With its gush of deceptive, distorting video ads, Campaign 2014 has at least given us this: three out of the four branches of Washington’s governance clearly have seen the light about dark money in politics.
Most politically savvy players in three branches – the executive branch, legislative branch and, yes, the news media branch (it’s time we admit that we too are players in how things happen in Washington) – now grasp the corrosive impact of the so-called “dark” or secret money in politics. Recent news stories make clear that record money amounts are flooding into our campaigns from sources that are not clear to voters. But of course it is never secret from the politicians.
Only the judicial branch – and here we are just talking about this U.S. Supreme Court’s five-vote majority of conservative activists who gave us today’s campaign mess – still show no sign of grasping the reality all others see. Namely, the dark money they called constitutional is gravely distorting the principles and undermining the practice of democracy the Founders believed they were creating.
And finally, today’s cram course in hardcore civics must lay bare one other reality that none of Washington’s four branches of de facto governance really understands: Our government now operates by a de facto system of public financing of campaigns. It’s not quite the one liberals began championing in the post-Watergate 1970s. But make no mistake – campaigns are being financed by money that comes out of our potential tax dollars. It’s the most costly and least efficient way of doing it. And we’re stuck with it until we recognize the problem and fix it.
First, consider the problem of limitless, dark or secret campaign money. In two 5-4 decisions, the Supreme Court freed billionaires from having to comply with strict limits on how much they can invest in electing politicians. It also freed them from the scrutiny that comes when voters know who paid for ads they are watching and perhaps believing.
In 2010, the Supreme Court reversed decades of campaign finance regulations by ruling it is unconstitutional to limit political spending by corporations, unions and even the richest individuals. Then last April the court, in its McCutcheon case ruling, declared unconstitutional all limits on how much wealthy individuals can directly give to candidates for federal offices and to political party committees.
In those rulings, the scales of justice became the ones that ended up covering eyelids of the court’s conservative majority. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy actually wrote: “In fact, there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate. Ingratiation and access, in any event, are not corruption.”
Last April, Chief Justice John Roberts, in writing the Court’s McCutcheon case opinion, seemed to define the earth as both round and flat at the same time. Lifting contribution limits was OK, he wrote, because public disclosure will keep things honest: “Finally, disclosure of contributions minimizes the potential for abuse of the campaign finance system. … (and may) deter actual corruption and avoid the appearance of corruption by exposing large contributions and expenditures to the light of publicity.”
But Roberts later wrote that such public disclosure might never happen because other laws allow individuals to spend money via so-called independent groups: “The existing aggregate limits may in fact encourage the movement of money away from entities subject to disclosure.”
Finally, consider this three-point reality that proves we actually have a form of public financing – done in the worst possible way.
One: Candidates dial for dollars, seeking/demanding campaign money from lobbyists whose special interests are regulated by the candidates’ congressional committees.
Two: The special interests invest money in the candidates’ elections, because they will later need favors in the form of tax write-offs and loopholes. It is money the special interests will get keep that would otherwise be federal revenue.
Three: Later the special interests receive favors worth billions of would-be tax dollars, a spectacular return on their campaign investments.
That’s the system we have. It’s the most wasteful public financing of campaigns you could imagine.
Think tanks, concerned citizens and maybe even a few principled senators and representatives must now work to enact rules or constitutional amendments that will fix our undemocratic and wasteful campaign finance mess.
Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.