Political reporter Matea Gold of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune has some scary insights into the world of campaign finance. She was interviewed for Bill Moyers’ website during last week’s Lessons of Watergate conference, organized by Common Cause. You can read the full interview here.
Gold talks about the role in the 2012 elections of so-called dark money from outside groups. The best estimate on the amount spent last year is $6.3 billion by the Center for Responsive Politics, and that’s probably conservative. A lot of the blame falls to President Obama, who opted out of the public finance system in the 2008 election so he could raise and spend unlimited amounts of money even though earlier he had promised campaign finance reforms. Obama has continued to push the envelope by creating Organizing for Action, essentially an outside arm of the White House that advocates for his policies outside the campaign finance system.
Other factors are also at work, including court rulings that allow corporations to spend unlimited money independently and opened the door to super PACs. While both decisions reduce transparency in our political system, the biggest offenders in terms of a lack of accountability are 501(c)(4) groups, so-called nonprofit social welfare organizations that don’t report their donors or how they spend their money. Organizing for Action falls under this category.
Gold doesn’t give Republicans a pass. She notes that for years after Watergate many Republicans favored reforms that increased reporting as an alternative to setting caps on donations. They aren’t pushing that issue as much now because conservative groups also want to be able to raise and spend money without public disclosure.
Gold worries that Watergate has faded from the public consciousness and Americans today are so cynical that they assume all politicians are influenced by donations and that there is no way to make the system better. U.S. Sen. John McCain has predicted that it will take another scandal to usher in new reforms, but others say the scandal is already here and no one notices or cares.
Meanwhile dozens of new super PACs have been created since Election Day 2012 that appear to be part of a “political industrial complex” with little real motivation other than to raise money by playing to donors’ ideological hopes and fears. A few states are trying to impose regulations where the federal government, but that’s certainly not happening in Virginia.
What do you think? What’s the best avenue to reform? Or do you favor the new big money climate?