America is so divided these days you might think there is nothing that both ends of the political spectrum could possibly agree about. But there is at least one idea almost universally endorsed by Americans of all political stripes. When you ask progressives, Independents, liberals, Bernie Bros, middle of the road voters, Republicans, right leaning voters and even many conservatives if they want to “stops billionaires from buying elections,” the answer is YES! Across the board. Yes. Americans do not want billionaires to use their influence to get people elected and tell us what to think using dark money. We all want election reform and public disclosure of donors.

How Do We Know This?

A recording obtained by The New Yorker of a private conference call on January 8th, between a policy adviser to Senator Mitch McConnell and the leaders of several prominent conservative groups—including one run by the Koch brothers’ network—reveals the participants’ worry that the proposed election reforms garner wide support not just from liberals but from conservative voters, too.  (New Yorker article by Jane Mayer)

[T]he proposed election reforms garner wide support not just from liberals but from conservative voters, too. The speakers on the call expressed alarm at the broad popularity of the bill’s provision calling for more public disclosure about secret political donors. The participants conceded that the bill, which would stem the flow of dark money from such political donors as the billionaire oil magnate Charles Koch, was so popular that it wasn’t worth trying to mount a public-advocacy campaign to shift opinion. Instead, a senior Koch operative said that opponents would be better off ignoring the will of American voters and trying to kill the bill in Congress. (New Yorker)

The concern Americans have about billionaires buying influence reflects a growing concern and deepening recognition in our country that “dark money” influence is poisoning our politics.

What is Dark Money?

The sources behind most of the money raised by politicians and political groups are disclosed. Candidates, parties and political action committees — including the super PACs that are allowed to accept unlimited amounts of money — all report the names of their donors [who give more than $200] to the Federal Election Commission on a regular basis. But when the source of political money isn’t known, that’s dark money. (NBC)

How Does Dark Money Get Injected Into Politics?

The two most common forms of dark money in politics are politically active nonprofits and corporate entities such as limited liability companies. Certain politically active nonprofits — … formed under sections 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) of the tax code — are generally not required to publicly disclose their donors. [W]hen limited liability companies are formed in certain states, such as Delaware and Wyoming, the company’s name is basically the only thing known about them. These LLCs can be used to make political expenditures themselves or to donate to super PACs. (NBC)

How Could This Happen?

The Citizens United decision gave the green light to corporations, including certain types of nonprofit corporations, to spend money on political ads that expressly called for the election or defeat of federal candidates. (NBC)

That Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates to massive amounts of dark money to flow into the political system. Billionaires like the Koch brothers rely heavily on dark money to influence public opinion in ways that favor their continued power and wealth. Mitch McConnell is especially interested in this topic because this is how he manages to stay in power even with the low approval rating he has in his state.

Why is Dark Money So Bad?

[H]undreds of millions of dollars [are] spent on political advertisements by dark money groups.

Americans watching these ads do not know which groups are pushing the ideas in these ads, trying to influence their thinking. There is no transparency.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D) has been very concerned about about dark money influence. He has been trying to blow the whistle on and expose the damage dark money influence is doing to our country.  He gives this example of how dark money works to influence us.

Citizens United gave fossil fuel interests the political weaponry to quash bipartisan climate progress. The timing is clear. Before Citizens United, lots of bipartisanship; after it, a partisan blockade for a decade. How exactly was it done? With no transparency, we don’t know. Perhaps direct spending or threats in primaries and elections; perhaps orchestrated barrages of political spending through super PACs and nominally “independent” groups; perhaps untraceable threats and promises of unlimited spending. However done, the lost decade on climate change was lost [because of] Citizens United.

Is There a Way to Push Back Against Dark Money Influence?

Yes, there is. What works is exposing the wealthy people who are spending the money and shine a light on them. And that is an important part of what HB1 and SB 1 do. The For the People Act would go a long way to strengthen our democracy and expose the dark money operatives.

[T]his historic legislation would make it easier to vote in federal elections, end congressional gerrymandering, overhaul federal campaign finance laws, increase safeguards against foreign interference, strengthen government ethics rules, and more.

Currently we are hearing a lot about how the For the People Act would stop Georgia and other states from suppressing the votes of people of color in their states. Most states with GOP legislatures are trying to keep Republicans in power any way they can. They think if they can suppress the vote using what are being called new Jim Crow laws, they will be able to keep Republicans in power. The For the People Act would reverse many of these voter suppression laws and make it easier for everyone to vote. But the Act does even more than that. This Act terrifies the Koch brothers because it would overhaul campaign finance laws.

What Would H1/S1 Do to Combat Dark Money?

Subtitle F — Secret Money Transparency

Background & Summary of Key Changes:

This subtitle would repeal a budget rider prohibiting the Internal Revenue Service from requiring greater transparency from tax-exempt organizations. Many organizations registered under section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code engage in substantial campaign activities but are not required to disclose their donors. Repeal of the rider would allow the IRS to require them to disclose the donors who fund their political activities as a condition of their tax-exempt status.

In short, the For the People Act would force disclosure of donors who are behind the massive amounts of money being spent to influence the electorate. Shining a light on these people is akin to throwing water on the wicked witch of the West. It would reveal who is trying to influence us.  The Koch brothers and others would no longer be able to hide behind groups that sound like they are independent groups who have the best interests of Americans at heart. Journalists would be able to tell us who is trying to influence which politicians by tracking the money back to its source.

What Will the Koch Bros and Conservatives Do to Stop H1/S1?

Dark money is the lifeblood of the Koch brothers and other extreme right wing ultra conservative groups, so it is predictable that they would hire companies to test political messaging to understand how to best influence voters to support ideas they want to push. The secret recording that exposed how much Americans agree that billionaires should not get to choose our elected officials has now been made public by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker. We have also learned that super wealthy Republican donors will rely on their alliances and their power over Republican Senators like Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell and others to get them to kill the bill rather than support democracy and do what the American people want and need. Ted Cruz has already expressed his outrage.

 In a contentious Senate committee hearing last week, Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, slammed the proposal, which aims to expand voting rights and curb the influence of money in politics, as “a brazen and shameless power grab by Democrats.” (New Yorker)

We should understand what’s really going on here. Cruz wants to stay in power. By helping the Koch brothers to maintain their behind the scenes dark money funding and avoid transparency, Cruz knows he will get money from these donors, money he needs to run for office.  The brazen and shameless power grab going on is being carried out by Republicans here, not Democrats.

What Will Happen Next?

Since it is clear there is no messaging that would convince voters to agree that billionaires like the Koch brothers should be able to buy elections, the billionaires will manipulate the system in other ways. They will try to get Republican Senators to kill the bill and enlist Democratic Senators to obstruct it.

The Dems have a tenuous majority and the current filibuster rule requires that they find 10 Republican votes to join them to pass this legislation. That will not happen because Mitch McConnell and the GOP stand for only two thing these days: voter suppression and obstruction of everything the Dems want to do. The Republicans have become the party of NO.

If the Dems want to get Biden’s agenda implemented, they will eventually have to return the Senate to the original way the Senate used to work, namely, as a majority rule system. They could add in a talking component (a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington filibuster component) so that the minority would always have the chance to air their grievances, but the minority cannot be allowed to talk endlessly and the minority cannot be allowed to obstruct the change Americans want and need. Cloture (the vote that ends what could otherwise be endless discussion) should be 51 not 60 votes– a simple majority. Bills would then pass or fail by a simple majority vote after that. This is the way our Senate used to work. It’s the way our Senate needs to work in the future.

How do we end dark money? Pass the For the People Act. In the process we can fix the filibuster gridlock problem.