Yesterday, I spent the morning thinking about campaign finance at an open door meeting of experts.
Note: I am not an expert, and rolling into this meeting was one of the more nerve-wracking experiences of my recent life. I slid in the door and prayed no one asked me any questions about what I do for a living for I was feeling slightly inadequate in this room of professionals. (I do love how my husband pointed out to me over lunch at Pershing Park that I do have a noble profession. Most days, I feel like teacher-approval ratings are marginally higher than those of Congress)
It was GOOD to be out of the classroom, to think about this topic among experts... including Ellen Miller, the founder of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics (@EllnMllr on Twitter)... Senator Jon Tester of Montana (@jontester on Twitter)... Tom Hamburger, investigative reporter on money and politics from WaPo (@thamburger on Twitter)... Robert Maguire, a political nonprofit investigator from the Center for Responsive Politics (@RobertMaguire_ on Twitter)... and Emily Peterson-Cassin, project coordinator for the Bright Lines Project... and many, many others.
What was my take away?
1. There are attempts in Congress and the government to circumvent intentional covert influence.
It's not just the failed attempt to pass S.J. Res 19 (Democracy for All Amendment). There are folks who recognize that things are shady in D.C. Specifically, listening to Jon Tester discuss his efforts to push the Senate Campaign Parity Act, which works to modernize campaign disclosure in the Senate... because presently there is a lag in disclosure of campaign finance information until after the election has passed. I also really appreciated the fact that Jon Tester discloses his daily schedule to the public... giving his constituents the ability to see who he is meeting with so that they might hold him accountable. But, Tester comes from a state burned by political graft (see William A. Clark) and his constituents demand more transparency. (His words, not mine.)
The IRS, too, is working to revamp their regulation of the nefarious 501(c)s. Last year's political witch hunt over the legality of investigative actions taken by the IRS on Crossroads GPS brought scandal and political intrigue to a notoriously timid agency that has an ambiguous role in guarding against illegal influence. How does a federal agency protect the concept of democracy and equality while respecting speech with limited concrete guidelines from legislation or even rule making? They don't.
And so, the IRS is working to rewrite these guidelines. Specifically, the IRS wants to concretely define what political activity is... because only 49% of a 501(c)'s money can be spent on political activity, but the current definitions allow behavior funded by hundreds of millions of dollars to slip past without recourse... and the IRS can't step in and do their job without being accused of acting in a partisan manner for political benefit. This is what the Bright Lines Project was created to do... help create a non-partisan conduit for public awareness and civic involvement, as well as expertise on the drafting of regulations that would clearly delineate between appropriate behavior and inappropriate behavior.
2. In order to fight covert political influence, candidates have to fight dirty.
Senator Tester shared the real world impact of money in campaigns. In his campaign for relection in 2012, he was campaigning before approximately 1 million Montanans who on average make about $45K a year, yet the race cost him $13M. Including spending by his opponent, the race was north of $50M. (Again, his words... this is a lot of money for a farmer-senator to spend on a race representing so relatively few.) He had to use dark money himself, because "you can't get the policy result you want without it."
But hold the phone... these expensive campaigns with money (dark and otherwise) rolling in from out of state is not a nationwide phenomenon. It doesn't have to be. Neil Oxman, a campaign ad expert, sites additional complicating factors that infringe on how democratic a nation we are. If you consider that redistricting and gerrymandering is so rampant across the US, you can easily explain the high levels of expenditures in a handful of races like this because only a few districts are not gerrymandered, and therefore are to close to call. That is reflected in the Almanac on American Politics, a one stop guide to electoral politics in America.
3. Political influence is not just in elections.
While electoral politics has a high profile, it may be the devil you know. True, 501(c)s are flooding elections with outside money into regional politics... it distorts messages and misleads voters. But, it is all about getting one guy/gal elected. What happens after that is outside the scope of these groups. (Although, these groups... 501(c)s, 527s, SuperPACs... have a better chance getting their legislation passed with the right guy/gal in office AND one could argue there is a silver lining... there are agencies who are there to regulate campaign finance. The effectiveness of these agencies are determined by appropriations and the ability to write rules clearly. Yet, it is a start, and because they are executive agencies, these agencies can do real work where Congress will not... as evidenced by the IRS rewriting rules in the face of Congress, the very government body the IRS regulates.)
If you really want to be scared, consider the ever growing expenditures of time and money in lobbying. There are nearly no mechanisms to give us a real-time understanding of how influence is being touted in Congress. Most members don't disclose a daily schedule of meetings to their constituents. Laws like the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 2007 is rife with loopholes (like the 20% loophole) which allows former Senator-now 'consultant' Tom Daschle to avoid disclosure despite the fact that he is one of the biggest peddlers of influence in DC. Oh, and what about former Senator Jim DeMint? You know, the president of the Heritage Foundation (think tank/policy institute) who the media credits with almost single-handedly manipulating the Tea Party into the government shutdown in 2013?
4. Unraveling the network of dark money is hard... and there is a ton of it out there.
Consider these super happy figures. When we talk a look at the impact of Citizens United and McCutcheon... where we allowed for speech to be money, and corporations to be people... We are trying to figure out how to 'chill' the speech of real people. This is a great criticism of campaign finance regulation... a viable one... and one that is a very prominent concern of folks on the side of regulation. They are vexed by the idea of what definitions, even the best of definitions, can do to legitimate and necessary civil engagement and lobbying... (My favorite quote of the day explaining one's vision of the paradox: Your right to influence the government ends at my right to good policy. Find that in the Bill of Rights.)
So, how many people would any new law or amendment impact? Like the Democracy for All Amendment?
According to Open Secrets...
Wow. That needs to settle.
In the wake of these heady figures, turn to the flow of money from organization to organization, and you see what looks like a spider web. It is nearly impossible to track the flow of money. Tom Hamburger of the WaPo says it used to be done with flow charts in the 60s and 70s... but in our era... those tools are woefully inadequate.
Robert Maguire says this is a start, but seeing that so many 501(c)s are totally unsourceable... nothing more than post office boxes in UPS stores around the country... with little to no accountability for what can be blatantly false and misleading information to peddle to a mildly interested public... what are we to do?
Scared yet? You should be. Experts (sorry, unsourced in the meeting) say to watch out... because if we are worried about the abuse of the tax code to get voters to jump off cliffs at election time... and IF we fix the tax code... what is to keep those who want to peddle influence from skipping the 501(c) in favor of the L.L.C. (ahem. Corporation.)
And many experts believe that this is already happening.
So, damn, It sucks to be an American.
Watching these experts come up with solutions other than stop-gap measures like becoming experts on tax code etc is so valiant, and noble. But they don't know what to do beyond that.
It's a language issue. It's a low political efficacy issue. It's an access to the average American issue.
They scratched their heads and said well nigh of nothing when it came to recruiting more concerned citizens. I don't blame them. They are providing information, dedicating their life to this concept.
I guess the good news is we, as educators, have job security here folks.
This sounds like a job for a very embattled yet noble profession of people who are good at translating data into concepts... and exposing entire segments of the population (and their parents and friends) to the lack of GOOD GOVERNMENT in the hopes that we can GET GOOD GOVERNMENT.
So, here are some awesome tools to use, beyond the knowledge I just shared with you.
Feel free to check out groups like the Bright Lines Project, Public Citizen, and the Bipartisan Policy Center for more information. And there are sooo many more out there!
Here are some awesome resources I have used in the past to initiate kids into the world of campaign finance.
Photo via Flickr/Ted Eytan