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Sep 21, 2022 Andrew Perez

How Democrats Could Actually End Dark Money

Senate Democrats will vote Thursday on a dark money disclosure bill, known as the DISCLOSE Act. They should do what’s needed to let it succeed.
Biden and the DISCLOSE Act
President Joe Biden speaks about the DISCLOSE Act on Sept. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Joe Biden made a strong case on Tuesday for legislation to end dark money, and even highlighted a story The Lever helped expose. The problem? Democrats have been trying, and failing, to pass versions of this same dark money disclosure bill for 12 years. Now they are poised to let the Senate filibuster stand in the way of its passage yet again — not coincidentally right after an election in which dark money benefited Democrats more than their opponents.

Senate Democrats are planning to hold a vote Thursday on the DISCLOSE Act, the legislation Biden is pushing that would force nonprofits spending on elections and judicial nominations to publicly name their donors. Lawmakers should pass this bill, just as they should have done back in 2010, right after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision paved the way for unlimited political spending by nonprofits that can keep their donors secret — a development that has catastrophically reshaped the country’s electoral politics.

Holding a vote on the DISCLOSE Act without pushing to end the filibuster highlights the fundamental flaw with Democrats in Washington: Their rhetoric and warnings about dark money have always been spot-on, but they have failed to take the actions necessary to actually stop the flow of secret cash distorting and corrupting American politics. Meanwhile, the party has become increasingly reliant on these same dark pools of cash to help elect more Democratic lawmakers.

Eliminating dark money is widely popular among voters. As Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told HuffPost on Tuesday, “It’s a red hot issue in the polls.” But actually passing the bill would likely require ending the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires 60 votes to pass most legislation. That would mean eliminating corporate America’s kill switch — the tool that gives politicians a way to pretend to be for all sorts of popular initiatives while giving their donors the peace of mind that those measures will never be a reality.

This is both why Democrats won’t end the filibuster in order to pass the DISCLOSE Act, and precisely why they should: Doing both would begin the process of chipping away at companies and donors’ power and control over our lives, and prevent them from gaining more.

Billionaires And Health Insurers

On Tuesday, Biden called on the Senate to pass the DISCLOSE Act. “At its best, our democracy serves all people equally, no matter wealth or privilege,” he said. “But here’s the deal: There’s too much money that flows in the shadows to influence our elections. It’s called ‘dark money.’ It’s hidden.”

In his speech, Biden referenced The Lever and ProPublica’s reporting on how Barre Seid, a little-known billionaire, turned his surge protector empire into a secret $1.6 billion political advocacy donation for Leonard Leo, the conservative activist who remade the Supreme Court to overturn federal protections for abortion rights.

The president noted that dark money donations are “an issue for both parties. But here’s the key difference: Democrats in the Congress support more openness and accountability. Republicans in Congress so far don’t. I hope they’ll come around.” (No one expects that will happen.)

Biden is no stranger to this issue. He has been sounding the alarm about dark money since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling opened up the dark money floodgates. “It bothers me, all these unattributed contributions,” he said in 2010.

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The then-vice president pointed to the nascent dark money operation led by former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove.

“I challenge Karl Rove to tell me that this money isn‘t coming from billionaires and millionaires, insurance companies, oil companies, major executives who have about as much in common and concern with the people of northeast Pennsylvania as I don‘t know what does,” said Biden.

Twelve years later, Rove’s dark money operation, now called One Nation, has become functionally embedded in Senate Republicans’ political operation. And it does receive funding from health insurance interests, as Biden predicted: CVS Health, the pharmacy giant that owns health insurer Aetna, reported giving $2.4 million to One Nation from 2020-21.

Here’s the other bad news: During that same time period, CVS Health has given even more money — $2.9 million —  to Democratic dark money groups Majority Forward and House Majority Forward, which help elect party lawmakers. So raking in dark money, including from insurance companies, isn’t just a Republican matter — the rot has spread across the entire political spectrum.

We only know about these gifts because CVS Health voluntarily publishes comprehensive reports detailing its political donations. It’s unclear what percentage of the rest of the secret cash flowing into Democrats’ dark money groups is coming from millionaires, billionaires, health insurers, and other corporate interests. We won’t speculate.

“When Polled, It’s Overwhelming”

In the years since the Citizens United decision, as Democrats have built up their own dark money operations, they have commonly made the argument that they can’t afford to unilaterally disarm in the fight against Republicans.

Earlier this month, Democratic powerbrokers even blocked a vote on a resolution banning dark money in the party’s primaries, right after anonymous donors bought a spate of those races this year.

But party leaders and lawmakers have still kept publicly calling for an end to dark money in politics.

That’s because they know the idea is popular with voters, who are constantly pummeled with negative political ads and deceptive corporate propaganda campaigns. Polls consistently show Americans want to limit the influence of money in politics generally, and compel disclosure of dark money donors more specifically.

Durbin, Democrats’ Senate Majority Whip, told HuffPost on Tuesday that “the press has missed [the] message” on this issue. (We agree.)

“It’s one of these questions when polled, it’s overwhelming,” he said. “People are sick of these campaigns and how much money is being spent. And now, Leonard Leo has crossed the campaign Rubicon with a billion-dollar effort, it’s just completely out of hand. And so it’s a bigger issue than you think. It’s a red hot issue in the polls.”

Unfortunately, Democrats appear to see this issue as a salient campaign talking point more than a corrosive problem they actually want to address. That’s because they are not willing to do the one thing that would allow them to force dark money disclosure: end the filibuster. It’s the exact same story we saw 12 years ago.

In 2010, Democrats had a chance to stop the dark money takeover of our elections and courts when they had full control of Congress and the presidency. Two Senate votes on the DISCLOSE Act held in 2010 failed, thanks to Republican filibusters — as did another vote in 2012.

With a Washington trifecta again right now, Democrats have an opportunity to make up for their mistakes and finally pass the DISCLOSE Act. But because the filibuster remains, the bill is poised to fail again, despite the fact that all 50 members of the Democratic caucus are sponsoring it.

The effort, in other words, is essentially a show vote — so much so that the wire service Reuters headlined its piece: “Biden pushes election 'dark money' disclosure bill doomed to fail in Congress.”

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There is a reason why Democrats won’t end the filibuster, and why a handful of corporatist senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona today — are always around to demand the rule be preserved.

The filibuster ensures that legislation challenging the power and influence of the wealthy and corporate interests — bills like the DISCLOSE Act — hardly ever become law. The filibuster allows Democratic politicians to pretend to be for all sorts of popular initiatives, without enraging their donors by making those initiatives a reality.

Case in point: Sinema and Manchin have both co-sponsored the DISCLOSE Act. They will assuredly vote in favor of the bill this week, because they know the effort is destined to fail. Would Manchin and Sinema vote to end the filibuster in order to defang the power of dark money donors? Of course not.

The state of affairs reinforces the broader issue at hand: Democrats should vote to end the filibuster in order to pass the DISCLOSE Act and stop billionaires and corporate interests from secretly buying our elections and policy.

They won’t do that, but they must.

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