Political candidates love to incite their grass-roots followers with talk about where they stand on the hot-button issues of the day, but more often than not, their views are aimed at bringing in political donations from special interest groups who will help assure their re-election or, if they are a challenger, get them into office.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each spent more than $1 billion on the 2012 presidential race.
That money came from donors that, in many cases, hope to get something in return for the money they put out.
Democrats have traditionally been the most vocal proponents of campaign finance reform efforts, so I found it interesting last week when USA Today reported that liberal super Political Action Committees spent $10.8 million on federal races this year. Citing numbers from the Center For Responsive Politics, USA Today noted that amount was about twice what conservative-leaning PACs spent.
The most alarming part of the story, however, was the sentence, "Liberal money also makes up 70 percent of the election-related federal spending by 'dark money' groups - politically active non-profits that don't have to disclose the sources of their money, the center found."
Liberals have vilified the right-leaning Charles and David Koch and made them the poster children for how the rich are trying to control the outcome of elections. According to a Mother Jones article by Dave Gilson last November, "Koch Industries and its affiliates Georgia-Pacific and Flint Hills Resources have given more than $2.2 million to candidates and parties during [the 2012] election cycle." Gilson noted that 95 percent of those donations went to Republican candidates.
Yet at the same time that many Democrats decried the influence of money from right-leaning contributors, they have been largely silent about the big-money donors that have helped propel Democrats to office. That seems more than a little hypocritical.
Democrats retort that they are only using the same tactics as Republicans and they are forced to take advantage of all relaxed revisions to the current campaign laws, just like their opponents, in order to compete with the huge Republican fundraising machine.
The high road, like much of America's infrastructure, has apparently crumbled to oblivion and is impassable.
The traceable donations to political candidates and campaigns are bad enough, but it is more than troubling that it is so easy now for these dark money groups to hide their donors, and that these groups are accounting for more and more political donations with each passing cycle.
At least, if a major medical company, and insurance firm or some other special interest is vying for the attention of a candidate in my district, I can use campaign finance disclosure laws to see that and, if I deem it necessary, switch my support to a different candidate.
The adage "follow the money" has long been used as a warning to voters who may be wary about the independence of some candidates, or the influence that one or more groups may be trying to get through their donations. You can't do that, however, if groups don't have to disclose who is giving the money.
Money buys elections at all levels of government. Grass-roots efforts may help spring virtual unknown candidates into office, but these days they do that by raising more money for their preferred candidate's campaign, or for attacks against their candidate's opponent.
We will never get money out of politics. There's too much at stake both for the givers and the receivers of this money. But the least that we can do is make sure that every penny dropped into a candidate's campaign has someone's name attached to it, and every group or organization spending money against a particular candidate similarly accounts for all the money that it is raising and names donors.
We can also improve the campaign reporting process and advance the cutoff dates for contributions in a given cycle to ensure that people know, before they go to the polls, where the money is coming from. As it stands, final campaign reports generally aren't due until well after elections, after it is too late for voters.
Moving up deadlines keeps everyone on a level field as far as raising money, and mandating a final finance report ahead of election day gives voters a chance to follow the money back to the source before they go the polls, giving them a chance to make a more informed decision.
It won't happen, of course. Both parties like to lament the problems with campaign finance, anonymous donors and dark money in politics, but generally speaking they all dip from that particular trough themselves. Nothing will change, in fact, until voters decide to make campaign finance a campaign issue.