More than $1 billion spent on the 2020 election — the most expensive presidential contest in history — came from unknown sources.
Because of the secretive nature of this so-called dark money, it's difficult to capture the entire scope of such undisclosed spending. So this enormous sum, first reported by OpenSecrets, is actually a conservative estimate. The organization, which tracks money in politics, published its report Wednesday after studying Federal Election Commission reports and advertising data.
Ironically, Democrats, who largely advocate for bolstering transparency around political spending, were the ones who benefited most from these undisclosed funds. OpenSecrets found that liberal dark money groups spent $514 million last year, compared to $200 million spent by conservative groups.
In recent years, liberal dark money has been on the rise despite fervent efforts to curtail this spending by Democrats. The 2018 midterms was the first time since the Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United decision that more dark money was spent in favor of Democrats than Republicans. This trend continued in the 2020 election, marking the first presidential contest in which Democratic dark money surpassed that of Republicans.
The 2010 ruling lifted restrictions on political spending, considering it protected as a form of free speech. Since then, secretive spending has only become more entrenched in American elections.
"Overturn Citizens United" has been the mantra of campaign finance reform advocates for the last decade. Many Democratic candidates, including nearly every one that ran for president last year, included it in their campaign platform. Reeling in dark money is also a key provision of the sweeping democracy reform bill, HR 1, that has been passed twice by House Democrats.
While President Biden may have slightly improved the odds of the For the People Act passing in the Senate, it's still an uphill climb. This week a pair of progressive advocacy groups, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and Let America Vote Action Fund, announced a $30 million investment in advertising, lobbying and grassroots organizing to push HR 1 forward.
Still, there's no denying Democrats' ability to use the current system to their advantage in last year's election. Biden's presidential victory was supported by $174 million from anonymous donors — more than six times the amount ($25 million) that went toward Donald Trump's unsuccessful re-election bid.
Liberal groups accounted for 10 of the 15 biggest dark money spenders in the 2020 election, but the No. 1 spot went to conservative nonprofit One Nation, which spent more than $125 million on political contributions and ads. One Nation has ties to the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC associated with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
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President Biden has thrown a lifeline toward HR 1, his party's comprehensive response to voter suppression and the American republic's other most serious ailments. But, while the legislation was launched in the Senate on Wednesday, Biden's new support for weakening the filibuster is not nearly enough to assure he'll get to sign the bill.
Opponents of legislation should be forced to verbalize their opposition and stage their dilatory protests in person on the Senate floor, Biden said Tuesday. That would push the filibuster closer to its original form and potentially weaken the Republican minority's resolve for blocking almost everything on the Democratic agenda.
But the president did not get behind ending the de facto requirement that 60 senators support legislation, or the idea of a carve-out so voting rights bills could pass with a simple majority. Without such changes, the GOP would seemingly still be able to devote its collective stamina to talking the fix-the-system package to death.
And if the filibuster gets any sort of substantive downgrade, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday vowed a "completely scorched-earth" response in which the GOP would tie the chamber in such procedural knots that not even routine business gets done.
The sharpened rhetoric suggested that a showdown over the Senate rules is getting close, with civil rights and good-government advocacy groups applying increasing pressure for the climactic moment to come this spring during a debate on the sweeping democracy reform package.
Many of these organizations are most keenly invested in the provisions to curb money in politics, tighten government ethics rules and curtail partisan gerrymandering. But they have concluded that emphasizing the urgency of the proposed array of nationwide voting standards — at a time when GOP legislatures in states across the country are moving to make access to the ballot box tougher — offers their best chance to overcome the bill's long odds.
Democrats on Wednesday formally introduced the Senate's version of what they've dubbed the For the People Act, and labeled S 1, which is almost identical to HR 1 as passed by the House this month. The first hearing is scheduled for next Wednesday, with committee approval on course for April.
Both bills would nationalize no-excuse, postage-paid absentee voting and at least 15 days of in-person voting before Election Day. They would assure eligible voters everywhere could both register and vote on Election Day, or else be automatically registered when they do business with many state agencies. And they would make it more difficult for states to purge from the rolls people who vote only infrequently.
Democrats say these things would perpetuate if not improve the robust turnout of 2020, especially in communities of color — which would be good for democracy and for their electoral prospects, too. Republicans say the states should retain their discretion over voting rules, with some pointing without evidence to the potential for more fraud in a federalized system. Some in the GOP also concede worry that easier voting would mean more Republcian defeats.
Many advocates for the bill argue that, since the filibuster has historically been used most vigorously to thwart civil rights and voting rights legislation, an appropriate repentance would be doing away with the supermajority hurdle for such bills — even if the rules are left unchanged for measures addressing other issues, from immigration to climate change to gun control.
