Shining a Light on Corporate 'Dark Money'

This op-ed was originally published at OtherWords.com.

If 2014 was the “Year of Dark Money” in elections, then 2016 is likely to be the “Year of Way, Way More Dark Money” — that is, unless something big changes soon.

One of the most troubling aspects of the explosion of big money in politics in recent years is the rapid rise in spending by groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors.

Right now, corporations and super-rich political donors like the Koch brothers can funnel millions into elections through groups that hide their identities, leaving voters and candidates unable to tell who’s behind the attack ads they buy in bulk, or what their agendas are.

More than $600 million of this so-called “dark money” has already been poured into our federal elections, and that’s only going to increase as we ramp up for the next presidential race.

Americans aren’t happy about this.

When President Barack Obama called in January for a “better politics” where “we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter,” he wasn’t just speaking for himself.

He was tapping into a deep-seated unease among everyday Americans who know that our political system can’t work for us when it’s awash in millions of dollars of untraceable money.

But President Obama can do more than simply call attention to the problem. He can take a big step toward fixing it by issuing an executive order requiring companies with government contracts to disclose their political spending.

That would mean that many of the nation’s biggest corporations — like Exxon Mobil, Lockheed Martin, AT&T, Chrysler, and Verizon, just to name a few — would have to let the American people know about their political spending. That would turn some of that dark money into plain old “money.”

As The Washington Post editorial board wrote earlier this year, disclosure is “the backbone of accountability.” The public needs to be able to follow the money trail, see who’s behind political spending, and call them out when they don’t like what they see.

Even the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate political spending with its 2010 Citizens United decision, has underscored the need for disclosure. Transparency, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the ruling, “enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

Today, only one-fourth of the country’s largest government contractors disclose their contributions to outside groups. That means that many of the corporations receiving the biggest government contracts — from taxpayer money — are likely doing a great deal of secret spending to influence elections.

President Obama is right: Ordinary Americans are tired of being pulled “into the gutter.” We’re tired of seeing corporations rig our political system with untold amounts of money from undisclosed sources.

The White House should issue an executive order to let voters see for themselves who’s trying to buy political influence to distort our democracy.

What are these corporations trying to hide? And why should We the People hand over our taxpayer money to help them hide it?

PFAW

Payday Loan Interests Funneled Dark Money into Fight Against Oversight

On Tuesday the Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal revealed that in 2012, the Online Consumers Network, an “arm of the online payday loan empire industry,” gave $200,000 to two dark money groups connected to top House Republicans during the industry’s push to roll back the power of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

In other words, two years after the Citizens United decision that allowed for unlimited outside spending to influence elections, payday loan interests were funneling dark money political spending to benefit officials who could help in their efforts to fight oversight and regulation.

While this is far from surprising in light of the current state of our campaign finance laws, it flies in the face of how regulation should work. From the chemical industry ramping up political spending as Congress takes up a bill overhauling the regulation of chemicals, to the payday loan industry throwing money against oversight efforts, industry interests should never be driving the legislative or regulatory process. The public good should be.

Fighting to make governmental action about protecting ordinary Americans rather than protecting the bottom line of major corporations shouldn’t be controversial. It’s simply expecting our political system to work as it was intended: for the people.
 

PFAW

Following the Money in Wisconsin and Beyond

On Monday, Wisconsin became the 25th so-called “right to work” state when Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill into law that undermines workers’ rights and is likely to reduce wages in the state.

This divisive bill, which would have more accurately been called a “right to work for less” bill, was fast-tracked by Republican leaders despite being met with intense resistance and had the support of major right-wing funders. Two outside groups in favor of “right to work” legislation, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, spent over $5.5 million in support of Scott Walker’s reelection bid. Analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign found that since 2013, Republican legislators in the state have accepted “$26 in contributions from business interests for every $1 in labor contributions.” And the right-wing Bradley Foundation has given millions to groups promoting “right to work” bills, including to a number of groups in Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin and across the country, when people can “follow the money” and see who is bankrolling elected officials and what their agenda is, it changes how they evaluate the bills being considered. But today it’s not always possible to follow the money. Major corporations can funnel an unlimited amount of money through “dark money” groups to influence the political process, and they can do so secretly.

