all of a sudden secret money from God knows where, because they won’t disclose it, is pouring in” — but she is wrong. Long before the GOP’s richest fans ever got involved, hardly anything was “going great” for the Democrats.
But the secrecy, in itself, is an affront to democracy and the principle of transparency. People give big money for a reason; we may never know what they got in return. We have essentially legalized the practice of backstage bribery, and 2010 is a mere tune-up for the presidential race in 2012.
Last winter, after the U.S. Supreme Court freed up corporations, unions, and other special interests to spend campaign money more easily, rich people felt more emboldened to finance the GOP’s efforts. But they didn’t want the public to know who they were. So, a few intrepid Republican strategists, including Karl Rove, came up with a clever fix. They created nonprofit groups under a section of the tax code reserved for “social welfare organizations” that allows donors to fork over unlimited money without being publicly named. And the secret money has flowed unabated ever since.
So you might be wondering, “Doesn’t the public have a right to know who these donors are? How come Congress hasn’t done something about this?” Well, guess what? Congress has tried. In the spring and summer, the ruling Democrats sought to pass the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act (which proves that Democrats will never work on Madison Avenue). Known commonly by its acronym, the DISCLOSE Act, it would essentially force these donors into the open. It passed in the House — with virtually all Republicans voting no. It went to the Senate, where it lingers today because Republicans won’t let it come up for a vote.
I warned you that I would bring up the Republicans’ hypocrisy, defined here as the chasm between what they once professed to believe and what they now practice.
Back in the days when Republicans were strongly opposed to campaign-finance reform (this was a decade ago, when John McCain was mavericky in his efforts to curb big money in politics), they insisted that full disclosure was the best solution, that as long as the voters could see who’s giving the big money, voting decisions could be made on that basis and democracy would be alive and well.
So said George W. Bush, for instance, when he first ran for president in 2000. But let’s go down the list.
Here was Sen. Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s current GOP leader, during a 2000 appearance on Meet the Press: “Republicans are in favor of disclosure.” That year, he also said that “the major political players in America” should be subject to disclosure; in his words, “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”
Here was Lamar Alexander, now a Tennessee senator but speaking as a presidential candidate in 1999: “I support … free speech and full disclosure. In other words, any individual can give whatever they want as long as it is disclosed every day on the Internet.”
Here was Texas Sen. John Cornyn’s philosophical stance just six months ago: “I think the system needs more transparency, so people can reach their own conclusions.”
Here was Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, just six months ago: “I don’t like it when a large source of money is out there funding ads and is unaccountable … I tend to favor disclosure.”
All four have been blocking the DISCLOSE Act. Meanwhile, on the House side, House GOP leader John Boehner said in 2007, “We ought to have full disclosure, full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant.” But when the DISCLOSE Act came up in the House this year, Boehner voted for darkness.
Actually, Rove’s group, American Crossroads, has engineered the best flip-flop. It was launched this year as a full-disclosure enterprise; one of its board members, ex-GOP national chairman Mike Duncan, said in May, “I’m a proponent of lots of money in politics and full disclosure in politics” — the traditional GOP position. He voiced his support for “full accountability.” But when the potential big donors voiced their distaste for sunlight, the Crossroads gang deep-sixed its dislosure talk and created an offshoot in the aforementioned secrecy section of the tax code. That got the bucks flowing.
And don’t expect the feds to police this behavior. Under the tax code, these social-welfare organizations are supposedly barred from spending more than half their money on politics. But the Federal Elections Commission has a well-deserved reputation for allowing political operatives to play fast and loose with the rules. Indeed, the FEC is set up for stalemate; even if its three Democratic commissioners wanted to move against secret money, its three Republican counterparts would likely block the move.
All told, if sunlight is indeed the best disinfectant (as Boehner once believed, when he borrowed the phrase from Justice Louis Brandeis), then I suppose we must now gird ourselves indefinitely for the toxins that flourish in the dark.
E-mail Dick Polman at firstname.lastname@example.org.