Dark money: the fanciful quest to clean up US campaign finance | American political finance

IActivists say it would restore waning public trust in vital American institutions, reduce the corrupting influence of big money in politics and give America’s struggling democracy a much-needed boost.

He is also, they acknowledge, dead on arrival.

An amendment to the US constitution was proposed last week by Congressman Adam Schiff to overturn a precedent set in 2010 by the Supreme Court, known as Citizens United, which opened the floodgates to corporations and special interests to inject billions of dollars into election campaigns.

Passing the amendment, Schiff said, would allow Congress or individual states to propose reasonable limits on private campaign contributions and independent spending. “Let’s get the black money out of our democracy”, he tweeted. “And return power to the people.”

Such a decision enjoys broad public support in America, but is unlikely to pass through Congress itself. Amending the constitution requires the support of a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures.

In today’s polarized America, where few Republicans have displayed an appetite for campaign finance reform, it remains a failure. Democrats, including Schiff himself, have made previous attempts to constitutional amendments and came to nothing. Citizens United seems to be here to stay.

His origins lie in a challenge to campaign finance rules by Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit group, after the Federal Election Commission refused to allow it to air a film criticizing candidate Hillary Clinton too close to the Democratic presidential primaries.

In one of the most controversial decisions in its history, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Citizens United with Judge Anthony Kennedy writing that limiting “independent political spending” by corporations and other special interest groups violates the First Amendment’s right to free speech.

This paved the way for them to spend unlimited money on election campaigns. In the 12 years since, outside groups spent more than $4.4 billion in the federal election — nearly $1 billion of that in “dark money,” usually through nonprofits that don’t disclose their donors. The main contributors are banks, the pharmaceutical industry and the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Dan McCready, Democratic special election candidate for North Carolina’s ninth congressional district, poses with volunteers at his campaign headquarters on Election Day in Charlotte, North Carolina in September 2019. He lost. Photograph: Jonathan Drake/Reuters

“Citizens United has been a disaster for the American political system, even beyond what we expected,” said Bookbinder Noahpresident of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (Crew) “We knew it was bad when it happened, but the amount of money entering the political system has exploded since that decision, including a massive increase in spending from third parties, particularly irresponsible spending of black money.

The majority opinion of the Supreme Court in 2010 had assumed that external spending would be inherently transparent and free from corruption. It turned out to be fake, Bookbinder claims, because the money is funneled through nonprofits or shell companies that conceal its origins.

“Much of this money comes from sources that are difficult or impossible to identify. The public does not know who is responsible for this money in American politics. It was catastrophic and it needs to be fixed.

This, campaigners say, has had a corrosive effect on democracy and explains why politicians who benefit from the money so often fail to tackle health care reform, gun control, crisis climate and other pressing issues.

Bookbinder added: “It certainly gives more power to powerful interests like the fossil fuel companies, the pharmaceutical companies, the big banks and all the biggest money industries as well as individual billionaires who can invest a lot of money in the political system, often in a way that the public does not know but that elected officials know and feel accountable for.

“It’s a real problem. When you see a lack of progress on issues like climate change, how much of that is because so many elected officials are beholden to powerful figures tied to industries that don’t want progress? »

This, in turn, fuels public frustration with Washington, a place where nothing is done except measures that favor the rich and powerful – a recipe for voters to turn to foreign candidates such as Donald Trump. who promise to shake up the system and “empty the swamp”. ”.

Bookbinder said, “The other thing that’s really dangerous is that the American people understand that there’s so much money coming into politics from very wealthy people and industries and that he feels that democracy does not work for him.

“It makes people lose faith in democracy and potentially become more willing to support leaders who don’t necessarily believe in democracy – we’ve seen this in recent years – or less concerned with defending democracy against threats. . That’s another way it can be kind of existential in the effect it has.

Pacs (political action committees) collect and spend money on campaigns that support or attack political candidates or legislation. Pacs are permitted to donate directly to a candidate’s official campaign, but subject to limits on the contributions they can give or receive.

In the wake of Citizens United, however, a federal appeals court ruled that outside groups could accept unlimited contributions as long as they did not donate directly to candidates. These Super Pacs are allowed to spend money to endorse or oppose candidates with independently produced ads.

Corn Karen Hobert Flynnchairman of democracy reform group Common Cause, said: ‘Reality since this decision shows that it is not necessarily independent – we are seeing a lot of coordination between candidates and Super Pacs – and that is causing huge damage to our flawed democracy where wealthy mega-donors, corporations, special interest groups not only impact and influence elections, but once elected lawmakers feel they must grant favors to those who funded their campaigns.

Chuck Schumer, then Senate Minority Leader, leads a group of Democrats to the Supreme Court in announcing the introduction of a previous constitutional amendment that would reverse Citizens United's decision in July 2019.
Chuck Schumer, then Senate Minority Leader,
announces a previous constitutional amendment that would reverse Citizens United’s decision in July 2019.
Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

Super Pacs are required to disclose their donors, but these can include nonprofit organizations that make the original source of the money difficult to track. More than 2,000 Super Pacs have operated in each of the past two election cycles.

The negative consequences were felt not just in Washington but at the state level, added Flynn, whose long fight for campaign finance reform in Connecticut paid off in 2008. This has created tremendous cynicism that Congress and state legislatures are corrupt because they benefit from outside groups spending money on their behalf and people’s voices don’t matter.

“Money has also led to increased polarization, leading to more extreme types of action, particularly on the right where we’ve seen money supporting those who want to overturn fair and free elections. If you look at the top 10 Super Pacs and their outside spending so far in just 2022, you’ll see that nine of the top 10 Super Pacs are conservative or support Republican candidates. It’s not like, ‘Hey, both parties do it and it’s equal and that’s not a problem.’

Super Pacs are not all-powerful. Jeb Bush appreciated their support up to $100 million in 2016 but was beaten for the Republican nomination by Donald Trump’s makeshift insurgency campaign. Everyone from Trump to Bernie Sanders to Marjorie Taylor Greene has shown the power of small donations.

And Congress could still act. His recently proposed Free Voting Act would have made Super Pacs truly independent and enlightened “dark money” by requiring any entity that spends more than $10,000 in an election to disclose all major donors.

But legislation has stalled in an equally divided Senate after Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema rejected efforts to reform a procedural rule known as the filibuster, which would have allowed their party to thwart the Republican opposition. A group of black money had launch a $1 million ad campaign in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia to pressure him to keep the filibuster intact.

For the critics of Citizens United, it was once again back to the drawing board. Rio Tazewellchief strategy officer at People for the American Way, said, “Unfortunately, there are very few options in terms of what can be done. recant; given the current composition of the tribunal in the foreseeable future, this seems unlikely.

But Tazewell noted that 22 states and more than 830 municipal locations adopted resolutions supporting a constitutional amendment to overthrow Citizens United. “There’s a lot of pressure and coalition happening so that we can finally get the kind of bipartisan support that we’re likely to need to pass an amendment,” he added.

“At the end of the day, I think the most realistic solution – and possible, perhaps not overnight – is for there to be a radical change at the national level and greater recognition that it is not and should not be a partisan issue..”

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