President Obama can, and should, take a big step to shine a light on dark money by issuing an executive order requiring companies that contract with the federal government, companies like Verizon and Lockheed Martin and Exxon Mobil, to disclose their political spending. No matter the issue, voters deserve to know who is trying to buy influence in their state or national government.

PFAW

Jeb Bush's version of #GetMoneyOut more like #SaveItForLater

According to The Washington Post, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has yet to officially announce a presidential run, is trying to keep the biggest of the big money from too quickly overwhelming his anticipated bid.

The move reflects concerns among Bush advisers that accepting massive sums from a handful of uber-rich supporters could fuel a perception that the former governor is in their debt. The effort is also driven by a desire to build as broad a pool of donors as possible among wealthier contributors.

So even as Bush is headlining a series of high-dollar events for a super PAC backing his bid, fundraisers have been instructed not to ask donors to give more than $1 million per person this quarter.

Apparently receiving just $1 million from a donor wouldn’t lead anyone to assume that Bush is indebted to them.

The money spigot, of course, will eventually flow far past this limit. And to call it a limit at all shows just how outsized an influence money holds over our democracy, and what a tiny, unrepresentative sliver of society Bush is catering to.

A minimum wage worker earning $7.25 per hour would have to work full-time for more than 66 years to make $1 million. That's before taxes. And food. And lodging. Raising kids? No room for that, either. That's an entire gross income for what could be an entire working life just for a single political contribution.

Say you're lucky and you make four times that amount, $29 per hour. Making a Bush-style contribution would still consume your entire income for more than 16.5 years.

As Public Campaign's Adam Smith puts it:

#GetMoneyOut is about a lot more than telling the super-rich to #SaveItForLater.

Grassroots activists have been pushing for money in politics reform to make clear that we want a democracy that’s run by the people, not millionaires and billionaires. In just five years since the Supreme Court ruling, 16 states and more than 600 cities and towns have officially called for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United, and five million Americans have signed their name to a petition calling for such an amendment. There's also a "Defending Democracy" legislative package that can take critical steps forward while the amendment movement grows even stronger.

There are many solutions working together toward the same end goal: a democracy in which everyone participates, everyone’s voice is heard, everyone knows who is trying to buy influence, and everyone plays by commonsense rules and is held accountable to those rules.

PFAW

PFAW and 50+ Allies Ask Obama to Require Government Contractors to Disclose Political Spending

Yesterday People For the American way joined more than fifty other organizations in sending a letter to President Obama asking him to issue an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose all of their political spending.

Right now, corporations with government contracts are able to funnel unlimited sums of dark money to influence the elections of those who can put pressure on the officials deciding who is awarded future contracts. Contracts should be awarded to those best for the job, not those who can shell out the most political cash.

But with the stroke of a pen, President Obama could require that government contractors disclose their political spending. This would increase transparency and accountability in our democracy and bring us closer to the “better politics” the president called for in his State of the Union address – a politics in which we “spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.”

And we are indeed drowning in dark money. In 2014's ten most competitive Senate contests, more than 70 percent of outside money spent in support of the winner was from dark money groups.

As the letter notes,

Six years into your presidency, and five years after the Supreme Court issued its tragically misguided ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, we’re now living in a Wild West campaign spending world… Against this backdrop, it is imperative that you act.

You can add your name to the chorus of voices calling on the president to issue an executive order and read the full text of the letter here.
 

PFAW

Chicagoans Overwhelmingly Approve Resolution for Cleaner, Fairer Elections

On Tuesday night, Chicago residents approved a ballot initiative in support of limiting  the influence of big money in politics by an overwhelming margin of 79 percent to 21 percent. The measure, titled the Fair Elections Illinois ballot initiative, calls on the Chicago City Council and the Illinois state legislature to establish small donor matching fund systems for local and state campaigns. Activists worked with local organizations to coordinate phone banks, robocalls, and distribution of campaign literature in an attempt to reach thousands of voters. The measure was also endorsed by over a dozen organizations, several city alderman, all mayoral candidates, and the Chicago Sun-Times.

People For the American Way is proud to have fought alongside the activists who worked hard to get this measure passed in Chicago, in addition to the thousands of other leaders all across the country pushing to get big money out of our political system.

