Midnight act by Senate Republicans to keep campaign donors secret breeds cynicism

Three weeks ago, before the political life of Michigan got interrupted for important things (Thanksgiving, turkey, football) we were treated to a bombshell from Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

Responding to a request by the State Bar of Michigan to require public disclosure of donors who sponsor millions in so-called “issue ads” in judicial elections, Johnson (a GOP officeholder elected in 2010) proposed to issue a new rule outlawing anonymous spending on all political ads, whether or not they actually use words of express advocacy – vote for, vote against, and so forth.

That shook up her Republican colleagues, big-time. The very next day – after an emergency sudden closed-door recess – the Republican-dominated Committee on Local Government and Elections adopted, without any public discussion, a bill that would gut Johnson’s proposed reporting requirement.

The full Senate, more than two-thirds of whose members are also Republican, agreed within less than 24 hours – remarkable speed for a normally “deliberative” body.

Money has long been recognized to be the mother’s milk of politics, and it is clear that many of those feeding are unwilling to be weaned. A top state elected Republican official gets slapped down by an alarmed Republican-dominated state Senate.

Political reformers are screaming bloody murder. And all eyes are now focused on Gov. Rick Snyder, whose “vision” statement back when he was running in 2010 said:

“Michigan’s citizens are tired of the divisive political culture in Lansing. Midnight deals, closed door meetings, lobbyists, and special interest influence have stood in the way of long-term solutions. As governor, I will ensure that government is open, fair, and accountable to the citizens by making Michigan a national leader in transparency and ethics.”

The question now is: Will the Michigan House of Representatives -- still Republican, but by a much narrower margin -- pass this bill? And if they do… will Snyder sign or veto it?

In a column published on November 24 in Bridge Magazine, Rich Robinson, executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, asserted that the “statistical truth is that Michigan has become swamped by dark money.”

By “dark money,” Robinson means anonymous contributions to the astounding number and variety of political advocacy organizations, including: candidate committees, party election committees, 501(c) 3 and 501(c) 4 nonprofit committees.

What is indisputable is that we certainly live in an era when a ton of money – we simply don’t know how much – that is spent on elections comes without any public disclosure. And that, in turn, opens the door to all kinds of citizen skepticism about who in the dark of night is paying for all that political campaigning. You don’t have to be very sophisticated to know they expect something for it.

Lansing wags immediately labeled the Senate bill designed to stop Ruth Johnson the “vampire amendment,” since vampires do their bloody business in the dark of night.

Government should do its business in the sunshine. When this became news, we were quickly inundated by various arguments from those trying to stop full disclosure of campaign contributions.

Opponents of openness said this would violate free speech and expose contributors to retaliation once their names are made known. Maybe so. But nobody’s requiring anyone to make those big contributions, and if they want to put their money where their mouths are they have a corresponding obligation to be accountable to the public for their financial expression of their political will.

Frankly, when you cut through all the double-talk, the only freedom put at risk by requiring public disclosure is the freedom to launder money. As long as millions of dollars in dark money is sloshing around Michigan – much of it from anonymous, out-of-state donors – most citizens are perfectly justified in figuring that the only reason to keep this stuff secret is that something corrupt or scandalous is going on. And the only way to fix this problem is to require public disclosure for all campaign contributions.

For years and years, we’ve heard argument after argument about campaign contribution limits and reporting. At both the federal and state level, well-intentioned reformers keep making various proposals to tighten up the rules. Solving the campaign contribution problem is simply not going to be done by adopting ever tighter and more prescriptive rules; the candidates, their advisors and the sharpies who want to finance them are much smarter and much, much more nimble than any rule-making public body.

The real solution is very simple: Take all limits off any campaign contribution of any sort -- finishing a process the U.S. Supreme Court started in its Citizens United decision in January 2010.

