The Washington Post

Here’s 185 million reasons campaign finance reform hasn’t worked

A new study by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity reveals that corporations funneled more than $185 million to nonprofit and social welfare groups actively engaged in politics in just one year's time, a stunning testament to the virtual impossibility of keeping big money out of politics.

Writes Michael Beckel (a regular "Politics and Pints" attendee) of the findings:

Ranking among the biggest donors are energy giant Exelon Corp., health insurer WellPoint Inc. and technology titan Microsoft Corp.

The millions of dollars in corporate expenditures highlighted by the Center for Public Integrity’s research flowed to more than 1,000 politically active nonprofits, from major trade associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to pro-business alliances such as the Fix the Debt Coalition.

Here's the key to Beckel's eye-opening report: Corporations are spending hundreds of millions of dollars via groups that are not required to disclose either their sources of funding or how they spend that money. (The groups are 501c4's and 501c6's in tax lingo.)  The anonymity offered by these sorts of groups is craved by corporations who want to make sure their legislative priorities are represented (and fought for) in Washington and in state capitals across the country but who would prefer not to run the risk of damaging their brands in the eyes of consumers by "playing politics."

And so, while things like super PACs draw the vast majority of the attention of the media — and the ire of campaign finance reformers — the reality is that these nonprofits are the recipient of their own massive streams of donations that, unlike super PACs, never have to be disclosed either coming in or going out.

The lesson here is as old as politics itself: Money will find its way into the political process. The idea that "big money" can be regulated out of the process is a fallacy; if you need evidence, just look at the decade since McCain-Feingold passed. Elections — up and down the ballot — have gotten more expensive, not less so. And tracking that money has become more difficult as the number of nonprofits dabbling in political activity has surged. Beckel's report quantifies the amount of money flowing largely unseen through the political machine. (There is a terrific searchable interactive that allows you to see which corporations have donated to which nonprofits and in what amounts. Use it.)

As we wrote in "The Gospel According to the Fix" (still available on Amazon!), the best possible way to allow average voters to understand who is influencing legislation, politicians and campaigns is not to make more restrictions on who can give what where but rather to force rapid — and easily searchable — disclosure of contributions and expenditures. Trying to block/limit money in the political process won't work. But making that money as transparent as possible as quickly as possible might.

Read Beckel's study. It's an important one.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.



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Sean Sullivan · January 17, 2014

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