During the 2012 election cycle, total spending by super PACs and other outside groups exceeded $1 billion , a staggering number that would have been unimaginable four years earlier. In 2016, the Koch brothers’ sprawling political network is expected to approach the $1 billion threshold all by itself.
This proliferation of outside money was tragically predictable in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. What many did not predict, however, was the explosion of so-called “dark money”— spending by nonprofit groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that are not required to disclose their donors. In total, dark-money groups spent more than $300 million in 2012, nearly as much as all outside spending in 2008. And as the next campaign cycle gets underway, it seems likely that dark money will play a more significant role than ever.
Indeed, well over a year before the 2016 elections, the U.S. Chamber has already launched television ads in two high-stakes Senate races, one praising Sen. Pat Toomey (R) in Pennsylvania and one attacking former Ohio governor Ted Strickland (D). The early ads reflect the organization’s well-established partisan bent; in last year’s midterms, the U.S. Chamber unloaded some $70 million in House and Senate races, almost entirely in support of Republican candidates.
And yet, because the U.S. Chamber is technically a nonprofit business association, it can devote unlimited resources to political spending without disclosing its donors. Many politically active nonprofits, including Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, can also keep their donors anonymous despite spending millions of dollars in U.S. elections. The same is true of groups that support Democrats, such as Patriot Majority USA.
In the post-Citizens United landscape, the enormous influence of money in politics often feels inescapable. And while the astounding rise of dark money is a clear perversion of IRS rules dictating that nonprofits must remain nonpartisan, those rules are far too weak and, it now appears, unenforceable. As one former IRS official recently said, “It’s anything goes for the next couple of years. The whole system has really collapsed.”
There is virtually no hope that Congress will fix the campaign finance system any time soon. In fact, House Republicans are actively working to protect dark-money groups, inserting a provision into a spending bill last month to protect them from new disclosure requirements. But there is a simple way that President Obama can address the issue of dark money and advance the cause of transparency. The president should sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their contributions to dark-money groups.
To be sure, such an order would not eliminate dark money. It would, however, expose de facto political contributions by powerful corporation that hold federal contracts, including JP Morgan Chase, Exxon Mobil, and Koch Industries. Moreover, with the 10 largest federal contractors receiving approximately $1.5 trillion from the government since 2000, an executive order would enable the American people to see where their tax dollars are really going.
Most important, it’s a feasible plan that Obama might actually pursue. In 2011, the White House drafted an order to require disclosure from federal contractors, but it abandoned the idea before the 2012 elections. At the time, the U.S. Chamber’s top lobbyist lashed out at the proposal, saying, “We will fight it through all available means.” Today, the idea has growing support from a broad coalition of progressive and good-government groups, more than 100 members of Congress — Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) among them — and Democratic leaders including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
For the country, requiring federal contractors to disclose their dark-money contributions would be an important step toward fixing our broken campaign finance system. For the president, however, it’s also an opportunity to bolster his legacy on an issue that has loomed over his presidency from the start.
Although he is a longtime supporter of campaign finance reform and vocal critic of Citizens United, even Obama would likely acknowledge the gap between his record and his rhetoric. By opting out of public financing in 2008 and becoming the first sitting president to give his blessing to a super PAC in 2012, Obama effectively helped usher in the era of big money in politics. And while many would argue that bad timing and unfortunate circumstances dictated Obama’s decisions, it’s not the circumstances that history will remember.
In the last year, Obama has forcefully rejected the notion that he’s a lame duck, picking battles and racking up accomplishments. But, if he wants to truly burnish his legacy, he should take on the scourge of money in politics before leaving office. With the next election well under way, the time has come for the president to live up to his rhetoric. In the battle against dark money, Obama can only lose by doing nothing.