It has now been revealed that the combined fortune of Charles and David Koch exceeds an extraordinary $100 billion (Bill Gates has a mere $79 billion), some portion of which they’re putting into a new wave of campaign ads against incumbent Democratic senators.
You know who the Koch brothers are, of course, because Democrats have aggressively highlighted their role as the single biggest money players in American politics today. But there are lots of other donors and megadonors on both sides who wield extraordinary levels of influence — and whom no one has ever heard of.
And here’s a prediction: Republicans are about to embark on a sustained campaign to keep it that way. The next battleground in the unending war over the integrity of our political system is campaign finance disclosure.
Here’s a sign of what’s to come. Charles Krauthammer, the most influential conservative pundit in America, has published a broadside against campaign disclosure, in which he says he used to favor the combination of no limits on contributions and full information on who’s donating. “This used to be my position,” Krauthammer says. “No longer. I had not foreseen how donor lists would be used not to ferret out corruption but to pursue and persecute citizens with contrary views. Which corrupts the very idea of full disclosure.”
Krauthammer then details the case of Brendan Eich, who was pushed from his new job as the CEO of Mozilla, which makes the Firefox web browser, after it was revealed that he donated money to the Proposition 8 campaign in California that temporarily banned same-sex marriage there. There are both liberals and conservatives with differing opinions on the Eich case, and both sides have merit (after some consideration, I decided that a CEO is qualitatively different from all other employees, and it’s reasonable for a company to say that the individual embodying the company should embody its values as well). But whatever you think about Eich, he’s not exactly a pathetic victim whose case cries out for justice.
Krauthammer then cites the 1958 case in which the Court decided that the NAACP did not have to reveal its donor lists to the state of Alabama, because donors could be subject to harassment. “A different era, a different set of dissidents. But the naming of names, the listing of lists, goes on. The enforcers are at it again, this time armed with sortable Internet donor lists.” Well, no. In the NAACP case, donors weren’t worried that they might get bad publicity and not get to be the CEO of tech company. Their concern was that they might be murdered.
But we are now in an era where captains of finance routinely compare any criticism they get to the Holocaust. If a billionaire pours money into a campaign and then has to suffer the horror of being publicly criticized, well that must be reason enough to change the law, so his tender feelings might be spared.
There will be plenty of time to get further into the substantive debate over disclosure. My point is that Krauthammer’s column today will stand as a marker, a clarion call to conservatives that the new correct position is to be in favor of campaign finance secrecy (a place where many have already arrived). What we’re going to see in the coming months and years is a steady stream of advocacy against disclosure, in the statements of politicians, on the pages of newspapers and over the airwaves in conservative media, and eventually, in the form of a lawsuit from an aggrieved donor who will say he has been subject to retribution over his political contributions. Once you see a case being handled by James Bopp, the right’s most aggressive and successful campaign finance lawyer, you can bet it’s been carefully chosen to make it all the way up to the Supreme Court.
The Court’s eventual reaction to all this is hard to predict. On one hand, disclosure came up repeatedly in the recent decision in McCutcheon v. F.E.C., which eliminated the aggregate limit on campaign donations to candidates. Many (including me) read Chief Justice Roberts’ decision as a prelude to a future decision eliminating the $5,200 limit on contributions, with disclosure as the rationale. As long as we know who’s giving to whom, the Court might argue one day, we won’t have to worry about the corrupting influence of money because we’ll know which politicians are indebted to which billionaires and we can monitor their activities. And therefore, disclosure eliminates the need for any limit on campaign contributions.
On the other hand, once there’s an active Republican campaign in motion against disclosure, the five conservatives on the Court may begin to consider disclosure the greater evil. Or they could simply forget what they’ve argued up until now, and eliminate both contribution limits and the disclosure that might tell us where the money’s flowing from. Campaign finance would be run on the honor system, where nobody knows where the money’s going, and ordinary Americans are left to rely on the virtue and restraint of the wealthy and the politicians whose gratitude they purchase not to subvert the public good. If and when it happens, folks like Krauthammer will declare it a triumph of liberty.