April 7, 2020

Secret Money

By Stephen Tuttle | June 24, 2017

Georgia's 6th Congressional District just held a special election. The candidates, various political action committees (PACs), and third-party independents spent nearly $55 million campaigning, the most expensive House race in history. It is truly absurd. 

This is just the latest in a long line of examples of campaign spending run completely amok. In Pennsylvania in 2016, the two candidates for the U.S. Senate and their various supporters spent $165 million. In Illinois in 2016, two legislative candidates spent $5 million, and legislative races in California now regularly spend $2 million or more. That's for a seat in a state legislature.

Total campaign spending in 2016 totaled $6.4 billion, with the presidential election alone accounting for more than $2.3 billion.  

More than half of those totals are fundraising and expenditures not from the campaigns themselves but from various outside organizations, PACs, super-PACs, and independent campaigns. 

This is a problem on more than one level.  

The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision opened the door to massive involvement and spending by both Republican and Democrat interests. The court was clear, however, that Congress or the states could require public disclosure of donors without running afoul of the First Amendment. Congress did nothing; only two states require full disclosure.  

So, we now have the billionaire Koch brothers on one side, billionaire George Soros on the other, and both able to create large, do-good sounding organizations to which their other billionaire and multi-millionaire pals can anonymously contribute for the sole purpose of influencing elections. Secretly. 

Nobody can ask these contributors what they want because nobody knows who they are. We can safely assume they aren't a merry band of altruists simply interested in good government.

All of which creates another serious problem.

Assume you've decided to run for Congress. It's likely to be a close race in a district that can swing either way. You decide you're going to raise and spend $1 million, a hefty sum but modest by today's standards. You've decided on a campaign platform of positive ideas, and you're determined not to run any negative ads or demean your opponent. 

Your opponent won't likely be quite so polite, but you don't care. Unfortunately, third-party groups, with whom you are not legally allowed to coordinate messages, will likely consider your campaign goals and objectives to be irrelevant. They have their own agendas, and you might be no more than an afterthought. They will run negative ads and support whatever it is they want. If you ask them to stop, it won't matter. 

The third-party groups will raise more and spend more than your own campaign. You will have to submit the names of your campaign contributors; the outside groups will not. Your positive message and issue platform will be buried under an avalanche of negativity, including that coming from groups purporting to support you or, at least, opposing the other candidate.    

The Democratic National Congressional Campaign Committee and the Republican National Campaign Committee will both get involved. Everybody will get involved. There is absolutely no way for the actual candidate to prevent or control it. 

We voters will receive far less information from you then we will from the outside groups. We'll vote, at least in part, based on what anonymous people have paid to have someone else say about you. Your message, whatever it was, will be lost. 

Money has always played an oversized role in elections. But now we have third-party money obliterating the actual candidates. The Supreme Court has ruled that money paying for political speech equates to political speech, so it will be difficult rolling back the spending absent a constitutional amendment. The court did not say free speech equates to secret speech.

We can at least make sure we know who is spending all that money. In the digital age we could do it quickly and efficiently. Knowing who's writing the checks and pulling the strings would be useful information for an informed voter. It would give journalists the chance to ask these contributors why they give and what they're hoping to gain.

It also would give candidates an idea of who exactly is overrunning their campaign.

Critics argue that full disclosure of such contributions would discourage some from participating in the democratic process. Some might consider their need for secrecy suspicious. 

Congress and nearly all state legislatures, including Michigan's, are complicit. Their cowardly avoidance of requiring rapid and full disclosure of contributions is a reflection of their dependence on both the money and the secrecy.

$55,000,000 million for a congressional seat in Georgia? And we don't even know who contributed more than half of it? Really?

If we're going to have the best politicians money can buy, we should at least know who's buying them. 



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