PFAW

President Obama Underscores His Support for an Amendment to Overturn Citizens United

In an interview with Vox released today, President Obama expressed his support for constitutional remedies to our country’s worsening money in politics problem.

The president said:

I would love to see some constitutional process that would allow us to actually regulate campaign spending the way we used to, and maybe even improve it.

This isn’t the first time the president has weighed in on the push for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United. In 2012 during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, President Obama made a splash when he said that “over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United.” As the Vox article notes, today’s comments go a step beyond his previous remarks.

Agree with the president? Share our graphic and show your support:

You can watch the full interview with President Obama here:

PFAW

PFAW and Allies Advocate for Amendment to #GetMoneyOut in New Hampshire

PFAW activists joined with allies from Public Citizen, Open Democracy, and others last Thursday at public hearings on New Hampshire House and Senate bills calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United.

About 50 supporters of a constitutional amendment attended each hearing, creating standing room only and overflow in the small room reserved for the House bill hearing.

Speakers included small business owners, activists who passed local town resolutions in favor of an amendment, and high school students.  Not a single person testified in opposition to the proposed legislation, underscoring the deep support among Americans of all backgrounds for fixing our big money system.

The bills (HB 371 and SB 136) call for the state legislature to recommend a constitutional amendment to the state’s congressional delegation, as well as for public hearings in geographically diverse areas across the state to decide the exact language for such an amendment.

A committee in the New Hampshire House will vote on the bill in an executive session on Wednesday afternoon, while the appropriate Senate committee has not yet set a date for a vote. PFAW activists and allies will be back at the state capitol next week for a lobby day to meet with key representatives and senators on Wednesday, February 4th.

Interested in joining us? For more information and to RSVP, email Lindsay Jakows at ljjakows@gmail.com.
 

PFAW

#DemandDemocracy Video Blog: Businesses Against Big Money in Politics

Sixteen states, 600 towns and cities, dozens of nonprofit reform organizations, and more than five million Americans are not the only ones calling for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics. This installment of our #DemandDemocracy video blog features Bryan McGannon with the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) discussing how big money in politics is bad for competition and bad for small business.

As Bryan points out:

“Our campaign finance system subverts competition by allowing powerful industries and corporations to influence legislation that pampers them and hampers small business.”

According to a report published by the Mainstreet Alliance and ASBC, 88 percent of small business owners believe that money in politics is having a negative impact on our democracy, and a strong majority (66 percent) say that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision has been bad for small businesses. Since a vast majority of the money that flows into elections comes from a tiny fraction of mega-wealthy donors, most businesses and individuals alike get priced out of participating in the electoral process.

PFAW’s #DemandDemocracy video blog series is a collection of short videos that highlight how big money in politics affects — and often stalls progress on — a range of other critical issues.

PFAW

Democracy For All Amendment to #GetMoneyOut Becomes Bipartisan Bill

On Monday the push for the Democracy For All Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United v. FEC and allow legislators to put reasonable limits on money in elections, became a bipartisan effort in Congress when Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) signed on as a cosponsor of the legislation.

While this is a historic step that deserves celebration, in many ways it is long overdue. Washington is the only place where the fight to get big money out of politics is a partisan issue, and it hasn’t always been that way.

Similar amendments proposed in the past have found bipartisan support in Congress, including from Rep. Jones. Republican elected officials across the country have been advocating at the local and state level to get big money out of politics. In fact, a recent report from Free Speech For People highlights the more than 100 Republican officials nationwide who favor an amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United.

Among voters, it’s also a bipartisan movement, with Americans of all political stripes speaking out against a democracy unduly influenced by corporations and billionaires. A 2014 poll found that in Senate battleground states, almost three in four voters favor a constitutional amendment to undo the harm of decisions like Citizens United, including majorities in “even the reddest states.” This support did not waver among Republican voters polled: amendment supporters outnumbered opponents by a 26 percent margin.

Still, Rep. Jones’ decision to become a cosponsor of the Democracy For All Amendment is an important step forward. Money in politics is an issue that affects all of us, and one that Americans of all political backgrounds feel strongly about. It’s only fitting that our federal elected officials in both parties listen to the voices of their constituents and join the movement to take our democratic process back from the grips of wealthy special interests.

PFAW