HOW CAMPAIGN DONOR SECRECY IS MAINTAINED AND WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT

Republicans in Congress, and particularly Senate leader Mitch McConnell, have made preventing increased disclosure of campaign donors a top priority. They have refused to act on the DISCLOSE Act that would require disclosure of donors to political spending by outside groups. They have added riders to must-pass bills prohibiting the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from issuing a rule requiring disclosure of corporate political spending. They have blocked the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from regulating the political activity of non-profits that do not have to disclose donors. They are also attempting to block a presidential executive order that would require federal contractors to disclose political spending. Furthermore, they have actually proposed weakening existing regulations on campaign spending, including allowing coordination between super PACs and candidates’ campaigns, as well as removing limits on how much political parties can spend in coordination with candidates’ campaigns. [1]

The Securities and Exchange Commission has failed to write rules for corporate disclosure of political activity, which it was required to do by the financial sector reforms after the 2008 crash. The head of the SEC has delayed work on these rules despite investors’ interest in having corporate political spending disclosed. The SEC’s failure to write these disclosure rules led Senator Elizabeth Warren to call on President Obama to fire Mary Jo White, the head of the SEC. [2]

The US Chamber of Commerce, a top source of dark money and a close ally of Congressional Republicans, is a strong opponent of any disclosure of corporate political spending, even voluntary disclosure. Nonetheless, nearly half of the S&P 500 largest corporations have voluntary disclosure policies. They see transparency as an antidote to possible negative repercussions and as a buffer against pressure from various groups and individuals to contribute to political activity. [3] The Chamber of Commerce apparently believes that secrecy is necessary to allow it to continue to wield power and influence with our elected officials.

A final indication of the desire for secrecy by wealthy campaign donors, as well as the lengths they will go to to maintain secrecy, was the drop-off in activity, particularly TV ads, by dark money groups when the Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) more stringent reporting requirements went into effect. Sixty days before the election, spending on all TV ads that mention a candidate must be reported to the FEC. Prior to that cut-off date, only ads that explicitly call for voting for or against a candidate have to be reported.

The non-profit called One Nation is the most dramatic example of avoidance of this expanded reporting. It is run by a former top aide to Republican Senate leader McConnell and through August it had spent over $23 million running TV ads in competitive Senate races – spending more than any other entity active in Senate races. However, since the Sept. 9th cut-off date for stricter FEC reporting, it has spent only $2 million despite the increasing competitiveness of the Senate races and shrinking time until Election Day. [4]

Overall, the drop-off in activity by dark money groups is reflected in their having paid for 42.5% of the TV ads by outside groups in competitive Senate races through 9/15, but only 11% of ads since then. In the tight Pennsylvania Senate race, dark money sponsorship of ads has dropped from 33% to 9%. In Ohio and Illinois, rates have dropped from 28% and 36%, respectively, to zero.

Reducing activity when it would have to be reported to the FEC helps preserve the secrecy of the groups’ activities. It also helps these non-profit groups claim to the IRS that political activity is not their primary activity, because activity reported to the FEC is clearly political. Some of these group are shifting their activity to on-line ads because these ads are exempt from FEC reporting due to a regulatory loophole.

Anonymous campaign spending is anathema to democracy. All campaign donors should be disclosed so voters can make informed decisions with full knowledge of who is trying to influence their votes and curry favor with candidates. Apparently, our elected officials who are blocking disclosure of donors believe that secrecy allows them to continue to reap the financial support that leads to their election or re-election and the power that comes with it. Given the secrecy, it is impossible for voters and even law enforcement to know what favors elected officials are doing for donors and whether outright corruption is occurring. However, you can be certain that the donors make sure the politicians know of their financial support.

I encourage you to contact your US Representative and Senators to urge them to pass the DISCLOSE Act and ensure full disclosure of all campaign donors.

[1]       Miller, J., 12/11/15, “GOP budget rider takes aim at campaign-finance rules,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/blog/checks/gop-budget-rider-takes-aim-campaign-finance-rules)

[2]       Prupis, N., 10/14/16, “Sen. Warren urges Obama to fire ‘unapologetic’ SEC chief for ‘brazen conduct,’” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/10/14/sen-warren-urges-obama-fire-unapologetic-sec-chief-brazen-conduct)

[3]       Miller, J., 10/28/16, “More corporations embrace disclosure, despite conservative opposition,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/blog/checks/more-corporations-embrace-disclosure-despite-conservative-opposition)

[4]       Balcerzak, A., 10/19/16, “Dark money ads plunged when reporting requirement kicked in,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets blog (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2016/10/dark-money-ads-plunged-when-reporting-requirement-kicked-in/)

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