MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization, released a detailed report last week that reveals many of the largest donors behind legal moves to achieve campaign finance deregulation. Much has been reported about the impact of loosening campaign finance laws on elections, but the Center's analysis offers insight into who is funding the legal cases that are allowing big money to have such an unprecedented impact on elections.
Of course, the most noted of these legal decisions was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which the Center describes in a second article about the modern history of campaign finance deregulation:
In a case that continues to have an enormous impact on elections at all levels of government, the court reversed decades of decisions by allowing corporate and union dollars to pay for ads and other campaign materials that urge voters to vote for or against a candidate for office. The 5-4 decision affected what are known as "independent expenditures." Such funds are used by an outside party to pay for materials that favor or oppose a candidate, but the spending must be "independent" -- the outside party isn't allowed to coordinate it with the candidate. The decision led to the creation of super PACs -- which accept unlimited donations and use the funds mostly on political advertising -- and "dark money" organizations, nonprofits that do essentially the same thing but are not required to reveal their donors.
However, Citizens United was preceded and followed by other regulation-loosening decisions, including Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and McCutcheon, Republican National Committee v. Federal Election Commission in 2014. The latter removed limits on campaign donors giving to a limited number of parties, candidates and PACs in a two-year federal election cycle. This allowed contributors to give to a larger number of individuals and entities directly participating in elections.
The Center's analysis focuses on those groups, which facilitated the loosening of campaign finance regulations through the financing of lawsuits. They paved the way for the rulings which have given the rich the ability to put a thumb on the scale in electoral contests. This is what the Center, in its reports, calls "underwriting and sculpting the legal landscape that led to the court decisions that made possible these ['dark money' nonprofits] and other groups such as super PACs."
Sometimes electioneering cases make for strange partners, as the Center reveals:
The nation's campaign money system largely stood unchanged until 2002, when Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act -- commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act, named for its two Senate sponsors. The law curtailed a variety of political activities and included a ban on unlimited "soft money" contributions -- corporate and union cash -- given to political parties.
It also attracted an immediate backlash by foes of campaign finance legislation. Twelve suits bought by more than 12 plaintiffs -- were consolidated as McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, named for Mitch McConnell, a U.S. senator from Kentucky and current majority leader, who has long been in favor of liberalizing restrictions on campaign contributions.
Those joined together under McConnell included the National Rifle Association, the Republican National Committee, the National Right to Life Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others.
Yes, the American Civil Liberties Union opposed campaign finance reform. It justified its position by noting, "Among other things, the law [the McCain-Feingold Act] would prohibit the ACLU from broadcasting a radio or TV ad criticizing the civil liberties position of either the President or his opponent in the 60 days preceding next year's election."
In general, however, the funders of the lawsuits are conservative stalwarts such as the Kochs. Many wealthy individuals channel their support for unlimited campaign spending through organizations such as the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank to which the Kochs are closely connected. They also support conservative issue litigation organizations such as the Institute for Justice and the Institute for Free Speech. Both groups embody a vision of a strictly limited government, with the Institute for Justice declaring on its website: "IJ litigates to limit the size and scope of government power and to ensure that all Americans have the right to control their own destinies as free and responsible members of society." The Institute for Free Speech backs "political speech rights," and considers itself mired in a battle against "the complex web of oppressive campaign finance laws."
The Center assembled a list of who's who among right-wing funders. For instance, it found the Mercer Family Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation are major funders of the Goldwater Institute, which is another conservative "public interest" legal organization. In total, the Center, notes, it tracked almost $300 million in funding to back campaign finance deregulation:
The Center for Public Integrity identified the sources of $293 million received by groups that lodged formal arguments in key financial deregulation cases. It also identified $64 million in funding for groups that defended campaign finance regulations, including significant cash from liberal billionaire and Koch foil George Soros.
Some of the donors remain secret, out of reach of the Center's scrutiny. Nevertheless, this report reveals the primary army of funders and litigators who opened up the floodgates of big money to campaign spending -- and continue to prop those floodgates open.