Political money flourishes in the dark – and the sun set with Citizens United

Is there any doubt left that Citizens United was a watershed event in American politics? We’re three elections into this brave new world and from my vantage point, it looks like the culture has really taken hold.

Sure, we’ve had dark money in Michigan politics for years. But the domination of campaigns by independent spenders over candidates was never this complete.

Terri Land vs. Gary Peters? Outside spenders have carried the day.

Rick Snyder vs. Mark Schauer? It’s closer, but outsider spenders have a bigger footprint than the candidates in that one too.

Unfortunately, the most visible part of the campaigns for most of us is television advertising.

But don’t think you’ll be able to learn what happened by looking at the official record that’s compiled by the Bureau of Elections for the State of Michigan.

Here’s what my most recent data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group show for broadcast advertising about state candidates, through October 26th:

Attorney General campaign:

Team Totten - Michigan Democratic State Central Committee: $106,000; Mark Totten: $436,000

Team Schuette - Michigan Advocacy Trust: $1,114,000; Bill Schuette: $580,000.

Gubernatorial campaign:

Team Schauer - Democratic Governors Association: $8,686,000; NEA Advocacy Fund: $44,000; Mark Schauer: $2,506,000

Team Snyder - Republican Governors Association: $6,450,000; Michigan Republican Party: $765,000; Independence USA PAC: $1,292,000; Rick Snyder: $7,207,000

Supreme Court campaign:

Democratic nominees - Richard Bernstein: $612,000

Republican nominees - Michigan Republican Party: $2,264,000; Center for Individual Freedom: $94,000; Brian Zahra and David Viviano: $269,000

In the end, the state will have a full accounting of the candidates’ receipts and expenditures, and no record whatever about who put the money for the ads in the other committees.

In reality, it’s not quite that dire. Independence USA is a federal super PAC that gets all its money from Michael Bloomberg and reports to the Federal Election Commission. The NEA must report any contribution over $5,000 to the U.S. Department of Labor. The RGA and the DGA report their receipts and expenditures to the IRS – but the accounting for Michigan is intertwined with all the rest of the states.

We can see some things clearly, some things less clearly and some things not at all.

Why does it matter? Because people and interest groups don’t write five-, six- and seven-figure checks for selfless reasons. Big political spenders are looking for considerations. Transparency is how we recognize when those considerations are ethical violations. Transparency is our inoculation against corruption.

Contemporary political campaigns are more than a little frustrating. It feels like the meddlesome wealthy in Houston, San Francisco and Manhattan have a lot more say about who will represent us than we do - even though they probably couldn’t pick their candidate out of a police lineup. I guess that’s the way the Roberts court wants it to be.

Tuesday, the campaign ends and the game changes. Rich or poor, young or old, brown or white, we are equal in the voting booth. We all have the same say about who will represent us.

If we’re very lucky we’ll elect public officials with the wisdom and courage to serve our common good.

