Former Speaker of the California Assembly Jesse Unruh famously said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” That is never more true than now. Although the first disclosure laws for political contributions began in 1910, secrecy still lurks in political campaigns and contributions.
While the political campaigns of individual candidates are closely watched, political action committees have increasingly played pivotal roles in elections. These PACs have become surrogate campaigns for candidates. Although they are presumed independent, a PAC can attack a candidate’s opponent in ways that are more brutal, dishonest and unorthodox than a candidate’s own campaign organization. PACs can throw mud with far less damage to their candidate than the candidate’s campaign because it can’t be traced back to the candidate. PACs can also receive contributions late in a campaign without having to identify the amounts or contributors until after the election. This situation invites dishonest advertising in the waning days of a campaign. The danger that PACs present is well-known. What is less well-known is the danger of yet another murky player in the campaign scene: dark money.
Since 2006, there has been an explosion of dark money to nonprofit organizations and their Super-PACs that have fewer reporting requirements. Super-PACs can receive anonymous donations of any size and spend them in an election as long as they operate independently. Unlike PACs, Super-PACs cannot make donations to the campaigns of candidates or issues on the ballot. The unlimited amount of anonymous donations that they can solicit more than makes up for those limitations.
In 2006, $5.2 million in dark money spent nationally. By the 2012 Presidential election, dark money had grown to $300 million. There probably will be $500 million or more of dark money spend in the 2016 election. In an age when the transparency of the political process slowly grows, dark money is the antithesis of that openness.
While Richard Nixon brought political trickery to new heights in his political campaigns with secret contributions and juvenile political tricks that included fallacious letters about an opponent’s alleged homosexuality, dalliances with prostitutes or having a naked woman run through a campaign event while professing her love for the candidate, this nothing like the sophistication of today. All the advertising techniques that have been used to sell products and manufacture consumer demand now do the same with political candidates. Distortions and outright lies dominate political campaigns with the finesse that it sounds legitimate. The sophistication of today’s campaigns make Nixon’s tricks look like a high school student body election prop. PACs and Super-PACs are at the forefront of these legal dirty tricks. Dark money increasingly lurks as a source for the worst of these activities.
There are many members of Congress railing against dark money, but Congressional leaders and the President prefer to point fingers at each other. Congress has done nothing, absolutely nothing, under both Democratic and Republican leaders to initiate legislation to shed light on dark money. This prompted over 100 members of Congress at the end of June to urge President Barack Obama to issue an executive order requiring those companies that do business with the United States government to report contributions that are now hidden as dark money. Obama’s response: He urged Congress to do something.
Only when the public outrage reaches the point that Congress and the President cannot ignore it will real transparency over dark money happen. As it stands now, these politicians gain as the beneficiaries of their surrogates dirty campaigning. The mild criticism from the American public provides no incentive to change. In the meantime, the real loss is responsible, representative government. It is appalling. Unfortunately, it is apt to get much worse before it gets better. American politics is not about self-government, but political consumerism. The American voter is being feed a product that he or she doesn’t want, but has little power to demand better. As long as the political system is polluted by the growing influence and secrecy of dark money, the situation is only going to worsen.