A new report by the campaign finance advocacy group Issue One has revealed that of the $800 million in secret money spent on elections between 2010 and 2016, 75 percent came from just 15 top groups. Most of these groups, you’ll be just shocked to hear, support Republicans.
The top spender was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a truly vile force in American politics which pours money into supporting pro-corporate, anti-worker policies—not just through this kind of secretive spending on elections, but also through spending on lobbyists in Washington. In 2017, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets, the Chamber spent $82 million on federal lobbying. That’s more than half of the total amount they spent on federal elections between 2010 and 2016.
This report only scratches the surface of dark money’s reach, since the Issue One report only includes spending reported to the FEC. Dark money spent on elections doesn’t have to be reported to the FEC if it’s an “issue ad” and doesn’t explicitly support or oppose a candidate, or if it’s outside a certain window before an election; that money is much harder to track, since it doesn’t have to be disclosed. (TV stations disclose political ad buys to the FCC, but digital ads are only now starting to be disclosed piecemeal by big companies like Facebook.)
Most of the top 15 are groups that exclusively support conservatives. Only four of the top 15 support Democrats: the League of Conservation Voters (#7, with $34 million in spending); Patriot Majority (#12, with $18 million); VoteVets (#14, with $11 million; and Planned Parenthood Action Fund (#15, with $11 million).
One of the conservative groups, Americans for Job Security, hasn’t filed tax returns in three years, according to a complaint filed with the IRS by Issue One and the Campaign Legal Center. Tax returns filed by these groups are usually the only way to get any insight into their finances—though they don’t have to disclose their donors, they do disclose donations to other non-profits. (You can search those donations at the Center for Public Integrity’s site.)
In 2013, for example, Americans for Job Security donated $1.1 million to the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a Koch-backed group that has, among other things, advocated against building public fiber-optic internet networks in cities, which cable companies are deeply opposed to because the competition would make it much harder to overcharge their customers for shitty slow internet. (TPA also received money from cable industry groups.)
Issue One also assembled a database of what limited public information there is out there about donations to these groups, using sources like tax returns and filings with the SEC. You can view that database here. The Chamber of Commerce, for example, has more than $85 million in publicly disclosed donations, from companies like Amazon, health insurer Anthem, Chevron, and Dow Chemical.
This report shows the vast ability of corporations and the wealthy to influence our elections with very little scrutiny of what they’re doing. Groups like Americans for Job Security and Americans for Prosperity, which spent $59 million on elections between 2010 and 2016, thrive on this sort of secrecy: They can move money around their network with ease, obscure their true aims, and make it much harder for their opponents to hold their donors to account.
The insidiousness of the infamous Koch network isn’t just in the money, it’s also the complicated network. Making it impossible to trace where the money is flowing is part of the strategy. But while scrutiny is good, and it’s obvious the IRS and the FEC should crack down on this sort of thing a thousand times more than they do right now—which is almost never—what really matters is the money itself.
We’ve known the Chamber of Commerce is spending its vast wealth on elections for years, and we know that money comes from corporations. If we had the names of every rich guy who funded Americans for Tax Reform, it would be cool because we could yell at them, but it wouldn’t necessarily stop them. The problem is that they can spend their money on elections at all. The problem is that being a rich guy gets you more influence on democracy than anyone else, and the richer you are, the more influence you can buy. The problem is rich guys.
Correction, 5:04 PM ET: This post previously stated that dark money spent on election doesn’t have to be reported to the FEC if it’s an “issue ad” and doesn’t explicitly support or oppose a candidate, or if it’s outside a certain window before an election. In fact, even issue ads must be reported to the FEC if it’s during the 60 days before an election, or 30 days before a primary; before that time period, only ads that explicitly advocate for the defeat or election of candidates must be reported.
In addition, it neglected to mention that another of the top 15 spenders, Patriot Majority, only supports Democrats.