About that “dark money” we’ve been warning you about? It’s really not a big problem.

About that “dark money” we’ve been warning you about? It’s really not a big problem.

Faint applause for the Committee for Economic Development. As their website says, “CED has been at the forefront of campaign finance reform since 1999.” In other words, they’ve tried to stop businesses from participating in election campaigns: “In this election cycle, we are saying to business people, ‘don’t contribute, but if you do contribute – disclose.’ – Michael Petro, Executive Vice President, CED.”

Unlike some organizations, however, CED is perfectly willing to fund extensive research that demonstrates, without question, that they are wrong about their underlying concern. Twice. First  in November 2016, as a heavily-underspending Trump campaign was winning, CED put out an “interim” report demonstrating that fears of businesses overwhelming American democracy were overblown.

Following the landmark Citizens United ruling, corporations have not participated in campaign finance activities to the extent that many expected. In fact, major companies are not making independent expenditures, and very few public companies are contributing to Super PACs. 

And on July 10, 2017, CED issued its completed report, which again showed that almost all campaign spending was disclosed, and businesses were less than six percent of spending. Unions, often touted as “acceptable” participants in campaigns relative to businesses, were at the same small percentage. And that “dark money” we’ve heard so much about in recent years, as an existential threat to our democracy? About 2-3% in the last two election cycles.

So-called “Super PACS,” which are permitted to spend and receive unlimited amounts of funds, but must disclose all of it, made 9.6% of all political expenditures. Concerns were expressed that businesses would hide behind Super PACs, but 60 percent  of SuperPAC contributions came from individuals, while business corporations provided only six percent of SuperPAC contributions.

As a recent recap from the Center for Competitive Politics suggested: “CED’s findings join a growing body of research that makes the doom and gloom predictions surrounding Citizens United look embarrassingly off the mark. It is increasingly clear that candidates and parties have not been “drowned out” by “outside” speakers; that super PACs amplify the voices of citizens more than corporations; and that “dark money” constitutes a tiny portion of total political spending.”

But … and to (kind of) quote from a recent Game of Thrones episode, “everything before the ‘but’ is BS.” CED has not changed its position on campaign finance “reform,” even after its own reports repeatedly show that the concerns it has heard are unfounded or overblown.

Why? Let’s let CED speak for itself. From the Conclusion of the Executive Summary of the latest CED report:


The campaign finance landscape has changed since Citizens United. New sources of funding and new types of organizations have become involved in federal elections. The major change is the rise of Super PACs, which have become a significant source of campaign spending. Yet, even with these changes, the vast majority of the money in federal elections still comes from limited, disclosed contributions made by individual donors to candidates, parties, and PACs. When the unlimited contributions made by individuals to Super PACs are included, the vast majority of the money raised to finance federal election activity—88 percent in 2014 and 90 percent in 2016—came from voluntary contributions made by individuals.

Corporations, labor unions, and other organizations have become more active participants in campaign finance and are spending substantial amounts, although this activity represents a minor share of the money flowing into federal elections. Our analysis indicates that business corporations and trade associations have not responded to the Citizens United ruling by substantially devoting significant resources to the new opportunities for political spending created by the decision. From what can be discerned from public reports, the responses of the business community and labor community have been relatively equivalent in terms of their role as sources of unlimited money in the election process: neither has pursed extensive independent spending and neither has proven to be a source of funding that is driving the growth of Super PAC fundraising, although both have contributed to the changes taking place in minor ways.

There has been a rising role and outpouring of money from interest groups, particularly organizations that raise money outside the realm of public disclosure. The role of these organizations continues to be a cause for concern, since their transactions in election campaigns are not subject to effective and full public disclosure. Further growth in this component of election finance would impair the public’s ability to know who is behind election spending and thereby decrease the accountability in the campaign finance system.


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