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Fri, 10/31/2014 - 2:22pm
A Proposal to cut governmental waste Using the Citizens United Ruling. Summary; Private companies and entrepreneurs who successfully lobby and campaign to eliminate costly government programs should receive 10% of the money saved for five years after the program has been terminated. Legislators who sit on powerful committees get extraordinary amounts of money from special interests regulated by those committees. Politicians routinely host fundraisers, and invite lobbyists to contribute to their campaigns. We now have a class of politicians dependent on those special interests who will raise the money necessary to win reelection. Politicians are forced to create laws that are favorable to those interests, out of sight of the taxpayers and always at the expense of the public interest. Checks and balances exist to prevent the 3 branches of government from monopolizing power. No provision has been made to restrict elected officials or of self serving bureaucrats from gaining power by granting groups or companies special favors quietly, out of the view of long suffering taxpayers and voters. As a result, we now have a bewildering snake pit of IRS codes, regulations favoring this or that group, or of contracts with big political donors. What is needed is a balancing force to neutralize this danger to our democratic republic that the founding fathers foresaw, but against which they could not have devised any constitutional guard. Checks and balances are one way to block the power of the special interests: The recent Supreme Court finding that corporations and unions could spend their money on politicking suggests a possible solution. I’m thinking about enabling for-profit companies whose only function is to politic against parasitic special interests. These companies would propose laws to cut wasteful expenditures of governments and calculate the amount that they think would be saved. A small office of the government would be established to put allocating the challenge of these laws out for bidding and the highest offer would win the contract. (Too high a bid would make work against changing the law and would increase the amount of deposit.) The winner would spend his money on 1)publicizing the savings so pressuring lawmakers, 2) on lobbying and 3) for advertisements against the reelection of legislators who oppose the reforms and for the election of sympathetic candidates. If the company succeeds in passing the laws that eliminate governmental waste, it would get 10% of the money saved for 5 years, an excellent investment by government and (hopefully) a sufficient return so that several companies would be attracted into the business. I propose a deposit of a year’s worth of hoped for profit for each year that the company uses to get the proposed laws passed. This is to discourage claim squatters who might bid on contracts to prevent reform. Time constrains of maybe 2 election cycles should be stipulated. www.democracy.com/haas4thesixth And I approved this message
Charles Richards
Sun, 11/02/2014 - 12:49pm
The problem with this proposal is in defining "government waste." I consider ethanol subsidies a waste, but Iowa farmers consider it a wonderful program. Some consider food stamps to be overly generous, while others consider every dollar to be an essential expenditure.
Mon, 11/03/2014 - 7:41am
Yes, and each of these special interests has plenty of money (plundered from taxpayers) to politic against losing their pelf.
Sat, 11/01/2014 - 9:29am
This persistent obsession by the media scratches where it doesn’t itch. Why should voters care who advertises provided that what is said is true? Isn’t anonymous criticism the sleazy politicians’ itch? These fellows are irritated because they can’t discover who opposes them and mete out appropriate punishment. The voyeuristic but lazy media are miffed because they miss big stories as when John Kerry is outed as a self serving naval officer by the Swift boat group. It may be that the anonymous donor has a grievance that he wants addressed by electing a better candidate but fears retribution from a powerful and unscrupulous incumbent who will probably be reelected anyway. The donor may also want to hide his political activity from friends, customers or employers. Remember what happened to Mormons and Catholics when a court order forced the publication of the donor list for supporters of Gay Marriage in California? The Founding Fathers published the Federalist Papers, Antifederalist, Common Sense and other founding documents under pseudonyms. Our federal Constitution was written in secret sessions. Anonymity in politics has a long and honorable history in the United States and should not cause ethical politicians to itch. Suppose that Richard Nixon had the power to get at Deep Throat, would DT have dared tell the truth? And suppose that Deep Throat had been IBM which knew what was happening because they had control of information flows? Would it make any difference to Nixon if it were IBM, then among the most powerful of American corporations? IBM knew that Tricky Dick had real power of retribution and that it would have had to feed its information into the system anonymously. To hold otherwise is ridiculous. The donor/advertisement probably is telling the truth, yet the offended candidate is free to use his power to ruin the truth sayer. Happens all the time. Anonymity opens the political discourse. The current practice is perfect and hopefully politicians citing "voter rights" won't be able to insert more unconstitutional blather like McCain-Feingold. The bill of rights constrains government, not what we say, be we rich or poor.
Sat, 11/01/2014 - 10:30am
The media should be more careful about criticizing the Citizen’s United decision; it turned on the free speech and freedom of the press provisions in our first amendment. Beyond that, the billions of “unregulated” money flowing into ads goes to stressed newspapers, radio and tv stations, paying the bills for the ne'er-do-wells who work there. If the McCain Feingold law were to be enforced, its restriction on talking about political issues within so many days of an election, no matter how innocent (or flagrant, but how to tell the difference?,) could be extended to preventing books from being sold at B and N or on Amazon, on Bridgemi, Mlive or Mackinac from peddling their voters’ guides and pompous opinions, or on kids spraying graffiti on bathroom walls. The original dust up started when the FEC ruled Michael Moore’s movie fahrenheit 9/11 which criticized Bush 2, was not political speech, but then ruled that a film critical of Hiliary Clinton, made by the conservative group Citizens United was banned political speech. The obvious bias of the FEC illustrates the principle that it is not the privilege of government to dictate to us what we must hear, and that the offerings, ads, editorials, “opinions disguised as news”, no matter how tasteless the eructions of these corporate gas factories of the media are beyond the reach of a mere bureaucrat. 
 The Supreme Court got it right, and the media can’t seem to see how it promoted their own interests. The court tried to protect the citizen from the caprice of their government.
Rose Franklin
Sun, 11/02/2014 - 4:56am
