In fact, a big part of the nation’s campaign-finance history is centered on big money’s attempts to avoid obstacles that would weaken its influence. Like generals always re-fighting the last war, government regulations have typically lagged behind. Reform-minded policymakers will busily defend one campaign-finance front only to discover the action has moved elsewhere.
Congress erects a barrier to pay-for-play politics. Deep-pocketed lobbying groups and wealthy individuals then discover a new loophole. As an elections law attorney recently told the public radio program Marketplace, “Money will find its way into the system one way or the other.”
It’s an arms race.
Take Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley as a recent example. Bentley’s 2014 re-election campaign has $2 million in the bank. His only challenger at the moment reports raising just $58.
Yet, when explaining a dip in November’s fundraising efforts, Bentley’s spokeswoman sounded almost apologetic. “When the governor’s in Japan for a week, it’s hard to hold a fundraiser,” Bentley campaign spokeswoman Rebekah Mason said. Darn those official duties of the governor that get in the way of riding the mo’-money express.
An even playing field where money’s influence on politics is tempered ought to be the goal of Americans worried that their democracy is held captive by one special interest or the other. As much as they deny it, politicians in the current system won’t begin to take seriously the concerns of working Americans until the influence of big money is lessened.
Perhaps the best we can hope for in the meantime is to ensure that names are attached to those contributions funding political campaigns.
Doesn’t sound like much to ask for, does it?
For many donors, it is, however.
Witness the rise of groups organized to promote “social welfare” that are dipping their toes, if not most of their bodies, into the political waters.
In IRS lingo, these groups are known as 501(c)(4)s. Here’s how it was originally designed. An organization doesn’t pay any taxes so long as it fulfills that “social welfare” mission. Over time, the IRS allowed some political activity so long as it didn’t take up a majority of a nonprofit’s activities.
In the past couple of election cycles, these 501(c)(4)s have become useful to large political donors, particularly because the names of contributors can be kept anonymous. This “dark money,” as it’s called, makes a mockery of a political system that supposedly built on accountability. In the 2012 campaign season, dark money dropped $310 million into campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By the way, that’s a 60-fold increase in spending from this type of group since the mid-1980s.
Who gave all that money? What do they expect in return from the politicians it benefitted? The public is in the dark, thanks to the exploitation of IRS rules.
Late last month, the IRS proposed altering its rules. If approved, some political activities of 501(c)(4) nonprofits would be limited. There are plenty of reasons why these proposals won’t have much effect, including a ridiculously long review procedure and, more importantly, big money’s skills at slithering around the rules.
We will remain a long way from a healthy democracy while anonymous dollars flood our campaigns. To make these changes, lawmakers — many of whom are the big winners from dark-money campaign checks — are the ones we rely on to make the necessary changes. And as 20th century progressive Upton Sinclair famously declared, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.