Andy Kroll put out a great article in Mother Jones on the modern history of dark money in our democracy and those working to combat it. He tracks that history from the Watergate case -- the campaign finance scandal that ended a presidency and ushered in a wave of reforms -- to today, which, thanks to the Supreme Court, is strikingly similar to the Watergate era.
Here are some stops along the way:
- Nixon’s money rush: “It was the last gasp of a two-month fund-raising blitz during which CREEP raked in some $20 million before the new disclosure law took effect. A handful of wealthy donors accounted for nearly half of that haul; insurance tycoon W. Clement Stone alone gave $2.1 million, or $11.4 million in today's dollars. Hugh Sloan, CREEP's treasurer, later described an "avalanche" of cash pouring into the group's coffers—all of it secret.”
- Reformer Fred Wertheimer’s successful 1974 push: “In the final vote, 75 percent of House Republicans backed reform, as did 41 percent of Senate Republicans. On October 15, 1974, President Gerald Ford signed into law the amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), the bedrock of modern campaign finance law.”
- The rise of PACs after Buckley v. Valeo: “At the end of 1974, there were 600 registered PACs; nine years later, there were 3,500. PACs spent $23 million on congressional races in 1976; by 1982, it was $80 million.”
- The return of soft money: “Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who had worked on the Senate's Watergate investigation two decades earlier, launched a probe that eventually forced the Clinton administration and the DNC to admit to plying donors with coffee klatches with the president, sleepovers in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom, rides on Air Force One, and other exclusive perks.”
- The end of soft money, again: “The rest of 2001 saw McCain, Feingold, and their fellow reformers fight off an onslaught of amendments aimed at kneecapping their bill. Finally, in the winter of 2002, after the House passed its version of the legislation by a 51-vote margin, the Senate easily green-lighted the bill. McCain-Feingold headed to the desk of President George W. Bush.”
- The Citizens United disaster: “Wertheimer called Citizens United ‘a disaster for the American people’ and ‘the most radical and destructive campaign finance decision in Supreme Court history.’ The American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein says the decision was as misguided as the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling denying slaves the right to citizenship. ‘The Roberts court is going to go down in history in the same way [Chief Justice] Roger Taney and his court went down in history with Dred Scott,’ Ornstein says. In his 2010 State of the Union, President Obama himself lambasted the high court for having ‘reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests.’”
The article brings us to today, in the immediate aftermath of Citizens United. Kroll’s article is a reminder that reform is always hard. It’s important to remember how far we’ve come as well as how far we have to go. And in the meantime, the key for reformers past and present has been to keep up the fight for clean elections.