Anonymous dark money’s destructive influence on American politics is 'getting worse': report
When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its controversial 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2009, critics of the decision — including dissenters on the High Court — predicted that elections in the United States would be inundated with a flood of dark money. In his dissent, the late Justice John Paul Stevens, a Gerald R. Ford nominee, stressed that the ruling “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation” and warned, “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”
Thirteen years later, critics of the Citizens United decision continued to argue that Republican Stephens was spot on in his dissent. Articles on the influence of dark money have appeared in major publications, and New York Times reporters Kenneth P. Vogel and Shane Goldmacher, on August 22, reported that the largest political donation in U.S. history had come from “electronics manufacturing mogul” Barre Seid — who gave $1.6 billion to a group led by GOP activist and Federalist Society Co-Chairman Leonard A. Leo.
Journalists David Sirota and Joel Warner examine the influence of dark money in an op-ed published by The Guardian on August 29, citing Seid’s secretive donation as an especially blatant example.
“This week, the Lever, ProPublica and the New York Times discovered the largest known political advocacy donation in American history,” Sirota and Warner explain. “We exposed a reclusive billionaire’s secret transfer of $1.6bn to a political group controlled by the Republican operative Leonard Leo, who spearheaded the construction of a conservative Supreme Court supermajority to end abortion, block government regulations, stymie the fight against climate change and limit voting rights. This anonymous donation — which flowed to a tax-exempt trust that was never disclosed in any public record or database — was probably completely legal.”
Sirota and Warner continue, “Whether you support or abhor Leo’s crusade, we should be able to agree on one larger non-partisan principle: such enormous sums of money should not be able to influence elections, lawmakers, judicial nominations and public policy in secret. And we should not have to rely on a rare leak to learn basic campaign finance facts that should be freely available to anyone. Unfortunately, thanks to our outdated laws, those facts are now hidden behind anonymity, shell companies and shadowy political groups. America is long overdue for an overhaul of its political disclosure laws — and news organizations in particular should be leading the charge for reform.”
According to Sirota and Warner, dark money’s negative influence on U.S. politics is only “getting worse.”
“In 2020 alone, more than $1bn worth of dark money flooded around weak disclosure rules and into America’s elections, financing Super PACs, ad blitzes, mailers and door-knocking campaigns,” Sirota and Warner warn. “As millions of votes were swayed, reporters and the public had no knowledge of the money sources, or what policies they were buying. Heading into the 2022 election, the situation is getting worse. The two parties’ major Senate and House Super PACs are all being funded by anonymous dark money groups that are not required to disclose their donors.”
Sirota and Warner, however, do offer some “good news,” pointing out that the Disclose Act — a bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — would “force dark money groups to disclose any of their donors who give more than $10,000, require shell companies spending money on elections to disclose their owners, and mandate that election ads list their sponsors’ major contributors.” And a separate Whitehouse-sponsored bill, they add, “would additionally require donor disclosure from shadowy groups lobbying the Supreme Court through amicus briefs designed to tilt judicial rulings without letting the public know which billionaire or CEO’s thumb is on the scale.”
“In the landmark Citizens United ruling that unleashed the modern era of big money politics,” Sirota and Warner write, “the majority noted that while it was unwilling to permit political spending restrictions, it still held that ‘government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements.’ Those requirements are so desperately needed now — for the free press to play its vital role, and for voters to make informed decisions when they go to the polls.”
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