There are still only two important things in politics, as the 19th century’s own Karl Rove, a Republican fundraiser named Mark Hanna, once said: “The first is money, and I can’t remember the second.” For Americans who want to make sure that their government isn’t for sale to the highest bidder, that first item should be transparency.
Through its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, the Supreme Court made it easier than ever for politicians and their surrogates to raise huge donations from special interests. There were 31 donors who gave $1 million or more to Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC that supported President Barack Obama’s campaign. Majority PAC, which backed Senate Democratic campaigns, had a total of five donors in the million-plus range. The Congressional Leadership Fund, which had ties to House Speaker John Boehner, had four donors who gave $1 million or more, including Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who pumped more than $92 million into super-PACs.
Most of those donors have issues before the administration and Congress. Adelson, for example, scheduled a meeting with a top House Republican just after the election to discuss his legislative agenda. Giving millions to super-PACs gets you noticed by politicians. So, apparently, does giving anonymously. Organizing for Action, formed by high-ranking campaign officials who ran Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, guarantees individuals who raise or donate $500,000 or more a special perk: quarterly meetings with the president of the United States. Organizing for Action is a nonprofit that does not have to disclose its donors to the public. Apparently, though, Obama will know who they are.
Of course, it’s not just the big, anonymous donors who influence the political process. The 2014 elections are 22 months away, but members of Congress are already hosting fundraisers. Under Federal Election Commission rules, they won’t have to report who’s giving them money—at a time when Congress is setting a legislative agenda that this year includes the budget, gun control, immigration reform and a host of other issues competing for attention—until April.
It’s the job of voters to hold elected officials who do the bidding of special interests, rather than the public interest, accountable, by contacting them (remember, Congress and the president work for us), and if that fails, by throwing the bums out. But absent real-time disclosure of campaign contributions, it is hard for voters to know who else is bending the ear of their members of Congress, with their checkbooks, on any given issue. And absent disclosure of the big donors to groups like Organizing for America, or the biggest dark money group, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, it’s impossible for voters to know whether a well-heeled donor wrote a six- or seven-figure check to make sure his or her policy concerns were addressed.
As important as deep-pocketed donors—and the money they give—are to politicians, knowing who they are, how much they’ve given and to whom is critical information for citizens. Enhanced campaign finance disclosure is a must for the health of our republic.
Bill Allison is the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation. Sunshine Week is March 10-16.