If Democrats break the filibuster to pass HR 1, said the Rev. Stephany Rose Spaulding of the civil rights coalition Just Democracy, the Senate "will forever be remembered as a body that protected Black and Brown communities and erased a vestige of our white supremacist history. Without eliminating this Jim Crow relic, America will slide back into the era of literacy tests and poll taxes."
But the package goes way beyond voting rights. It would also change campaign finance rules by requiring super PACs and issue advocacy groups to disclose donors who give more than $10,000, and by creating federal matching funds for candidates willing to rely on small-dollar donors. It would make states assign the drawing of congressional districts to politically independent panels, and stiffen codes of conduct for all three branches of government.
Polling in swing states by two progresisve groups, which launched a $30 million advocacy campaign this week, found that all the major provisions are broadly popular but the money-in-politics and government ethics proposals draw the most enthusiasm from Republicans.
Biden, who issued an executive order this month to promote voting rights as much as possible without the legislation, did not mention democracy reform much as as a candidate last year but has called for passage of HR 1.
"It's getting to the point where, you know, democracy is having a hard time functioning," Biden said in an interview with ABC News when asked why he had changed his mind to support only a "talking filibuster," which he opposed during his own 36-year career in the Senate.
For now, a senator need only announce opposition to a bill to make the other side start searching for 60 votes, a near impossibility in the ideologically polarized 50-50 Senate. Some budget measures and all nominations are exempt, which is how Biden has been able to get his Cabinet confirmed and win passage of his $1.9 trillion pandemic economic rescue bill.
Insisting on the talking filibuster would require a rules change, which can be accomplished by simple majority. All Republicans could be counted on to vote "no," meaning the Democrats and Vice President Kamala Harris would all have to vote "yes." Two Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have been reluctant to change the rules but have signaled an openness to the sort of change Biden described.
McConnell warned of stark consequence both procedural and ideological.
"This chaos would not open up an express lane to liberal change. It would not open up an express lane for the Biden presidency to speed into the history books. The Senate would be more like a hundred-car pile-up. Nothing moving," he said.
And whenever Republicans return to power, he vowed, they could pass "all kinds of conservative policies with zero input from the other side" without a filibuster, such as restricting abortion rights and eviscerating organized labor.
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Golden is the author of "Unlock Congress" (Why Not Books, 2015) and a senior fellow at the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy. He is a member of The Fulcrum's editorial advisory board.
It's almost dead. And when we finally kill it off for good, it will be an epic day for our country.
I'm not talking about the Republican Party. Its survival will be up to its voters, or former voters.
And I'm not talking about the political death of the defendant whom the Senate just acquitted. Now that the trial is over, there's even more reason to ignore him.
I'm referring to the biggest blockage in our government, the one defect that has been holding us back from fixing the rest of the system's problems. For our system is rigged — just not in the ways you've become accustomed to hearing about from the world's loudest perch.
So, you may ask: What is it? When are you gonna name the thing?
First let me describe it — and the other big fixes it's holding up. If I were to take nearly the entire diagnosis in my book and distill it into 75 words, it would boil down to this:
American voters are ill-served and unfairly represented in Congress because of an electoral system that does two things. It allows officeholders to rig legislative races through the partisan drawing of maps ("gerrymandering") and by prohibiting candidates from running in general elections as independents after they've lost a primary. And it encourages officeholders to raise billions to keep their seats, resulting in behavior and decision-making that is probably corrupt and unrepresentative of the majority of Americans' preferences.
Now, before we get to the big "kill," two great developments have come to pass in the years since I started writing about this stuff.
First, reformers across the country have earned big wins to improve our system. A real movement has been quietly growing — from anti-corruption measures to money disclosure requirements to independent districting commissions and other fixes. One of the leading advocates of this charge, RepresentUs, is actually making reform cool.
Second, the For The People Act has been introduced again in Congress. It's called HR 1 in the House and S 1 in the Senate. The bill proposes two solutions straight out of my book, and would also confront voting rights. It's provisions include:
- Requiring states to convene independent commissions to draw congressional maps.
- Requiring disclosure of "dark money" contributions, setting up a small-donor matching system to empower candidates without wealthy networks, and strengthening the Federal Election Commission's oversight of so-called super PACs.
- Enacting new reforms to remove barriers to voting and mandating paper ballots so that elections can be audited to ensure accuracy.
Now, I can make Boy Scout arguments all day for improving our democracy, but the fact is there are clear political consequences from HR 1 passing — and the GOP knows it. Perhaps none would be bigger than reducing Republicans' current power to gerrymander districts in order to win back the House — which would happen even if the national vote was split down the middle.
