Money and Democracy

Published — January 22, 2016

Commentary: The consequences of our secret elections


It’s been six years since the ‘Citizens United’ decision; the results are troubling


It was six years ago this week that the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically altered the American political landscape with its landmark ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, essentially deciding that corporations and labor unions can spend millions of dollars getting candidates elected to federal office.

As long as the funds didn’t go directly to the candidate, or were not spent in coordination with the candidate, there would be no law broken. Corporate and union donations to the campaigns were still illegal.

As a result of the ruling, super PACs were born, giant pools of money that act as shadow campaign committees, often run by people with close ties to the campaigns themselves. The organizers of these PACs must report all their donors and expenditures. They’re also — in theory, anyway — prohibited from “coordinating” with the candidate.

But in politics, it seems, there’s always a way to dodge the rules and obfuscate what’s really happening. This election, secrecy has been pushed to another level. Since the Citizens United decision came down, nonprofit groups have formed to back candidates. And unlike the super PACs, the nonprofits are not required to report who their donors are. That’s because these groups are theoretically focused on “social welfare,” not politics. It’s a highly cynical and dubious claim in many cases, but it’s working. The Internal Revenue Service is supposed to police whether these groups are actually concentrating on “social welfare,” but that’s not happening — not now, maybe not ever — because the IRS is paralyzed by budget cuts, missteps in its previous efforts to oversee these groups and related political controversies.

One candidate in particular who’s gotten a secret boost is U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has benefitted from millions spent by a nonprofit, the Conservative Solutions Project, on ads pushing him for the White House. The group is spending as fast as it can to get Rubio in office. But no one knows who is supplying the cash.

This was exactly the sort of scenario that was predicted six years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court voted to allow corporations to spend money to get candidates elected. That included certain nonprofit corporations.

No, corporations still aren’t permitted to give a donation to a candidate. But they can spend heavily to benefit a candidate, and indeed they do. They can still call the tune as to who’s a viable candidate and who isn’t. And they can do it all without you knowing who’s providing that cash, and whose agenda is propelling that candidate.

Is that really what the Founding Fathers had in mind?

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