Railing about money in politics -- too much, too secret, too influential -- is a surefire way for politicians to signal that they are high-minded reformers. But it's also a pretty good way to earn the tag of hypocrite or flip-flopper.
What is it about the siren song of campaign finance reform? It's like entrapment. People keep embracing ideas they later abandon when the glimmer of victory is in sight, and all it's going to take to get there is more money.
In the last presidential election, candidate Barack Obama said he would "aggressively pursue" an agreement to take public financing with a general election opponent. He later opted out of the public system, which gives each candidate a set amount of money, after making no real effort
to work out an arrangement with Republican nominee John McCain.
Obama said he was concerned about the GOP spending advantage among flush party committees and outside groups. But why wouldn't he turn down $84 million in federal money? He was raising far more
on his own. McCain took the public money, and why wouldn't he? He didn't have a prayer of matching Obama's haul, and he could count on outside backup. But his critique of Obama (disturbing reversal
, he broke his word) rang a bit hollow, since McCain himself had tried to get out of the public system
in the primaries when he thought he'd do better on his own.
This year, in the first election since the Supreme Court gave corporations and unions the unfettered right to spend money on campaigns, we have seen high-ranking Republicans such as Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner stop talking about transparency and the merits of sunlight as a disinfectant. Instead their allies have set up new organizations, nicknamed super PACs, that can accept and spend unlimited contributions without disclosing their donors.
Disclosure once was the GOP counterargument
to calls for caps on giving and spending. But it turns out that disclosure is as inconvenient as limits on campaign cash. In fact it would be limiting in itself. What business wants customers to know which side it's on? If there's going to be public scrutiny, better not to get involved.
"Certainly there are some donations that would not have been made had there been a requirement to disclose the donors," Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics
, which tracks money in politics, said in an interview. "Politics isn't good for business. They don't want their consumer brand to be interpreted as partisan."
Look what happened to Target
when it contributed $150,000 to a Minnesota business group that had financed ads promoting Republican Tom Emmer. Hint: He's a gubernatorial candidate opposed to gay marriage
and other gay rights. If you guessed a boycott led by MoveOn, you guessed right.
So far, the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation estimates that nearly $100 million in what it calls "dark money
" is swirling through scores of races. That's about half of all the money so far from outside groups, and most of it is going to Republicans.
The foundation, an advocate for government transparency, says Republican-leaning super PACs
and other independent groups are outspending those allied with Democrats by nearly $41 million. The Campaign Finance Institute at George Washington University puts the disparity at $63.5 million
, in the context of an overall 73 percent rise in spending since 2008 by independent outside groups. And the election isn't here yet.
Democrats tried to pass a disclosure bill this year, but -- shocker -- ran into near-solid GOP opposition. So now they've turned the new secrecy into a political weapon. Typical are a cable ad this week that tars Republicans as "corporate buddies
" and e-mails using the secrecy theme
to -- another shocker -- raise money.
There's no more paradoxical issue than money in politics. It often illuminates naked ambition and single-minded determination to win. And yet it has generated some of the highest profile, most idealistic, most bipartisan moments of the past 15 years.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich
held a joint town hall in Claremont, N.H. The headline was their handshake agreement to form a blue ribbon commission on lobbying and campaign finance reform. Four years later, presidential candidates McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley returned to Claremont to promote reforms that included a ban on "soft money
" (unlimited contributions to parties that were a way to circumvent caps on direct donations to candidates). In 2002, Congress passed the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act that regulated how, when and how much political money could be spent.
Since then, we've seen reversals by politicians and, above all, the Supreme Court. Early this year, in its decision in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court gave unions and corporations free rein to spend. The ruling was widely viewed as gutting McCain-Feingold
or, at the very least, as retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor put it, problematic
In a one-paragraph statement, McCain said he was disappointed but noted the law's ban on soft money
remained in place. Yet the court had just opened up a whole new world of unlimited donations!
That's only one way in which McCain's reform drive was thankless. He infuriated many conservatives, not to mention interest groups of all ideological stripes, who saw his prescriptions as infringements on their free speech rights. Even now, he's paying. This week, Democrats filed a complaint accusing McCain of violating his own namesake campaign law. His campaign dismissed it as a frivolous (and false) stunt.
One thing you can say about McCain, he is a survivor. He spent what he needed to -- $21 million, in the end -- to crush a challenge from Tea Party favorite J.D. Hayworth in the Arizona Senate primary. Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold may not be so lucky. He is in the fight of his political life this year against Tea Party candidate Ron Johnson. Moderate Rep. Mike Castle voted with House Democrats on several issues and was one of two GOP sponsors of the disclosure bill. He lost the Delaware Senate primary to Tea Party pick Christine O'Donnell last month.
The secrecy is providing some job security for investigative reporters
, who are trying to follow the money. But that's no substitute for the kind of systematic, mandatory disclosure that Krumholz and other watchdogs rely on to show us what's going on in our political system.
Krumholz said some groups are going on offense against disclosure and there is a "really frightening" hostility towards it. Her hopes lie with a citizens revolt. Otherwise, she said, "this could be the beginning of a very difficult era for transparency and political finance."
Bob Edgar, president of the government accountability group Common Cause
, sounded even more apocalyptic about the trend toward non-disclosure. "Democracy's not going to survive if it becomes a secret society where only the wealthy corporations and those with money control the outcome of public policy," he said in an interview.
Edgar gives Obama a temporary pass on the public financing flip-flop, saying he rejected the system because it was broken. "He did pledge to fix it and we're going to hold him accountable for that promise," he said of Obama. Edgar wants the president to hold a White House conference on the subject in January, and Congress to pass a revised public financing system for presidential races in April. It should have realistic dollar amounts and timetables, he said, and somehow block outside money or outside contributions over a certain amount.
A former congressman elected with the 1974 class of "Watergate babies" who helped drive campaign reforms through Congress, Edgar did not discuss the relative realism of his expectations for 2011. I'd say they are about as realistic as the odds of a near-term citizens revolt over secrecy. Will it take 30 years and another campaign cash scandal on the order of Watergate to jolt us onto a better path? I hope not.
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