In the aftermath of Citizens United, massive donations from wealthy individual and corporate interests have become a terrifying new norm in this year’s elections. What’s even worse is how much money is being spent entirely in the shadows -- with more than four months to go until Election Day, outside groups have already spent $172 million with money from secret sources. That's half of all outside spending in the 2012 cycle.
This latest figure continues an upward trend in undisclosed donations in our elections. The amount of secret political money jumped from 1% of spending in 2006 to 44% in 2010. From the Huffington Post article:
The amount of undisclosed-donor money spent in federal elections jumped from 1 percent in the 2006 election to 25 percent in the 2008 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, after the Supreme Court lifted some restrictions on spending by nonprofit corporations. Spending by non-disclosing groups then skyrocketed to 44 percent of all reported spending in the 2010 election, after the court's January 2010 Citizens United decision lifted bans on independent electoral expenditures by corporations, including nonprofits, and unions. This occurred despite the Citizens United ruling's strong support for transparency in campaign money.
Much of this money is coming from so-called “social welfare” groups, which can take donations and buy ads without disclosing their donors or paying taxes. One major phony group, Crossroads GPS, was pioneered by Karl Rove as a way to get huge donations from people who may not want their names publicly associated with politics.
"Once [Karl Rove] set up his affiliated Crossroads GPS, a 501(c)(4) group, he saw a big uptick in his contributions," Hasen said. Rove founded the group in 2010. "When they succeeded without any legal repercussions, the floodgates flew wide open for anonymous contributions."
Of course, not all of this undisclosed spending comes from wealthy individuals -- there’s a lot of evidence that corporations are giving significant donations through undisclosed groups as well.
Major corporations have also been among the secret donors to social welfare groups and trade associations in this election cycle, as well as past ones. Health insurer Aetna accidentally disclosed in a year-end regulatory filing with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners that, in 2010, it had given $4.5 million to the Chamber of Commerce and $3.5 million to the American Action Network.
Hasen thinks that Aetna's disclosure hints at a broader pattern of hidden corporate giving. "It's hard for me to believe that Aetna is an outlier on this," he said.
The only reason to oppose disclosure if is you have something to hide. That’s why, when the FEC added new rules around disclosure, Crossroads GPS redirected their ad spending.
Since the new rules governing electioneering communications (which are retroactive to March 30) apply only to ads that run within 30 days of a primary or a party convention and within 60 days of a general election, Crossroads GPS has been pumping up its spending on ads that fall outside that window.
It’s certain that this election will see a lot more secret money sloshing around. What’s uncertain is why Congress has refused to shed light on it. The Senate vote on the DISCLOSE Act, which would have been a major step toward transparency. Unfortunately, it was blocked along party lines, with Republicans, many of whom are on record as supporting disclosure, voting against the measure.
Progressives United will continue working to make disclosure a top priority, both in Congress and in state races across the country, where money and its sources can have an even bigger impact. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said (long before he forgot he said it), “Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?”