This voter wants to know who is behind the ads. I want to know why the Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom decided to spend (so far) $94,000 on the Michigan Supreme Court races in support of Justices Viviano and Zahra. I want to know why the Center for Individual Freedom is running 30-second ads which they describe as "spotlighting the fact that Michigan Supreme Court Justices Brian Zahra and David Viviano 'have thrown the book at violent child predators, keeping them off the streets – and behind bars where they belong.' The ad urges Michigan citizens to contact the justices and tell them to keep protecting Michigan children." I call b.s. The Center for Individual Freedom is a 501(c)(4) hack that does not want the public to know who its donors are. It is not concerned about the safety of Michigan children. But it does have its own record of fighting campaign finance disclosure laws in Illinois, Louisiana, and West Virginia. The Center for Individual Freedom wants to keep dark money dark and, in so doing, implies that Justices Zahra and Viviano share the same perspective. Before election day, I would like to see Justices Zahra and Viviano repudiate these types of ads and dark money. That would be refreshing and would earn my vote.
Mike in TC
Sun, 11/02/2014 - 7:08am
The author of this screed (Robinson) makes a living decrying campaign financing. Why The Bridge thinks this makes him an impartial commentator remains a mystery. Responder Haas (above) understands the Constitution.
Barry Visel
Sun, 11/02/2014 - 7:57am
Mr. Robinson...I think transparency is a great idea. Please share with us your voting history (D, R or I) so we might better understand your perspective in this piece. My point is there will never be enough transparency for me to judge all the information that comes my way. For local and state level elections, my solution is to spek with the candidates directly (if they don't return my call or email they probably won't be getting my vote). Regarding interest group and candidate spending on TV or robo calls, I simply don't listen (unfortunately I hear it, but I don't have to listen). My solution...every individual, company or special interest group has to declare their contribution, and limit those contributions to $1/candidate...thus placing the burden back on the candidate to more personally explain to voters why they are seeking office. Yes, I know, it isn't going to happen, which means I'm left on my own to sort things out without really knowing the candidates and what they stand for...except at the local/state level where I at least have a chance of talking to them...maybe.
Jay Johnson
Sun, 11/02/2014 - 8:38am
Michigan went far beyond Citizens United in that the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion explicitly stated the States and the Congress could, and perhaps should, require the identification of all individuals who contribute to political campaigns. When Ruth Johnson, our Secretary of State, proposed to reverse the administrative ruling of her predecessor, Terri Lynn Land, that contributors to so-called "issue advertising" need not be disclosed, the Republican legislature de-fanged Ms. Johnson's powers by codifying the earlier Land administrative ruling. Despite explicitly endorsing Johnson's approach in his first campaign for Governor, Rick Snyder signed the legislation that made Land's administrative ruling the codified law of Michigan. Snyder could have easily vetoed the legislation and he should not be rewarded now for decreasing the transparency of campaign contributors when he said he would do just the opposite. Thank you Ms. Johnson for your effort and thank you Rich Robinson for publicizing this fundamental corruption of our State government. Shame on you Rick Snyder for signing the bill to make dark money a permanent fixture in Michigan politics for the foreseeable future. And, kudos to the Kochs and the DeVos family and Matty Maroun for spending so much of your money in Michigan -- its the economic stimulus we could never get from Washington, but it comes at a very high cost.
Sun, 11/02/2014 - 11:18am
Here is an excellent piece of investigative journalism by the Washington Post earlier this year: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/01/06/mapping-the-ko... The biggest problem at the moment is the abuse of "social welfare organizations" to keep the sources of funding for political campaigns secret. The new trick, after "Citizens United" is to give a large chunk of money to a "social welfare" organization, which is still allowed, under current legislation and IRS regulations, to spend 49% of its funds on overtly "political activity" including advertizing. They can then give the remaining 51% to a different "social welfare organization" which in turn can spend 49% of that money on political activity and the give the remaining 51% to yet another "social welfare organization" and so on ad nauseum. The DISCLOSE Act in the U.S. Congress was designed to put a stop to that but was killed by the GoP. People have bee frustrated and have resorted to efforts to amend the constitution to allow regulation of political spending, but of course in practice those rules usually favor incumbants (of both parties) against challengers who need to build name recognition. If we want to make progress, we need to convince some REpublican members of Congress to support the DISCLOSE Act (without any loopholes for the NRA or any other organization). If you care about this, please write your political reps (also at the state level) and ask them to prioritize these reforms.
Charles Richards
Sun, 11/02/2014 - 1:26pm
Mr. Robinson says "...people and interest groups don’t write five-, six- and seven-figure checks for selfless reasons. Big political spenders are looking for considerations." He has a vastly oversimplified view of human nature. Yes, there are individuals and groups seeking to gain or keep economic rents by influencing the political process. But there are also individuals who, rightly or wrongly, believe that a stronger emphasis on their values would promote the common good. Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book "The Righteous Mind" argues that people's values account for actions that cannot be explained by simple economic determinism. And let us not forget that the pleasures of the ego can be extraordinarily powerful. Mr. Robinson says, It feels like the meddlesome wealthy in Houston, San Francisco and Manhattan have a lot more say about who will represent us than we do – even though they probably couldn’t pick their candidate out of a police lineup." But then he goes on to say "Rich or poor, young or old, brown or white, we are equal in the voting booth. We all have the same say about who will represent us." Exactly. We decide who to vote for. But it is perfectly legitimate for citizens in the rest of the country to attempt to influence how we vote because our decisions affect them. Votes, particularly for federal legislators, affect our governing philosophy, and there is sharp, vigorous disagreement about the best philosophy of public policy.
Robert Kleine
Mon, 11/03/2014 - 9:55am
The problem I have is that the wealthy do not need most public services. They can live in gated communities, can hire their own security, have no need for Medicare, Medicaid Social Security, food stamps, or unemployment benefits. And they can spend huge amounts of money to elect politicians who want to cut these programs and lower taxes. This benefits them but not the rest of the country. The average household income of the bottom 90% is $31,000 and they need these programs. I don't quite understand the focus on cutting taxes and the concern that somehow the corporations and the wealthy are not doing well enough. First, only two developed nations have lower taxes than the U.S.- Chile and Mexico (See http://www.oecd.org/ctp/tax-policy/revenue-statistics-ratio-change-lates...). Second, corporate profits and profit margins are at an all time high, about 10% compared to a historical average of about 6%. Third, the stock market is booming and household net worth is up 20% since 2007. Many of the wealthy are public spirited and believe we are all in this together but a few can do a lot of damage.