October 30, 2010: Shrill political attacks have saturated the airwaves for months, but behind them is the real problem of this demoralizing election: the dark flow of dollars, often secretly provided by donors with very special interests.
The amount is staggering: Nearly $4 billion is likely to be spent once the final figures are in, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, far more than in the 2006 midterms, which cost $2.85 billion. It could even eclipse the $4.14 billion spent in the 2004 presidential campaign.
Much of this is a direct creation of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., which has cut away nearly all campaign finance restrictions.
The court’s 2007 decision in Wisconsin Right-to-Life gave corporations and unions the right to run advocacy ads in the last 60 days of a campaign — as long as they did not expressly advocate the election or defeat of a specific candidate. This year’s Citizens United decision effectively ended even that last restriction, and pulled away all limits on corporate spending in campaigns.
Building on those decisions, political operatives — mainly Republicans — decided they could collect unlimited amounts of money through independent, tax- exempt organizations known as 501(c) groups, without revealing the source of the donations.
By offering anonymity and no limits, these groups (with gauzily apolitical names, like American Future Fund and American Action Network) have been able to raise and spend extraordinary sums. In the 2006 midterms, outside groups not affiliated with political parties spent $51.6 million; so far this year, such groups have spent $280 million. About 60 percent of that spending is from undisclosed donors, most of which has benefited Republicans. Democratic candidates raised huge amounts, but the sources for most of it were disclosed.
Combining both traditional and outside money, Republicans have slightly outraised Democrats, $1.64 billion to $1.59 billion, but there is more to be tallied.
While large secret donations have been legalized, it is not clear that the 501(c) groups spending the money on barrages of attack ads are playing by the last, threadbare rules. The tax code requires that these groups not be “primarily engaged” in political advocacy, but neither the Internal Revenue Service nor the Federal Election Commission has made any apparent effort to investigate what other purpose they might have. Some groups have suggested they would begin nonpolitical activities — after the election.