The Right Is Dominating the Dark-Money Game. Kavanaugh Will Make It Worse.
If he is confirmed, the last remaining campaign-finance limitations are almost certainly dead, and this country will soon become an outright oligarchy.
The other day, Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill—locked in a tight race against a Republican challenger who’s a leading plaintiff in a lawsuit that would deny health coverage to 2.5 million Missourians, is extremely anti-abortion, and is generally one of the harder-right Senate candidates running this cycle—said an interesting thing.
At an appearance at Missouri State University in Springfield, when asked about Brett Kavanaugh, McCaskill suggested that his posture on Roe v. Wade was maybe not her No. 1 concern. What was instead?
Campaign finance law. “So there are some voters that the only issue they care about is outlawing all abortions, and there are other voters that the only issue they care about is keeping access to abortion legal,” McCaskill told reporters. “What is more common is a large number of people concerned about dark money.”
Roe v. Wade is awfully important, make no mistake about that. But McCaskill’s point deserves a few minutes of your time. The reality of the dark money situation is terrifying and can best be put like this: If Kavanaugh is confirmed, the last remaining campaign finance limitations are almost certainly dead, and this country will soon become an outright oligarchy—a government by the few.
I’ll circle back to that. But let me first draw your attention to a new and important report on dark money that came out this week from the advocacy group Issue One (as in, fixing the money-in-politics problem is issue one). The report looks at dark money spending from 2010—that is, after the Citizens United decision—through the 2016 election. Dark money groups spent more than $800 million. About three-quarters of that was spent by just 15 groups.
USA Today wrote up the study emphasizing the above fact, and noting that the 15 included groups that “range from” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Planned Parenthood to the National Rifle Association to Americans for Prosperity.
Ah, objective journalism. I guess they threw Planned Parenthood in there for “balance.” To seem “fair.” See? Okay, Republicans may do it just a leeettle bit more, but both sides do it!
To my way of thinking, what’s fair is what’s true, so here is what’s actually true.
Of these 15 groups, 11 are on the right, including the top six. Just four are on the left. The 11 on the right reported spending a total of $563 million over those six years. The groups on the left, $74 million. That’s 88 percent to 12 percent. That’s not a little bit, and it only technically qualifies as “both sides do it.”
More: The top two groups, the Chamber and Crossroads GPS (the Karl Rove outfit), far outspent the others, at $130 million and $110 million, respectively. That’s more than all four Democratic groups! The third and fourth groups, the NRA and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, spent close to $60 million each. Those four—all right wing—spent more than half of the total, $357 million.
The biggest liberal spender was the League of Conservation Voters at $34 million. Planned Parenthood clocked in at $11 million.
This is reality. Since Citizens United, right-wing groups and individuals have gorged the system with untraceable money like farmers stuff ducks for foie gras. I chose that metaphor with care: If you know anything about how disgusting the foie gras process is, what it does to ducks’ and geese’s bodies, then you also have a sense of what this money is doing to our body politic.
Non-metaphorically, it is doing this. We have a political party that takes positions representing the economic interests of the very rich. Those positions are unpopular; they are minority positions across the board.
Yet, this party wins majorities. Why does a tax bill that’s a giveaway to the wealthy, which has about 25 percent public support, get 227 votes in the House and 51 in the Senate? A few reasons, having to do with gerrymandering, the canny way the Republicans play cultural politics, and the Democrats’ failure to compete in too many districts.
But another big reason is all. this. money. This 88-12 imbalance. Rich right-wingers pour money into independent committees that help elect right-wing members of Congress, who vote for everything that the rich right-wingers want but that majorities of regular people oppose (they also do the opposite, by the way; they block things that majorities want, like more spending on health care and the environment and infrastructure, because the rich right-wing minority opposes them).
That’s already pretty oligarchical. But if Kavanaugh makes it to the Supreme Court, it’s going to get a lot worse. Here’s how.
Right now, there are basically no limits on spending. Spending is speech, remember? There are, however, still limits on contributions—basically, $2,700 per election. This limit has been in place since the early 1970s, and the Supreme Court upheld it in 1976’s Buckley v. Valeo.
Well, conservatives have had their sights set on these limits for a long time. According to Paul Seamus Ryan from Common Cause, two contributions-limits cases currently have certiorari petitions before the Supreme Court, one from Montana and the other from Texas (you can read up on the Montana case here, and the Texas case here). “Both jurisdictions’ limits were upheld by the circuit courts—and the plaintiffs/petitioners in both cases are asking the Supreme Court to hear their cases and declare the challenged contribution limits unconstitutional,” Ryan told me Wednesday.
It seems to me a virtual lock that Kavanaugh would be part of a five-vote majority that would vote to end all contribution limits. Imagine then what kind of system we would have.
An average House race costs around $1.5 million. The Kochs and the Mercers and Sheldon Adelson and 15 or 20 other people like them could very easily get together, pool their money, and elect 50, 70, maybe 100 of the finest minds of the 16th century to Congress. Once they’ve been in for two or three terms, the cost of reelecting them will go down, in most cases. In a decade or so—think about that; in a decade or so—it’s entirely possible that a majority of the House of Representatives will consist of these people, who will owe their existence to this handful of rich right-wingers who put them there.
This is not hysteria. This is the plan. It’s long been the plan. They’ve just had to wait. By some accounts I’ve read or been told about, they couldn’t really be sure that Anthony Kennedy would be down with getting rid of the Buckley donation limits. But now that that squish is out of the way, it’s damn the torpedoes.
And this week, in the face of this possible future, and in the face of all the dark money polluting the system now, Susan Collins and her fellow Republicans are in high dudgeon about a mere $1 million crowdfunded campaign (i.e., small donations from regular citizens) committed to her future Democratic opponent if she votes for Kavanaugh? This, she calls a “bribe.” Do she and her fellow Republicans have a name for the behavior that this new dark money report has chronicled?
McCaskill has a point. Roe is important, as are Obergefell and a number of landmark decisions. But if a Supreme Court majority decides anyone can spend any amount on any candidate, we can start kissing a lot more rights and protections goodbye than those two.