The latest round of Federal Election Commission disclosures offered hard numbers to back up what everybody already knew: Billionaire and millionaire donors are underwriting a disproportionate share of the 2016 election. At the same time, the recently-released FEC reports served as a reminder of the other big trend defining this campaign: the spike in secret political spending that can’t be traced.
Presidential candidates and the super PACs supporting them pulled in $837 million, according to the latest tally from the Center for Public Integrity. Almost half of that money flowed to super PACs, which may collect unlimited contributions as long as they operate at arm’s length from candidates.
Such groups collected multi-million-dollar contributions from such financiers as Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, former chairman and CEO of American International Group, who gave $10 million to the Right to Rise super PAC supporting ex-Florida Governor Jeb Bush. All but one of the 11 top individual campaign donors in 2015 show up on the Forbes 400 Richest People in America list, and all are men.
Of course, none of the money spent by politically active tax-exempt groups—such as the Right to Rise Policy Solutions group backing Bush—showed up on FEC reports. And even the super PAC filings managed to obfuscate the source of many donations, ABC News reported. In theory, such PACs must report the source of their contributions to the FEC. But millions have flowed into super PACs from family trusts, real estate holdings and obscure limited liability corporations that in some case operate as mere shell organizations.
The Iowa caucuses kicked off the first official voting in the presidential election amid a swirl of paradoxes. Florida Senator Marco Rubio came in third among Republicans, but ended up looking like a winner. Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders among Democrats, but by such a razor-thin margin that the chatter was about why she didn’t do better. Prospect columnist Adele M. Stan went so far as to suggest that Clinton would have been better off had she lost.
Another paradox: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush spent $14.9 million in Iowa with the help of his supposedly independent super PAC, but won only one delegate and just 5,238 voters, or 2.8 percent.
To some, Bush’s poor showing amid massive spending was just more evidence that big money doesn’t do much to sway elections. But this argument, as I note this week, overlooks two key points: the influence that special interest money wields in policy making; and the growing role that super PACs and other big-spending groups play in other contests all the way down the ballot—from House and Senate races to gubernatorial, state legislative, mayoral, and even school board elections.
Whatever the role big money ultimately plays in election outcomes, there’s little question that voters are increasingly irate about it, and candidates on both sides of the aisle are milking that outrage. "There is profound anger at a campaign-finance system which allows billionaires to buy elections, nobody wants that," Sanders told CNN. After winning the GOP Iowa caucus, Texas Senator Ted Cruz also told CNN that Americans “want a leader they can trust, they want a leader that stands for them against the corruption of Washington.”
Cruz’s comments, along with Donald Trump’s frequent reminders that he is not bought and paid for by special interests, underscore that public angst over campaign financing extends to Republicans as well as Democrats. One of this week’s must-read political money commentaries was law professor Richard W. Painter’s New York Times op-ed making “The Conservative Case for Campaign-Finance Reform.”
The author of a new book titled Taxation Only With Representation published by the conservative reform group Take Back Our Republic, Painter makes a strong case that campaign-finance deregulation not only hurts the free market, but threatens national security. The combination of unfettered spending, secrecy and globalization make foreign influence on Americans all but inevitable, he warns.
“Equating corporate wealth with free political speech, as the Supreme Court did in its 2010 Citizens United decision, means that global economic power will help choose our government,” Painter writes. “Organizations that are not required to disclose the identities of their donors use their ‘free speech’ rights to produce election ads; only the most naïve can believe the money behind those organizations is all American.”
Painter isn’t the first one to suggest that secret political spending opens the U.S. to potentially nefarious foreign influences. But he puts his finger on a little-noticed danger that is bound to draw more scrutiny as an ever-higher percentage of election spending flows through undisclosed channels. It may only be a matter of time before foreign or even terrorist-linked money finds its way into one of the leading tax-exempt groups now spending heavily in American elections.