Maine's Independent senator Angus King is taking on dark money.
The system of rules that govern the flow of money in US politics is crumbling, “dark money” is gushing in through the cracks, and Maine’s Independent senator Angus King is among those pushing for reform.
Last week, he chaired the Senate Rules Committee hearing, “Dollars and Sense: How Undisclosed Money and Post-McCutcheon Campaign Finance Will Affect the 2014 Election and Beyond,” at which former US Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens, who served on the court from 1975-2010 and authored the dissenting opinion in Citizens United, testified — a rare, if not unheard of, move for a retired justice.
“What has occurred in the past five years represents revolutionary, not evolutionary, change in the way the financing of political campaigns has been regulated in this country...changes that threaten to undermine a fundamental principle of American democracy: one person, one vote,” King said in his opening statement at the hearing.
In his statement and in an interview with the Phoenix, King highlighted a recent report by the Weslyan Media Project and the Center for Responsive Politics that analyzed political ad airings from January 1, 2013 to April 24, 2014. In addition to showing that interest group spending on US Senate and House races is on the rise, the report shows that “dark money” — spending by groups that are not required to disclose their donors — comprises a majority of the interest group ads on the air.
“I have a sense of urgency about this,” King says. “It’s getting to the point where what the candidates raise and spend is almost irrelevant.” (Of the $11 million spent in the 2012 US Senate race that King won, $7.4 million — more than two-thirds — was spent by outside groups, many of which do not disclose their donors. King raised $2.9 million to Charlie Summers’ $1.2 million and Cynthia Dill’s $184,000.)
THERE'S A BIG PROBLEM
King talks about the “three pillars” of the campaign finance regulatory system: sources of money, limits on giving, and disclosure. All three pillars, he fears, are crumbling.
While it’s still illegal for corporations and unions to give money directly to candidates for federal office, the 2010 Citizens United decision threw out the ban on companies, unions, and associations spending money on political ads and paved the way for the creation of so-called “super-PACs,” which accept unlimited donations and use that money to influence elections. By ruling this way, the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) limited our ability to regulate the sources of money — who can give.
And while there remain — for now — limits on how much a person can give to an individual campaign or candidate, last month’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision abolished “aggregate limits” on how much someone can give to several different campaigns or committees. It was a major blow to the second pillar, limits on giving.
In both cases, the court suggested that transparency — disclosure of who is giving what — minimize the potential for corruption.