When politicians don’t want people to notice what they’re doing, they often do it at a time when they think few are paying attention.
So it was no surprise that Gov. Rick Snyder chose to sign the highly controversial Senate Bill 661 on the Friday between Christmas and New Year’s, when most folks’ minds weren’t on public policy.
The bill did a number of things, such as doubling the amount of money individuals can give to a candidate.
But most of all, it was carefully crafted to block Secretary of State Ruth Johnson – or anyone in the future – from forcing disclosure of who pays for the so-called “issue ads” that every election become more and more influential in Michigan politics.
The governor issued a press release after he signed it, claiming the bill will “bring an unprecedented level of transparency and openness to the state’s political system.” That evidently refers to a provision requiring disclaimers identifying sponsors of those much-hated campaign “robocalls” that clog our answering systems.
That’s little more than political dissembling designed to obscure the fact that making public the often bland names of the groups that sponsor so-called “issue ads” doesn’t show who is really paying for them. (There’s a legalistic distinction without a difference here. An “issue” ad doesn’t explicitly call for somebody to vote for or against a candidate. But they usually leave little doubt who those behind the ad like, or, more often, dislike.)
In signing the bill, Snyder chose to ignore what he said when running for governor in 2010: “All electioneering communications – broadcast, print and telephonic – that features the name or image of a candidate for office or ballot initiative should be considered expenditures subject to appropriate disclosure requirements.”
Whatever anyone says, signing this bill was a disgraceful abandoning of a principle he told us he believed.
It is clear that Michigan politics in recent years have been swamped by a tidal wave of “dark money,” millions and millions of anonymous dollars spent on political ads by an astounding number of committees, whether candidate, party election, 501(c)3 or 501(c)4 “nonprofit” groups. Since 2000, more than half of all spending on Michigan Supreme Court campaigns has been undisclosed, including more than three-quarters of all spending in the 2012 campaign, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Who’s paying for all those ads? We don’t know. But we do know that the sharpies who sponsor them expect something in return. Without knowing who they are, we’ll never know what they want, and can’t even warn the citizens about their growing influence.
Those who favor this new law, now Public Act 252, argue this way: They say requiring disclosure of who pays for these ads threatens the donors’ free speech rights, and subjects them to harassment and possible intimidation.
Four years ago this month, in their Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that no limits could be put on campaign spending. But those same judges also overwhelmingly ruled that making political speech open and transparent “enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
Moreover, Justice Antonin Scalia, the darling of the intellectual right, then commented: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
The truth is this: When you cut through all the double talk, the only freedom put at risk by requiring public disclosure of those who pay for political ads is the freedom of special interests to launder money in secret. As to allegedly “improving” campaign finance reporting, that funny sound you hear in the background is all the lawyers figuring out loopholes in the law.
I’ve always thought the clumsy and slow regulations are never going to keep up with smart people figuring out how to beat the law.
The policy solution is simple: Place no limits whatsoever on campaign expenditures of any sort, but require instant public disclosure of whoever is contributing to any campaign.
Simple, yes? Well, regardless of whether this ever happens, Snyder’s political dilemma is more complicated. He ran as a self-proclaimed moderate centrist and won votes from a lot of independents and even a few Democrats.
This decision won’t set well with those folks – and antagonize others increasingly worried about the governor’s drift to the right.