Even as the massive hidden influence of corporate campaign financing continues to tarnish our democracy, House Republicans just approved a bill to make big money political donations less accountable. Yes, you read that right. With the nefarious effects of corporate political donations becoming increasingly clear and with the overwhelming majority of the nation’s voters expressing support for progressive campaign finance reform, the Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee voted to give wealthy donors even more freedom to buy off politicians at will.
The legislation in question would ban the IRS from collecting information about donors to super PACs and other political non-profit groups, eliminating some of the last vestiges of transparency in the post-Citizens United campaign finance system. Previously, political non-profits had been required to privately report to the IRS the sources of their donations when they filed their annual taxes, and while the sources of the money were not released to the public, an aggregate total of donations received was. Since 2012 these political non-profit groups have pumped an astounding $1.8 billion into US federal elections, and with all restrictions eliminated, we can only expect that amount to rise.
Following yesterday’s vote, however, both of these provisions could be eliminated and the influence of political dark money will be completely unchecked even by the government itself. In effect, no one will have any idea of either who is funding these organizations or how much money they are receiving. The consequences could be catastrophic for our democracy, as the bill opens the door to everything from super PACs directly owned by corporations to foreign individuals and governments funneling money into US elections.
As campaign finance becomes an increasingly divisive issue in American politics, many have cynically attempted to paint it as a non-partisan issue. Yesterday’s vote is a stark rebuttal of that sophistic argument and a blunt reminder of that partisan divide between the champions of the people and the champions of money and corporations. The vote in the Ways and Means Committee was split entirely on party lines, 23-15, with all Republicans in favor of the bill and all Democrats opposed. The sadly predictable explanation lies in the fact that most of these Republicans continue to benefit from our nation’s corrupt campaign finance system, and in their eyes, the less transparency the better.
Freedom Partners, the shadowy big-money donor network run by the Koch Brothers that promotes extremist right-wing causes by buying off Republican politicians, engaged in a major lobbying campaign on behalf of the new secrecy bill. One can’t help but wonder if part of the reason it paid off is that many of the Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee, including the bill’s sponsor Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, have received tens of thousands of dollars from Koch Industries and related dark money groups.
Yesterday’s vote codifies a precedent set last week when a California federal court ruled to prevent the state’s attorney general from accessing the donor rolls of Americans for Prosperity, another Koch-aligned Super PAC, for an internal review. The reasoning was that such an audit would somehow violate the first amendment right to free speech, furthering the dangerous fallacy that money – and now apparently secret money – is protected speech.
Indeed, Mark Holden, the chairman of Freedom Partners and a lead lobbyist for Koch Industries demonstrated this in a disgusting bit of delusional demagogic pandering. He said in a statement that the new bill represents “an important first step toward reaffirming Americans’ right to free speech.” One has to wonder whether these conservatives truly believe that free speech means the right to buy elections or whether they are simply duping an American populace for whom Republican propaganda has been conflated with reality to the degree that merely alluding to such fetishized nationalistic treasures as “free speech” is enough to win their support. In any case, America’s politicians – and particularly Republicans – are more than happy to let the people wallow in ignorance as the political system becomes more and more infected with unaccountable millions and money truly does become equated with speech to the point that the masses are voiceless.
The overwhelming Republican support for this bill that is clearly so harmful to American democracy, and their ability to worsen campaign finance transparency at a time when millions of Americans are clamoring for it to be improved, demonstrates the Sisyphean futility of trying to change such a corrupt system from within. How can Republican congresspeople be expected to make the moral choice in favor of democracy and equality over money and power when they stand to benefit from that same corrupt money and power?
While our Republican politicians are more than willing to exploit this contradiction, the vast majority of the American people understand it and are calling for change. That’s why almost 90% of American’s believe that our campaign finance system needs either “fundamental changes” or to be “totally rebuilt.” As yesterday’s shameful vote shows, the best place to start is by voting Democratic in November, not only for the Presidency but for Congress as well.
James DeVinne is a student at American University in Washington, DC majoring in International Service with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a founding member of Occupy Baltimore and interns at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.