The anonymous billionaire's club

There was probably some eye-rolling last week when Hillary Clinton resolved to make campaign finance reform one of the major themes of her campaign for the presidency. After all, she's already indicated she wants to raise $2.5 billion for her own campaign. And while she's no longer on the board of the Clinton Foundation, which has accepted donations from a half-dozen foreign governments (but no more than those six from now on, it was recently decided), her husband and daughter are, and that's raised some ethical questions since foreign governments can't donate directly to candidates.

Of course, the reality of campaign finances in this country right now is that no candidate's hands are entirely clean, and that's a big part of the problem. There was a time — post-Watergate but pre-Citizens United — when this country seemed on a path to accepting reasonable restrictions and reporting requirements on political campaign donations, but that is long gone in a mix of good intentions but failed laws, unfortunate court decisions and the rise of outside spending.


In terms of politics and money, it's a lawless frontier out there these days — and that's not even counting the Florida mail carrier who landed a gyrocopter on the West Lawn of the Capitol to call attention to campaign finance reform. Even a stunt like that pales in ridiculousness to the reality of billionaires lining up behind presidential contenders. What hope is there for democracy if any Tom, Dick or Sheldon Adelson can write a seven-figure-or-greater check to a super PAC? The rich can use so-called "dark money" to buy candidates like so many employees on their payrolls. And since politically-active nonprofits don't have to reveal their donors, contributions can even be kept secret from the rest of us plebeians.

Object to this insanity and you will be labeled a "populist" or worse. How dare average citizens fret that their role in electing leaders has been greatly diminished by the rise of virtually unlimited campaign spending? One can only imagine the onslaught of TV ads that await voters between now and November of 2016. It makes the notion of a candidate sitting down with Iowa voters for a burrito at Chipotle seem all the more ridiculous, whether it's Mrs. Clinton or Martin O'Malley (although the former governor does apparently have the advantage of obscurity.


Mrs. Clinton has spoken of a corrective Constitutional amendment. Other candidates have emphasized disclosure and the need for candidates to at least explain to the public how a $100 million donor isn't buying them off. Neither appears probable. Why not? Because a mere gyrocopter landing isn't evidence that the public is particularly worked up over this. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans don't know what a "super PAC" is. They will fret about how big money influences elections broadly but as a recent Pew Research Center survey revealed addressing that situation isn't particularly high on the public's list of priorities.

The topic of "money in politics" fell far behind terrorism, the economy, jobs, education, immigration, crime, Medicare and a dozen other topics in the annual Pew poll. Rare is the candidate who wins or loses a race for supporting or opposing campaign finance reform. It's not that the issue has fallen off the radar screen, it's just overshadowed. And without strong public pressure, Congress is unlikely to do much of anything — even on disclosure, which would seem the minimum voters should expect.

In Annapolis where Democrats control a comfortable majority, the General Assembly has shown modest interest in the issue. Lawmakers failed to approve a nonbinding resolution calling on Congress to overturn the Citizens United ruling during the recently-completed legislative session. Even a state-level bill to require campaign committees to publicly report major donations or loans (of $1,000 or more) within 48 hours failed. House and Senate versions of the legislation languished in their respective committees without so much as the courtesy of an up or down vote.

As much as we condemn the actions of pilot Doug Hughes, we have to admit he has a point when he recently suggested that "worrying about the piles of money going into Congress" was more important than a security breach. Actually, both are worrisome. And Americans have a right to expect lawmakers to be at least as concerned about secretive billionaires with their hands on the levers of power as a heretofore anonymous civil servant steering his single-seat aircraft near the U.S. Capitol.