Don't show me the campaign money

  • Article by: MIKE MEYERS
  • Updated: August 4, 2012 - 7:10 PM

As political donations slosh around, our temptation is to shine a light -- but it might be better to keep recipients in the dark.

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As much as $1 billion in private donations from shadowy campaign organizations, often bankrolled by anonymous donors, will drive the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. Millions more will target voters in congressional contests, where more paltry sums can presage victory or defeat.

Who is behind all that money? As often as not, we'll never know.

But the problem with current campaign finance law is not too much secrecy. The problem is too little.

What matters is not that the public is kept in the dark about who supplies all that furtive campaign money. The trouble is that the concealment doesn't extend to the candidates. If we're going to have secrecy, let's have it for everyone.

In American politics, a few thousand insiders know who is fueling the careers of those who govern 300 million. For the most part, the 300 million don't. A modest proposal: keep everyone ignorant. Drop an impenetrable shroud between those who give and those who receive.

Put people in jail for divulging the names of political donors. With so much money sloshing around politics, fines won't do. A stretch in the pen would.

Imagine if the candidates themselves were prevented from knowing the identity of their benefactors. Might they behave differently toward "special interests"? If you cannot answer this question, you explain the sharp drop in student test scores.

It's sometimes hard to distinguish the pursued from the pursuer, in a world where money is chased and few involved are chaste. From one point of view, the first in line to end the current system should be the people who finance it.

Pity the overlooked victims of political fundraising -- the people who write the largest checks. They hardly receive enough public sympathy for what they go through.

They're the objects of perpetual shakedowns.

All around, upturned palms stretch in their direction. Trade group political directors pay frequent calls. Political parties pester potential donors to attend to fundraisers, as do political action committees and candidates themselves.

They're at the center of an arms race. If they give $50,000 to back a business-friendly candidate, can they be sure a hostile union won't give $100,000? What $50,000 could buy in the last election may not buy the same today. And, honestly, can we trust what's bought to stay bought?

Twenty years ago, an Eddie Murphy comedy called "The Distinguished Gentleman," summed up the dilemma. Ponder this exchange between Thomas Jefferson Johnson, a con man turned member of Congress, and Terry Corrigan, a lobbyist.

Johnson: "Terry, tell me something. With all this money coming in from both sides, how does anything ever get done?"

Corrigan: "It doesn't. That's the genius of the system."

Even the fringe benefits of being identified as a deep-pocket benefactor can be a mixed blessing.

A party at the townhouse of Sarah Jessica Parker sounds cool. But a weekend at a Utah retreat with Karl Rove? Comedian Stephen Colbert can duplicate the experience with a canned ham wearing wire-rimmed glasses.

Hiding the names on all those checks from the eyes of candidates and political parties would have many virtues.

It would end the ever-so-unfair slander that campaign fundraisers are peddling influence or that fat-cat donors are bribing politicians. Anonymity for donors would ensure that campaign contributors be seen by everyone as they surely see themselves, as public-spirited altruists eager to promote high-minded political ideals.

Millionaire Bruce Wayne is content to let Batman take the bows for saving Gotham City. Peter Parker asks nothing in return for defeating villains in the guise of Spiderman. Let campaign donors learn from such virtuous examples. Keep masks on!

Of course, unselfishness has its limits. But the flaws of human nature could have salutary effects on money in politics, almost by accident.

Ever notice how many hospital wings, college libraries and charitable foundations have the names of prominent people plastered on plaques on their walls? People who give like to get -- even if all they get is a show of gratitude and a chance at immortality.

Deprived of a spotlight, would bombastic billionaire Donald Trump back Mitt Romney for the White House? Without the knowledge that Trump helped to finance his campaign, would Romney take the stage with Trump?

Double-blind campaign finance takes the implicit rewards -- tangible and intangible -- out of the fundraising process. Taking Donald Trump out of the news would be just one of many virtues.

Envision politics with government officials having no direct knowledge of who gave money to their campaigns.

What stands would the president and Congress take on tax policy -- and tax breaks for oil companies? Or maintaining the sanctity of federal lands in the face of demands by the timber industry -- and oil companies? Or enforcing safety and environmental regulations imposed on manufacturers -- and oil companies?

Did you know the Koch brothers made their billions in the oil business? Did you know they already have given $25 million -- and plan to donate more -- to Republican causes? Unlike many donors, the Koch brothers brazenly brandish their checkbooks without seeking cover. Why should they? The Koch brothers sell commodities to captive buyers. No need to fear customer backlash in their line of work.

For others, however, how much nicer to get what they want without the transaction happening in the glare of public. Even the most prosperous sugar daddies can't be too careful these days.

Just ask executives at 3M or Target, who faced pickets when many customers and shareholders didn't like the political stands they offered their corporate largesse. 3M beat back a shareholder move to block campaign giving.

3M said such contributions are needed to keep 3M "an effective participant in the legislative process." Participate away, 3M, but please don't make the rest of us watch. Some activities are best done in the dark.

Congress has been considerate enough to recognize how awkward political giving can be.

Consider the rise of the "501(c)(4)" organizations, such as Karl Rove's "American Crossroads" or "Priorities USA", which favors Democratic causes. Named for a once-obscure section of the tax code, 501s are labeled nonprofit "social welfare" groups not aligned with individual candidates.

The 501s, unlike political action committees (PACs) and super PACs, are not required to disclose the names of contributors. That's made 501s the fastest-growing political patrons going.

Democrats, falling behind Republicans in hauling in clandestine cash, have demanded that the Internal Revenue Service investigate whether such groups are violating laws for tax-exempt organizations. Bet on the 2012 election passing before anyone sees results.

In the "Citizens United" case, the Supreme Court ruled that money is political speech. Implicit in that ruling was the idea that the more free speech, the better.

That's debatable. But why should politicians know who's doing the talking in campaign ads if the rest of us don't?

Of course, I could be wrong.

Maybe the way to go is to shed sunshine in all directions. Indeed, to celebrate the light. Complete disclosure could have the same effects as complete secrecy.

Shunning all claims to confidentiality, campaign contributors could bid for politician "naming rights."

"Gov. Mark Dayton, brought to you by the National Football League." "The Minnesota Regional Labor Federation, proud sponsor of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak." Maybe politicians could wear the logos of all their benefactors, like NASCAR drivers.

Who wouldn't welcome politicians bowing to truth-in-labeling laws? After all, what have they got to hide?

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Mike Meyers, a former Star Tribune business reporter, is a Minneapolis-based writer.

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