The biggest known political advocacy gift in American history was revealed this week by the Lever, ProPublica, and the New York Times. We revealed a reclusive billionaire’s secret transfer of $1.6 billion to a political group controlled by Republican operative Leonard Leo, who spearheaded the establishment of a conservative Supreme Court supermajority to end abortion, block government regulations, stymie climate change efforts, and limit voting rights.
This anonymous gift, which went to a tax-exempt trust that was never revealed in any public record or database, was most likely perfectly lawful.
Whether you favour or oppose Leo’s fight, we should be able to agree on one broader non-partisan principle: such vast quantities of money should not be able to secretly influence elections, legislators, court appointments, and public policy. And we shouldn’t have to rely on a rare leak to discover fundamental campaign funding information that everyone should have access to.
Unfortunately, because of our antiquated rules, such realities are now disguised behind anonymity, shell corporations, and shady political organisations. America’s political disclosure rules are long overdue for revision, and journalistic organisations, in particular, should lead the effort.
Leaks and shoe-leather research by news organisations unearthed the Watergate crisis in the early 1970s, laying the groundwork for the contemporary era’s fundamental dark money exposé. That disaster resulted in the first federal transparency legislation and a golden age of journalism. For a while, the new laws made campaign finance reporting regular, methodical, and based on mandatory disclosures, rather than haphazard, random, and relying on the goodwill of brave whistleblowers.
However, a half-century later, the secret money methods of 50 years ago have been acceptable once more. More than $1 billion in dark money rushed into America’s elections in 2020 alone, funding Super Pacs, ad blitzes, mailings, and door-knocking operations. As millions of votes were affected, media and the general public had no idea where the money was coming from or what policies were being purchased.
The situation is worse as we approach the 2022 election. The main Senate and House Super Pacs of both parties are all sponsored by anonymous dark money groups that are not obligated to identify their contributors.
These issues aren’t limited to the campaign trail. Front groups are also influencing public policy, leaving journalists unable to inform voters who is sponsoring what. In recent years, an anonymously funded group successfully used post-election commercials to urge lawmakers to weaken landmark healthcare legislation aimed to minimise so-called “surprise” medical expenses.
Similarly, after directing a campaign supporting Republicans’ refusal to allow a vote on Barack Obama’s 2016 high court candidate, Merrick Garland, Leo’s anonymously financed network spent tens of millions of dollars to help the nomination campaigns of three conservative supreme court judges.
To be sure, the diminishing component of the political finance system that still reveals some money flows to politicians, lobbyists, and advocacy groups may still be covered by news sources. And, happily, there are rare leaks, like as the Leo leak, that allow a momentary peek into the true reasons behind broad policy decisions.
However, for every rare leak, there are dozens of covert donors regularly funnelling increasingly more dark money into elections and legislative campaigns without ever being caught – and reaping the benefits of compromised public policy.
The bad news is that The good news is that a legislative framework for reform already exists.
The Disclose Act, introduced by Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, would require dark money groups to reveal any donors who donate more than $10,000, shell businesses spending money on campaigns to reveal their owners, and political commercials to show their sponsors’ main funders. These rules would apply not just to election-related activities, but also to efforts to influence government decisions, such as judicial nominations.
A related Whitehouse measure would also mandate contributor disclosure from shadowy entities petitioning the Supreme Court through amicus filings meant to sway judicial opinions without revealing which billionaire or CEO is on the chopping block. Other proposed legislation would finally empower the Securities and Exchange Commission to force significant firms to report their political expenditures in more detail.
Journalists should be glad to campaign for legislation that allow us to inform the public about what their government is doing. That is something our business has done previously in supporting open records laws, and it is something we must do again today in lobbying for new campaign money disclosure requirements.
In reality, this means reporters raising the transparency problem and pressing politicians for answers on where they stand on disclosure legislation, rather than ignoring or downplaying the swelling flow of dark money that is now impacting every public policy in America.