Shedding Light On Dark Money: Why A Supreme Court Decision May Help Blunt The Undue Influence Of Wealthy Donors
Democracies should have respected political systems that serve as a source of pride for all citizens. When voters head to the polls, they should feel as though they are doing their civic duty. When they cast their votes, they should never feel as though they should be ashamed of their choice, even though they have a right to keep their pick a secret. Someone who supports a candidate or cause enough to donate money certainly should not feel compelled to hide his, or her, contribution. For those who donate thousands to millions of dollars to political groups, transparency should be a welcome opportunity to broadcast one’s funding of the political system and worthy causes. Unfortunately, the US political system is awash in so-called dark money. It is also saturated with slanderous and negative political messages. In a recent ruling, however, the US Supreme Court may well have helped lift the veil on dark money.
In 2010, the Supreme Court landed a major blow against campaign reform efforts when it upended several laws, including some dating back to the early Twentieth Century, in the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Committee. Not only did the Court treat business rights as though they are the same as individual rights, it equated spending money to free speech. In doing so, it eradicated prohibitions and transparency rules designed to help keep the US political system as honest as possible. By knowing the source of funding for a campaign ad or the financial backers of a political group, voters and advocacy groups can better assess the validity of the claims made in a message. Transparency also forces people to reflect on their support of controversial candidates and positions, thus it helps keep the political system civil. Citizens United freed those who have the wealth to assert their undue influence over the political system and remain in the shadows. The top fifteen dark money groups alone were able to spend $600 millions between January, 2010 and December, 2016 without revealing their contributors, i.e. their influence on the US political system.
A couple hundred million dollars over six years may not seem like a great deal when compared to the nearly $4 trillion annual US Federal Budget, but that kind of cash buys a great deal of influence over the handful of candidates seeking to fund their campaigns. For lawmakers, supporting billion-dollar laws that favor benefactors is a lot easier than funding an independent campaign and repelling a well-funded competitor. Without transparency and other measures, the economics of politics favor those who serve the affluent willing to spend a few pennies on the dollar. As Russian attempts to manipulate the 2016 Presidential Election demonstrate, a relatively small, yet significant, amount of advertising dollars can be very effective in manipulating public perception. It is why well-funded special interest groups have been able to assert massive undue influence over the US political system and the political systems of the world for centuries. Transparency is needed.
Just weeks away from the 2018 Mid-term Elections, the Supreme Court has chosen to allow a decision by the US federal district court in Washington, D.C. to go into effect. Stemming from a 2016 lawsuit by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington against Crossroads GPS and the Federal Election Commission, the ruling forces transparency for political ads. Organized as an alleged social welfare nonprofit organization, even though it is obviously a political group, Crossroads GPS has been exploiting a loophole that allowed it to circumvent donation disclosures required by the FEC. By masking themselves as 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations or 501(c)(6) business associations, groups like Crossroads do not have to file with the FEC. The Washington, D.C. district court ruling, however, now compels even these organizations to disclose their donors when they fund explicitly political ads. If the ruling is ultimately upheld after the appeals process is exhausted, it could offer some light at the end of a very dark political tunnel.
Regrettably, the Presidency of the highly controversial Donald Trump has demonstrated the capacity of political figures and their supporters to weather even the most depraved scandals. Given his open inclusion of wealthy political hobbyists and self-serving activists like Betsy Devos, Wilbur Ross, and Stephen Mnuchin in his Administration, it is clear that transparency alone will not fix the dysfunctions of the US political system. Bringing the undue influence of the affluent into the light is essential, yet it is not enough. Transparency also requires civil discourse that weeds out the negative impact of the undue influence of the affluent. What makes this particular Court ruling so valuable is that it forces transparency at a critical time. Election messages tend to be far more emotional than intellectual, thus emotionally-charged political ads tend to carry way more weight than the arguments of everyday politics. When voters can see an ad is the product of someone who cannot be trusted to protect their interests or someone they dislike, that ad tends to have less of an impact on individuals, thus the Court’s decision helps.
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