PACs and Dark Money

Griffin Baltz, UMBC:

The controversy over campaign finance has once again reared its head in the midst of the 2016 presidential primary. The National Rifle Association, in particular, has been targeted in the aftermath of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell claim that Obama’s Supreme Court nominee would be appointed only if they were approved by the NRA.

The news of this interruption of the nomination process has brought to light the significant influence organizations and political action committees now hold over the political process. The NRA’s involvement with the nomination is just one instance of a group forcing their way into impacting the actions or policy positions of a candidate or politician. The 2016 presidential primary race has exposed the inner workings of many groups associated with each candidate, making it apparent that outside organizations are beginning to gain a stronger foothold in Washington. As it stands, the presence of PACs in politics is a threat to the democratic process.

At the beginning of the race, eighteen candidates were supported by PACs that offered financial support. Jeb Bush, for example, was supported by two groups – a PAC named “Right to Rise USA,” and a nonprofit called “Right to Rise Policy Solutions.” Until Bush dropped out of the race, the PAC had helped raise the $130 million that the candidate’s campaign had spent.

The PACs supporting candidates today are legally allowed to function due to the ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC court case, which determined that government regulation of political spending by corporations was unconstitutional. Defenders of the decision argue that outside spending acts as free speech for citizen groups and that elections are not being swayed by the new regulatory policies. Though the decision was controversial, it remained upheld, and the 2012 presidential campaign saw a massive upswing in independent political spending. The 2016 primary race has been no different, with several candidates receiving massive amounts from their associated PACs.

PACs are required to disclose their donors. However, they are legally able to accept donations from “dark money” organizations, groups that are not obligated to release the names of their donors. These groups primarily consist of nonprofits, chiefly social welfare organizations and business leagues, which can receive unlimited funding without the need to disclose their sources. Dark money funding has become a massive force in politics, with nearly $200 million in undisclosed funds spent during the 2014 mid-term elections. Prominent outlets including the New York Times editorial board have accused PACs and dark money of significantly swaying the outcome of the 2014 midterms, specifically targeting Mitch McConnell for advocating for outside campaign spending under the guise of free speech.

In addition to the secret money being funneled into these PACs from unknown sources, the known donors to the organizations also raise questions of legitimacy. While the Citizens United v. FEC ruling requires the PACs to be operating “independently” of a campaign, it is obvious that this has not been the case in the 2016 race. The Trusted Leadership PAC, one of the many organizations supporting Ted Cruz’s campaign, is directed by Cruz’s former chief of staff and current senior political advisor. The super PAC backing Hillary Clinton, Priorities USA Action, has its chief strategist position held by the political director of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Claiming that these groups are truly operating independently and free of political bias is an insult to the American people. It is obvious from looking at the leadership of many PACs that their directors are allied with the campaign they donate to. Continuing to allow these groups to raise unlimited funds is a dangerous game, and the 2016 primary race displays the true extent big money can impact politics.

While large PACs and dark money organizations fund both Democrat and Republican campaigns, the most money comes from conservative groups. In the 2012 election, more than $308 million in dark money was spent, with conservative groups spending 86% of that amount. Karl Rove’s conservative organization led with $71 million spent. In comparison, the highest-spending liberal group spent $11 million. This trend has continued in the 2016 election, but with even higher expenditures.  By November 2015, nearly $5 million in dark money had already been spent, primarily by conservative groups.

The consequence of this outside money is clear. The money donated to Mitch McConnell’s campaign by the NRA allows the organization to have a say in decisions in which such groups should play no part, primarily the appointment of a presidentially-nominated Supreme Court nominee. The Koch Brothers, infamous for their massive contributions to conservative campaigns, have assisted the campaigns of individuals such as Scott Walker and several 2012 presidential candidates including Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain.

Corporate money certainly still plays a large role in politics, but there has also been a massive backlash from some of the candidates against contributions from PACs and other groups. Donald Trump, despite his conservative views and deeply entrenched background in business, is an outspoken critic against such donations and shut down his associated super PAC, Make America Great Again, in October 2015. Even Clinton, whose allied groups have raised her campaign nearly $60 million, has stated that she is committed to aggressive campaign finance reform. Bernie Sanders has prided his campaign on only taking individual contributions, but his campaign has raised only $96 million versus Clinton’s $188 million. Sanders’ notion of rejecting “big money” may resonate with his voter base, but it is clear that he is falling well behind in the financial race.

Despite so many candidates raising money via their PACs, many of those candidates have not been able to keep their campaigns afloat even with the assistance of virtually endless corporate money. Jeb Bush spent $130 million during his campaign but only managed to net four delegates. Likewise, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson spent $84.6 million and $68 million, respectively, but failed to gain enough steam with their campaigns to remain frontrunners.

Perhaps there is not complete consistency in terms of money spent versus campaign success in this year’s primary race, but the point still stands that the presence of PACs, corporate money, and “dark money” is still an issue that needs to be eliminated from politics. The incredible amount of cash pouring into the campaigns should be an alarm for the American people that their votes and voices are being overpowered by individuals and groups who can afford to send their preferred candidates tens of millions of dollars at a time. Ensuring that the Citizens United decision is overturned is crucial for campaign finance reform.

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