In this year’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama couldn’t have been more transparent. He said, “[A] better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.”
With that sentence, he reaffirmed what we all know is the case: Voters deserve to know who is trying to influence their elected officials by contributing money. Without knowing who is behind political spending, we cannot make truly informed decisions and we lose a critical check on corruption in our moneyed political system.
This Sunshine Week (March 15-21), we applaud the president for speaking out against the wave of “dark money” that has overtaken U.S. elections, and our response is: “We agree. Act now.” The president should start by issuing an executive order to require federal government contractors to disclose all of their political spending. He has the power to do so at any time.
Dark money is a problem no matter who it comes from, and according to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than 40 percent of the outside expenditures in the 2014 elections were made by groups that did not fully disclose their donors. But dark money is especially troubling when it comes from government contractors.
By Taylor Lincoln and Andrew Perez
By definition, super PACs are supposed to be independent from candidates and parties.
However, 45 percent of all super PACs spending more than $100,000 in 2014 did so on behalf of just one candidate. That finding was published in the latest installment in our series of reports quantifying the connections between candidates and outside groups.
The phenomenon of single-candidate super PACs is significant because it is unlikely that many groups would focus all of their efforts on helping just one congressional candidate if they did not have ties to him or her. And if the groups do have ties to candidates, they are not truly independent.
In its overreaching Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010, the Supreme Court chose to permit outside entities to spend at will from their treasuries on elections. This led to super PACs and other outside groups accepting unlimited contributions to influence elections. The court premised its decision on the assumption that spending by independent entities does not pose a risk of corrupting candidates. The risk of corruption is the basis on which the court has supported previous campaign finance restrictions.
The Center for Competitive Politics, which supports the Citizens United decision, promptly issued a response to our report, indicating both that there’s nothing notable about friends of candidates running super PACs and, anyways, any suspicion of coordination between the groups and candidates was just “the stuff of conspiracy theorists and hysterics.”
The congressional leaders who negotiated $1.1 trillion federal spending bill – dubbed the “CRomnibus” – must not have known they were in for a fight.
But when Public Citizen and other public interest allies got hold of the 1,600-page bill and saw that it contained a bevy of atrocious policy riders that had nothing to do with funding the government, the fight was coming.
The take-it-or-leave-it budget – including the poison pill provisions that Public Citizen opposed – did ultimately pass. The fight for its passage is instructive for how public interest advocates can wield power in the coming years, even as majorities in Congress seem determined to deliver a return on Corporate America’s Citizens United-enabled election investments.
The worst that could have happened would have been if the giveaways to corporations and the super rich had been accepted without a fight.
Thankfully, that’s not what happened.
We called on grassroots activists like you to act – to email and call your members of Congress – and you acted.
Tens of thousands of outraged citizens made it known that they would not accept a budget bill that allows millionaires and billionaires to have more influence in our elections and that puts taxpayers on the hook for Wall Street’s recklessness.
And then – hearing the outrage of tens of thousands of constituents across the country – principled members of Congress (of both major parties) fought the bipartisan backroom deal.
We’ve just seen the worst that Washington has to offer with the “cromnibus” government spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last night.
Instead of Congress passing a clean funding bill along lines that were previously agreed to and had bipartisan acceptance, Big Business exercised its insider influence and took advantage of an artificially rushed and secretive process to cut deals to enhance the political influence of the super-rich, put taxpayers on the hook – again – for Wall Street recklessness and make our roads less safe.
Moneyed interests maneuvered to eviscerate campaign spending rules, so that a super-rich couple may now contribute up to $3 million to a national political party in a single (two-year) election cycle. It’s a certainty that this move will be followed up by calls to “level the playing field” and permit the same monstrous contributions to candidates and political committees.
Wall Street called on its friends to include a Citigroup-drafted provision that would roll back a key Dodd-Frank measure that was designed to prevent Big Banks from using taxpayer-insured money to bet in the derivatives markets. With the top four banks responsible for 93 percent of derivatives activities in the United States, there is zero question about which entities will benefit. Nor who will pay; when the next financial crisis comes – as it will, as certainly as the calendar changes – taxpayers will be forced to pay for Wall Street gambling on derivatives.
At the behest of the trucking industry, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins included in the spending bill a provision to override rules to reduce truck driver fatigue, which risks the lives of truckers and other drivers.
These are only some of the known giveaways in the spending bill. It will probably take many weeks, or longer, before all of the industry deals are discovered.
As serious and troubling as are these measures, there is reason to fear worse is to come. Even though it opposed many of these harmful provisions, the White House pushed for approval of the overall spending deal, which had to overcome substantial opposition from members of Congress in both parties. If this is the kind of “bipartisanship” we’re going to see in the coming two years, the country is facing dire prospects indeed.
Our friends at Think Progress posted a gem on their blog this week describing Corporate America’s griping at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event about its supposedly waning “free speech” privileges. Apparently, the huge momentum behind requiring disclosure has dark money political spenders quaking in their boots!
At one point during the event, Paul Atkins, the CEO of Patomak Global Partners LLC, actually compared shareholders who want companies to be more transparent to neo-Nazis. Now that you’ve finished choking on your coffee, consider his actual words:
When I was a staffer at the SEC [U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission] back in the early 90s, a group of Neo-Nazis came up with a proposal for AT&T… it had to go into the proxy statement because of the way the rules were. That’s pretty bad but carry it forward now — we have issues here like disclosure of political spending or lobbying or general political spending and these disclosures are not material at all.
Sure Paul, advocating for transparency is just the natural outgrowth of neo-Nazism. And neo-Nazism is just “pretty bad” anyway. (Yeah, right!)
If you think Paul Atkins is plain wrong and so is corporations buying lawmakers, send a message to the SEC today asking for immediate disclosure of corporate political spending.
Kelly Ngo is the online advocacy organizer for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.