To grasp the clear and present danger that the current flood of campaign cash poses to American democracy, consider the curious case of Post Office Box 72465. It demonstrates that the explosion of super PAC spending is only the second most troubling development of recent campaign cycles.
Box 72465, in a post office on a desert road near Phoenix, belongs to a little-known group called the Center to Protect Patient Rights. According to reports by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Los Angeles Times, the center funneled more than $55 million to 26 Republican-leaning groups during the 2010 midterm election.
Where is the money from?
The Times found links to the conservative Koch brothers, yet because the center is a nonprofit corporation, it is impossible to know. Such groups must disclose how they distribute their money, not who donates to them.
This privacy makes sense in the context of ordinary nonprofits. But in the push-the-envelope world of modern campaigns, in which such groups spend millions of dollars on thinly disguised campaign ads, the result is an end-run around the fundamental principle of campaign finance law: that voters are entitled to know who is trying to influence elections.
Even the Supreme Court understands this. Disclosure, the court wrote in its otherwise appalling 2010 ruling in Citizens United, “permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
Except when, as in the case of the Center to Protect Patient Rights, the identities – and motives – of those giving are hidden from public view.
The center sent almost $13 million to the American Future Fund, a Des Moines, Iowa-based group that ran campaigns against two dozen Democrats in 2010. Iowa Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley was targeted with what the Times described as “a $2-million fusillade” of radio ads, robo-calls and mailers.
“It was almost a feeling of helplessness because there was no way to identify who the source of the funds was,” Braley said. He won by 2 percentage points, after a 29-point margin two years earlier.
The gusher of secret money that nearly toppled Braley promises to be even more abundant this year – and the groups behind the undisclosed cash remain determined to do whatever it takes to keep the sources hidden.
In March, ruling in a lawsuit brought by Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a federal judge found that the Federal Election Commission was wrong to exempt nonprofits and other groups that run “electioneering communications” – advertising that names specific candidates within a short time before the election – from having to reveal their donors. It says something about the FEC that the agency charged with overseeing campaign reporting would come out against disclosure.
Luckily, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson disagreed. “Congress intended to shine light on whoever was behind the communications bombarding voters immediately prior to elections,” she wrote. The federal appeals court in Washington refused to stay the ruling pending appeal.
The response from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was telling: It would switch its way of influencing elections rather than reveal its donors. The chamber, which has made itself a major political player, plans to spend more than $50 million during the 2012 campaign. At a breakfast with reporters last week, chamber officials said that, in reaction to the ruling, the organization would conduct its political spending through independent expenditures that explicitly support or oppose particular candidates.
Such is the perverse mess that is the current campaign finance law. Under the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United, corporations, such as the chamber, can make unlimited independent expenditures. The upshot is that advertising like the chamber’s can be even more brutal – because it won’t have to pretend to be merely “educating” voters – and just as opaque.
Meanwhile, the American Future Fund, the organization that ran ads against Braley, has brazenly asked the FEC to approve a different end-run. The group contends that if its ads merely mention “the administration” or “the White House,” they would not be attacking a “clearly identified candidate” and therefore not subject to disclosure requirements.
This would be laughable – if it were not such a scary illustration of the lengths to which these groups will go to avoid letting voters know who is trying to buy their elections, and the unfortunate likelihood that they will succeed.
Washington Post Writers Group