Political commercials are running back to back to back on TV. New candidate flyers clog the mail every day, and it's still more than a month before the election. Who's paying for all this?
Political commercials are running back to back to back on TV. New candidate flyers clog the mail every day –– and it's still more than a month before the election. Who's paying for all this?
Good question, and one that has become more difficult to answer.
The increase in overall campaign spending comes courtesy of the United States Supreme Court, which cut the heart out of campaign finance reform in the Citizens United case. That decision, which ruled that corporations could not be limited in how much money they can spend on behalf of candidates, has sent more money, especially corporate money, into the coffers of independent groups with unfamiliar names, and a preference for negative advertising.
A second pernicious factor is making it ever harder to determine who is investing big bucks to sway the electorate. Increasingly, The New York Times reports, political money is amassing in the coffers of non-profit organizations chartered under 501(c) of the tax code.
Unlike the 501(c)(3) classification most charities use, these groups, chartered under 501(c)(4), 501(c)(5) and 501(c)(6) - can't the feds come up with names that are easier to follow? - are not prohibited from political activities and can accept unlimited amounts of money from donors.
More to the point, the new non-profits are able to keep their donor lists secret. They fall into a netherworld on the federal regulatory map, policed neither by the IRS nor by the Federal Elections Commission.
"These groups are popping up like mushrooms after a rain right now," Marcus Owens, a lawyer who formerly led the IRS unit responsible for monitoring nonprofits, told the Times. "And many of them will be out of business by late November."
Those who wish to influence elections from behind a curtain got another boost last week from Congress. In response to the Citizens United ruling, Democrats and President Obama had introduced the Disclose Act, which would have required stricter disclosure of corporations and interest groups involved in campaign activities. It also would have strengthened restrictions on political activities by foreign-owned corporations and required heads of corporations and interest groups to appear on camera in their commercials.
For years, Republican opponents of campaign finance laws have argued that limiting campaign contributions was wrong and unnecessary. As long as the sources of campaign funds are identified, voters can make up their own minds about a candidate's sources of support, they claimed.
But given the chance to back up that argument with their votes, Republicans balked. Senate Republicans filibustered the Disclose Act to death. Not a single Republican senator broke with the pack; advocates for the bill said even moderate Republicans refused to discuss ways the bill could be amended to win their votes.
So we can expect the most expensive – and, likely, the most negative - mid-term campaign in memory. And the worst thing about it is we won't know who is paying to put these people in office, let alone what favors they will be asking candidates in return for their help.