'Dark Money' Spending Is Just a Myth

This column by ACRU Policy Board member Hans von Spakovsky was published July 18, 2016 by South Coast Today.

Americans are often told that there’s too much money in politics — specifically that we spend too much on campaigns. But that claim doesn’t hold up when you consider that in our elections, we are choosing the commissioners and councilors, mayors, governors, members of Congress, and president who lead the local, state, and federal governments of the most powerful country in the world.

During the 2012 presidential election cycle, the Federal Election Commission reports that candidates, political parties and political action committees raised and spent a little more than $7 billion. That is a relatively small amount when compared to other types of spending.

Candidates spend on radio and TV ads, mail brochures, and personal appearances just as American companies spend to advertise their products and services. The candidates are advertising their views and opinions on the public policy issues we face as a nation, and how they propose to solve those problems and lead us to a better quality life. And political parties and PACs engage in similar advertising spending with their public support of or opposition to candidates.

In 2014, total U.S. advertising spending was just more than $141 billion, according to Kantar Media. So the amount spent in the 2012 election was only about 5 percent of the total advertising dollars spent in the United States to sell everything from cars to diapers. In 2014, the National Retail Federation estimates that Americans spent $7.4 billion on Halloween. So we actually spent hundreds of millions more on candy and costumes than on deciding who will be the president of the United States.

Virtually all of this money was publicly reported. America today has the most complex and comprehensive reporting requirements in our history. Candidates, political parties and political action committees are required by law to report all of the money they raise and spend on politics, and that information is easily available on the website of the FEC and equivalent state agencies.

Even nonprofit advocacy organizations, whose major purpose is social welfare and not politics, have to report spending on political ads to the FEC when they support or oppose a particular federal candidate based on an issue important to their members.

The myth of “dark money” supposedly corrupting our politics is just that — a myth. First of all, the amount spent on direct political ads by nonpolitical nonprofits like the NRA or Planned Parenthood is a tiny percentage of total election spending. Of the more than $7 billion spent in the 2012 election, the FEC reports that only $300 million was spent by nonpolitical organizations on independent political expenditures. That is only 4.3 percent of the total.

And do you really need to know who the donors are to the NRA or Planned Parenthood to judge the credibility of an ad they run about a particular candidate? Of course not. The real purpose of those who want to force such organizations to reveal all of their donors is to intimidate and harass contributors whose support is vital to organizations the critics don’t like.

Fears of “foreign money” influencing our elections are also baseless. Federal law bars foreign companies and individuals from participating in American elections. They cannot contribute to candidates, and they cannot engage in independent political spending. In fact, when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the federal ban on independent political spending by companies and unions as a fundamental violation of the First Amendment in the Citizens United decision in 2010, it specifically noted that the ban on foreign companies was not affected.

Corruption is against the law. When government officials accept bribes or misuse campaign funds, they are prosecuted. Just look at the successful ABSCAM prosecution conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department in the 1970s and early 1980s. Or look at the conviction of former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife in 2013 for fraudulently using campaign funds for personal expenses.

But that type of bribery and corruption should not be confused with legitimate campaign donations made by Americans to the candidates and political parties that they favor and associate with based on their values, principles, ideas and character. We donate to the candidates we like and who we believe will do the things we think need to be done when they are elected to office. That is not corruption — that is the democratic process at work.