Why you should care
Because dark money could have dark results.
Fact-checkers have had a field day with Donald J. Trump, who has earned so many “Pinocchios” and “Pants on Fires” from The Washington Post and PolitiFact that he may need to invest in some new wooden britches.
But if Trump seems to be telling the truth in one area, it’s that money plays an outsize role in the way decisions are made in politics. “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal last year. And it wasn’t all bluster, as shown by recent allegations that his charity flouted campaign finance law by donating to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to deter an investigation into Trump University. “Not only was he telling us that he had done this throughout his business career, but he did it in this case that has every appearance of being a quid pro quo,” says Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert at Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Still, at various times Trump has called attention to illicit dealings between candidates and their super PACs, while touting his decision to “self-fund” through the primaries. Is Trump right that we live in a rigged system?
As President, I WILL fix this rigged system and only answer to YOU, the American people! https://t.co/r1ySXDJ1Wq— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 5, 2016
There are signs he might be. Paying politicians is sound business strategy, suggests investment research firm Strategas, which maintains a “real-time” Lobbying Index measuring how those who give the most make the most. Last year, the top lobbying companies had reportedly outperformed the S&P 500 by 200 points through three quarters. Knowing who is paying those politicos has also become more difficult, thanks to Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United v. FEC, which, along with subsequent rulings, has gutted many of the safeguards limiting how politicians raise, spend and report their cash.
While Hillary Clinton is asked if she believes Russia could steal the election, a much more tangible threat lurks in the “shadow party” groups at home. These bankrollers operate in virtual anonymity and have already spent at least $47 million in the eight closest U.S. Senate races, according to an analysis in August by the Brennan Center for Justice. According to Ian Vandewalker, the report’s author, “the ease of circumventing contribution limits and concealing donors from the public” threatens to make parties more dependent on megadonors, corporations and unions.
The report adds that Republicans lead in known dark-money spending, and yet, some rightists also oppose it. “As a conservative I’m supposed to be for Citizens United, but the amount of money being tossed around really worries me,” one former high-ranking RNC operative tells OZY, adding that the case had encouraged a system of political mercenaries whose primary goals are paychecks, not winning. Those funds haven’t had the democratizing effect some proponents envisioned: Three major spending coalitions (Democratic Party shadow groups, the Koch brothers’ network and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) have accounted for 58 percent of outside spending this election cycle, according to the Brennan Center report. Trump is correct that “there is a ruling class,” says Ned Ryun, founder of American Majority, which trains grassroots center-right volunteers and candidates. “The American people get shortchanged by it.”
Where Trump’s proclaimed advocacy falls apart is in the details, and many are hesitant to credit him for raising an issue that the left has championed for years. (Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to requests to further clarify his views or to address criticism.) Drake University law professor Anthony Gaughan, an expert in campaign finance, says the best chance for reform is a Supreme Court that’s willing to reconsider Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 precedent that made political spending limits unconstitutional. But the staunchly conservative nominees Trump suggested in May would likely continue the status quo, not upend it. Trump’s key message, that he’s so wealthy he can’t be bought, implies that only millionaires and billionaires should run for office. “That’s called a plutocracy, not a democracy,” Holman says, adding that Public Citizen and other watchdog groups have reached out to the Trump campaign for his support on specific solutions but have received no response.
Short of the court, cities and states are adopting measures to even the playing field. Public financing plans, which allocate taxpayer money to help fund candidates, are well-established in places like Arizona, Maine, Connecticut and New York City. Candidates can still try to raise thousands or millions outside the system, but those who do risk backlash for choosing private interest money over the no-strings-attached public fund. Advocates are pushing similar programs in Maryland and California. “I’m not sure there is a silver bullet,” admits Sunlight Foundation Communications Director Josh Stewart, though his organization recently found that 26 states have improved finance oversight since 2015. Last year, Seattle approved an innovative solution in which each citizen is given $100 in vouchers to contribute to candidates of their choosing, putting the power of the purse directly in the hands of the people.
American legislators could also look to Canada and the United Kingdom, which limit political spending. “Virtually no other country has the weak limits on big money going into politics that we do,” says Vandewalker. Others, like Holman, say we don’t have to look past our borders, but into our past. Almost every serious presidential hopeful used public financing until 2000, when George W. Bush declined it during the primary, and then 2008, when Barack Obama became the first to pass on it in a general election. In that sense, maybe campaign financing laws simply need to be made great again.