Yet for the first time in 12 years, Democrats now have political control on Capitol Hill and in the White House. All things being equal, this is their moment.
But all things are not equal. And now it's time to melodramatically unveil that monstrous blockage that must be killed -- the dam preventing our government from doing the big things most of us want. It's a pair of dumb Senate rules born accidentally 215 years ago, requiring 60 votes to pass most legislation — instead of the simple majority specifically outlined in our Constitution.
These rules are called "filibuster" and "cloture." And they both need to die.
Simply put, the Democrats now hold 50 seats in the Senate, not enough to pass S 1 and upgrade our representative democracy so long as the GOP stands unified against it. Without 60 votes, that bill will never be more than a piece of paper.
When I first made my case to kill the filibuster, it was not popularly shared. Senators waxed lovingly of the "bipartisanship" the rules produced and extolled the rights of the minority. I wasn't buying it. Constitutional scholar Emmet Bondurant and I perforated the senators' smokescreen on this site a year ago .
In 2017, GOP Leader Mitch McConnell reversed years of his own statements and got the Senate to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations, allowing President Trump to add three polarizing conservative justices. It was entirely predictable. McConnell plays hardball, and it's how he installed a new ideological majority on the bench that will live for decades.
Now will the Democrats do the same? Will they "go nuclear" and kill the filibuster on the one remaining thing it can thwart — the passage of laws?
We don't know. But we do know it's possible. Over the last year, some of the party's biggest stars have come aboard and publicly spoken out in favor of nuking it: Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, Stacey Abrams, Pete Buttigieg and a fast-growing list of national opinion leaders.
They all make the same argument: We cannot buckle to GOP obstruction forever. Enough.
Standing in the way of the filibuster's final death are two Democratic senators from more conservative states, West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema. They have vowed not to vote for its elimination for the next two years. Yet pressure has a way of moving politicians.
Perhaps Obama said it best in last year's eulogy for John Lewis, who fought for voting rights his entire life and helped to shape HR 1. As Obama talked about the imperative of outlawing gerrymandering and restoring voting protections that have been gutted, he declared:
"If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that's what we should do."
Are you listening, senators? Do you want to get big things done? You have the power to make it happen. All you have to do is use it.
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Closing in on nine years as president of the Institute for Free Speech, David Keating long ago cemented his status as one of the foremost conservative forces in the money-in-politics debate. The nonprofit's aim is to safeguard First Amendment rights, particularly unfettered political speech, and views deregulation of campaign finance as central to that goal. Keating took charge after a similar group he started, SpeechNow.org, won a federal lawsuit to end donation and spending limits on independent political groups — thus creating super PACs. He had top posts at two prominent fiscal conservative organizations, the Club for Growth and the National Taxpayers Union, earlier in a D.C. advocacy career dating to the 1980s. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Stopping government from discouraging dissent.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
In high school, I learned about machine politics. My friends who wanted to become summer lifeguards had to be Republicans. I thought that was ridiculous, so I decided to register as an independent. Still am.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
Being appointed in 1996 to the National Commission on Restructuring the IRS, a bipartisan group of tax experts. We surprised many when we reached a broad consensus. Unlike most such reports that gather dust, ours was turned into a bill that became law. It included my recommendations to strengthen taxpayers' rights when interacting with the IRS and to protect innocent people from being forced to pay taxes owed by any tax-cheating former spouses.
Many of my most rewarding experiences have come in volunteer work. Ten years ago my SpeechNow won the case allowing independent groups to fundraise freely. This year I became a director of Masks4All and saw 85 percent of the nation adopt mask requirements to fight Covid-19.
And your most disappointing setback?
Failure to advance through Congress a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. Two times in the 1990s we came up just one vote short in the Senate. Still, our campaign helped spur the first annual budget surplus in nearly four decades, starting in 1998 and lasting until the Sept. 11 attacks.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I identify as an independent person. I'm a registered independent in part because I don't trust either party on key issues. Too many people focus too much on "what's best for my team," either red or blue, which affects their ability to think clearly.
To promote and defend independent thought, much of my professional work has been protecting the freedoms to speak, publish, join groups and petition government for redress of grievances. Without these freedoms, we can't obtain the information we need to understand the world or act effectively to make it a better place.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Be a lifelong learner.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Freedom of Peach.
What is your favorite TV show or movie about politics?
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the 1975 Oscar winner for best picture, about rebellion in a mental institution.
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on the bedside clock app.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I think Dave Chappelle and Anthony Jeselnik are hilarious. But don't tell my wife.
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