Jhis week, the lever, ProPublica and the New York Times uncovered the largest known political advocacy donation in American history. We exposed a reclusive billionaire’s secret transfer of $1.6 billion to a political group controlled by Republican operative Leonard Leo, who led the building of a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court to stop abortionblock government regulations, hinder the fight against climate change and limit voting rights.
This anonymous donation — which was paid to a tax-exempt trust that has never been disclosed in any public record or database — was likely completely legal.
Whether you support or abhor Leo’s crusade, we should be able to agree on a broader nonpartisan principle: such enormous sums of money should not be able to secretly influence elections, legislators, judicial appointments and public policy. And we shouldn’t have to rely on a rare leak to learn basic facts about campaign finance that should be freely available to everyone.
Unfortunately, thanks to our outdated laws, these facts are now hidden behind anonymity, shell companies and obscure political groups. America has long awaited an overhaul of its political disclosure laws — and news organizations in particular should lead the charge for reform.
In the early 1970s, leaks and reports of leather shoes by news agencies revealed the Watergate scandal – the seminal investigation into black money of the modern era. This debacle born the original federal disclosure laws and a golden age of journalism. For a time, the new laws allowed campaign finance reporting to become systematic, methodical, and based on required disclosures, rather than sporadic, haphazard, and dependent on the goodwill of courageous whistleblowers.
Half a century later, however, the black money practices of 50 years ago have normalized again. In 2020 alone, more than $1 billion black money poured in around weak disclosure rules and in US elections, funding Super Pacs, ad campaigns, direct mail and door-to-door campaigns. While millions of votes were swayed, journalists and the public had no knowledge of the sources of money or the policies they were buying.
As the 2022 elections approach, the the situation is getting worse. Both parties’ Major Senate and Accommodation Super Packs are all funded by anonymous black money groups that are not required to disclose their donors.
These issues are not unique to the campaign arena. Front groups also shape public policy, leaving journalists unable to tell voters who funds what exactly. In recent years, an anonymously funded group has used ads to successfully lobby lawmakers to water down landmark health care legislation designed to eliminate so-called “surprise” medical bills.
Similarly, Leo’s anonymously funded network spent Tens of millions to boost the nomination campaigns of three conservative Supreme Court justices, after leading a campaign supporting Republicans’ refusal to hold a vote on Barack Obama’s 2016 High Court nominee, Merrick Garland.
To be sure, news outlets can still cover the dwindling part of the political finance system that still leaks money flows to politicians, lobbyists and advocacy groups. And thankfully, there are occasional revelations like Leo’s leak, which provide fleeting insight into the real forces that influence sweeping political decisions.
But for every sporadic leak, there are dozens of secret donors who systematically funnel ever more black money into elections and legislative campaigns without ever being exposed – and they reap the rewards of corrupt public policy.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is already a legislative reform project.
The Disclose the act, sponsored by Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, would force black money groups to disclose all of their donors who donate more than $10,000, require shell companies that spend money on elections to disclose their owners, and require election advertisements list the top contributors of their sponsors. These requirements would extend not only to election-related activities, but also to campaigns aimed at influencing government decisions – including judicial appointments.
A separate White House invoice would further require disclosure of donors from shadowy groups lobbying the Supreme Court through amicus briefs intended to sway court decisions without letting the public know which billionaire or CEO is on the line. And others waiting legislation would finally allow the Securities and Exchange Commission to require large corporations to more fully disclose their political spending.
Journalists should proudly defend laws like these, which allow us to tell the public what their government is doing. Our industry has Finished than before in defend open registration lawsand we must do it now by pushing for new campaign finance disclosure rules.
In practice, this means journalists raising the issue of transparency and demanding answers from politicians about their stance on disclosure laws – rather than ignoring or downplaying the rising tide of black money that now shapes all public policy in America.
This means that newspaper editorial boards are advocating for campaign finance reform.
This means that media organizations are pushing for stricter disclosure laws at the federal, state and local levels.
This means that the journalism industry is participating in – and sometimes leading – this fight, rather than using objectivity as an escape.
This battle to update campaign finance disclosure laws and bring light to the darkest of black money already faces powerful opponents. In recent years, the United States Chamber of Commerce and Koch Industries – who represent some of America’s biggest black money spenders – have been pressure against the Disclose Act, preventing him from moving forward for more than a decade.
The Koch network has recently convinced the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc to repeal a California law requiring nonprofit black money groups to at least disclose their top donors to state tax regulators, after spending to back some of those justices’ confirmations to the court.
More recently, conservative groups and Republican state attorneys general tried to block a proposal to require companies to disclose greenhouse gas emissions by arguing that this is illegal “forced speech” – a preview of the argument they could use against new campaign finance transparency legislation.
Equally alarming, segments of the journalism industry have opposed transparency efforts. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) – which represents mainstream media making huge profits from black money ads – tried to block a rule at the Federal Election Commission a decade ago to compel TV and radio stations to disclose purchases of advertisements by political groups, arguing it would cost them advertising revenue.
The NAB has recently with success opposite Federal Communications Commission requirements that broadcasters disclose when foreign governments sponsor material. NAB is lobbying right now on the Disclosure Act.
But this week’s revelations about the largest donation of black money in history should alert us that the status quo must change – and indeed, it can change, even within the bounds of the Court’s own precedents. supreme.
In the landmark Citizens United decision that sparked the modern era of big money politics, the Majority noted that while it was unwilling to allow restrictions on political spending, it still held that “government can regulate corporate political speech through disclaimers and disclosure requirements.
These requirements are so desperately needed now – for the free press to play its vital role and for voters to make informed decisions when they go to the polls.
But the only chance of that happening is for the media and journalists to step aside and enter the fray to get what they need to do their job – and what we all need to preserve our democracy.
David Sirota is an award-winning journalist who founded the investigative media the lever
Joel Warner is the editor of Lever