But in return, require immediate public disclosure of all contributions -- something the nation‘s highest court also said was perfectly acceptable. Only if we do that will we clean up the secret dark money mess that has haunted Michigan politics for decades.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Mon, 12/02/2013 - 10:07am
Snyder recently ended the "nerd" fund because of the secrecy aspects as to who was contributing to it, this situation now puts him in an ackward position if he doesn't veto it.
Le Roy G. Barnett
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 8:40am
"Opponents of openness said this [proposed rule] would violate free speech...." I have never heard anyone complain about policies of newspapers that prohibit the publishing of anonymous letters to the editor. Similarly, no one should complain on free-speech grounds about rules prohibiting anonymous monetary expressions in public elections.
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 9:15am
This is just another example of the DESTRUCTION of democracy in Michigan. Be it "dark" money, appropriating minimal amounts of funding to make a bill referendum proof or using TOTALLY bogus information to authorize a wolf "hunt", the will of the people is being circumvented by the anarchists who have taken over State government.
Gene Markel
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 10:07am
Then you will Know the truth and the truth will set you free. John 8:32. It is time the Federal Government set us free with a disclosure clause for the 501c3, 501c4 and 527. It is time for the SCOTUS to separate the citizen from the corporation and give the citizens their just due. It time for politicians to tell the truth about who is behind their campaign and what those supporters expect.
David Werner
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 10:42am
Absolute power corrupts absolutely!
marilyn kur
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 11:39am
We need to know where the money is coming from. Why are they afraid for the public to know who is giving them money?
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 11:42am
Why is the right to vote in secret seen as mandatory but the right to privately support a point of view seen as suspect? Just asking...
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 7:44pm
Matt, I wonder too why Mr. Power doesn’t consider the reason for the privacy of voting being so important and what the consequences could be if it weren't private. I wonder why he wouldn’t apply that to people voting with their contributions? I wonder why Mr. Power can only see cash as a campaign issue and ignores the monetary impact of other methods of campaign support and their consequences. I wonder if Mr. Power considers his articles for or against an issue as a campaign contribution, or how much money it is worth in an election. I do support the concept of open donor information, but I believe there needs to be consideration of the consequences that it can create. It seems we have laws that are to protect selected groups in our society for who they are and what they choose to do. I wonder why Mr. Power doesn’t see the voters/donors deserving similar consideration.
dick b
Tue, 12/03/2013 - 7:26pm
Good point Matt. If there were reasonable limits to "secret" donations capped at say $1000 per person or corporation, then full disclosure for any amounts over $XXXX, that just may satisfy most.
Mike R
Wed, 12/04/2013 - 4:58pm
Matt and Duane's comments miss some important points: 1) "One person, one vote" doesn't work when big contributors can "vote" in secret with dollars that others don't have, and 2) Phil Power's comments may be considered a contribution (a stretch in my opinion, but let's accept the premise for the moment), but he's doing it in the open and subject to comment and criticism, not anonymously like dark money contributors. Bottom line: contributions may be an expression of a person's political or other beliefs, but they are not and cannot be considered in the same sacrosanct class as the secret ballot.
Wed, 12/04/2013 - 7:26pm
Sorry but the harassment one can face for supporting an unpopular position is just as real as harassment for ones vote. Second, your assumption that dollars = votes is only valid if one believes that your fellow voters are so stupid that they will be swayed in mass by repeatedly being exposed to the same inane political ads. This hasn't been shown to be the case.
Wed, 12/04/2013 - 8:45pm
The reality is that most people hear only what they are listening for. A good test of it is when there is much more money spend on one side of a issue/candidate and the other side wins.
Thu, 12/05/2013 - 4:57pm
Proposed dark money to be paid for by the taxpayers of our township!!! I ran for office to serve not to be served and it is very disturbing to me to have anyone especially a township manager attempting to purchase my allegiance with taxpayer’s or any other monies. I was elected as a trustee in Clinton County Watertown Township in 2008 I was given the 2009 proposed budget before the October meeting before entering office in Nov of 2008. I spoke at public comment before the meeting and declined the health care insurance proposed in the 2009 budget for me and my wife. In my first meeting in office the manager proposed a motion to provide health care to the full board and their families. I was able to prevent that by threatening to go to the electorate about it. I am including the link that provides all the facts about that offer. View details Very Sincerely Dale Westrick former trustee 2008-2012 To view other interesting finance information visit my website www.wacousta.org
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 12:42pm
Phil, Your point is well taken! H. L. Menchen observed, "We get the government we deserve." Full disclosure is fundamental! Diminishing - further- the credibility of Michigan's government underscores why each of us has a responsibility to stay engaged and to engage others, consistently; as hard as that may be! Just this week I heard from a prominent State Senator about his tithing, "and a God said we should begin today." His corollary was to explain the need to contribute to him and his GOP PAC... Even H.L.M. would be disgusted, urging a veto by the Governor of the bill and support for the Secretary of State's initiative. In sum, we should celebrate and openly support those who practice true public service in the face of cynicism.
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 4:04pm
(Rich VV; It looks like that quote you wrote was mostly deleted.) I cannot see that spending money to persuade citizens to vote a particular way, or to support a cause, is the same as voting. Voting must be secret because people are susceptible to peer pressure and other such forces that control another's actions. We want citizens to be free to vote according to their own thoughts and values. Spending money is not speech. If I shop at one store because I want to encourage a local business and do not shop at another store because of the way the management treats it employees, I am not voting even though it is now common to call this "voting with my dollars". It IS an attempt to force a desired action and if it is part of a large movement, or a boycott, it might be effective. Someone paying money so that persuasive ads can be made, via speech or the written word, is also an attempt at causing something to happen, but this is not the same as making a decision on what will happen by voting. I think it is just fine if those who are attempting to make a change in our government through a means other than voting cannot do so in secret (this goes for lobbyists too). Now, if political ads were not effective, they would no longer be made. Saying that people are stupid if they are swayed by political ads ( "...if one believes that your fellow voters are so stupid that they will be swayed in mass..." -Matt) is insulting to voters who ARE swayed by political ads. Not everyone has the time to check on every point or issue brought up by an ad. And ads do have some effect, otherwise there wouldn't be any money spent on them. Let's go for full disclosure of money spent to effect a political outcome. This is more like business than it is like voting.