Obama's one last chance to do something — anything — to stop Big Money in politics
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Thanks to Democrats, voters saw Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump Right way and wrong way Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy MORE — not Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump FBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for US nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One, memos show Pelosi blasts California Republicans for supporting tax bill MORE — as the candidate most likely to stand up to special interests.

Long before Trump announced his candidacy, Democratic party leaders put their own fear and greed ahead of the public good. Afraid of losing to Republican candidates with more money, Democrats coveted access to wealthy benefactors.

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Republican members of Congress routinely obstructed reform efforts and proposed policies that would make our government even more beholden to wealthy donors. The Democratic party establishment, including President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaReport: FCC chair to push for complete repeal of net neutrality Right way and wrong way Keystone XL pipeline clears major hurdle despite recent leak MORE, gave lip service to the idea of reducing the influence of money in politics.

But when faced with opportunities to demonstrate they weren’t beholden to big donors, they wasted every one of them:

PUBLIC FINANCING

In a sense, things started going downhill even before Obama won the White House. In 2008, he became the first major party candidate to refuse public matching funds for the general election. Obama said public financing, established in the wake of the Watergate scandal, was:

“broken, and we face opponents who’ve become masters at gaming this broken system.”

A reasonable excuse, but once elected, instead of fixing the broken system, Obama became another master of the game.

SUPER PACs

In 2008, Obama said he didn’t want support from outside organizations, which he later called “a threat to our democracy.”

In 2012, he sang a different tune, supporting the fundraising efforts of Priorities USA Action. The super PAC raised almost $80 million for the president’s successful reelection campaign.

Four years later, a pair of super PACs would raise more than $267 million for Clinton. Is it any wonder that voters looked at Democrats and saw another party of business as usual?

DARK MONEY

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. The ruling outraged Americans across the political spectrum. Sensing an opportunity, Democrats introduced the DISCLOSE (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections) Act.

The legislation would have required more transparency from super PACs and “dark money” groups — organizations that can spend millions on elections without having to disclose their donors.

The House narrowly passed the bill in June 2010; but Senate Democrats couldn't break a GOP filibuster.

Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJuan Williams: The politics of impeachment Texas Republicans slam White House over disaster relief request Dem rep: Trump disaster aid request is 'how you let America down again' MORE, the New York Democrat who sponsored the legislation, pledged his party would “go back at this bill again and again and again until we pass it.”

Democrats tried again later that year — and failed. Subsequent attempts never made it out of committee.

The results of this shortsightedness, incompetence, or both became clear breathtakingly soon. In the Nov. 2010 mid-terms, “dark money” groups supporting Republicans spent about eight times as much as dark money groups supporting Democrats, and Democrats suffered major losses in both the Senate and House. 

IRS ENFORCEMENT

In the wake of Citizens United, nonprofit “dark money” organizations took advantage of poorly defined IRS guidelines to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to influence elections.

The IRS — which answers, of course, to Obama’s Treasury secretary — could have enacted long-overdue guidelines to restrict the political activity of tax-exempt organizations, but it abandoned the effort in the wake of opposition from Republican lawmakers.

FEC APPOINTMENTS

During Obama’s tenure, the Federal Election Commission consistently failed to enforce campaign finance law, routinely deadlocking along party lines. Although five of the six commissioners’ terms have expired, the White House failed to fill the vacancies, saying only that it was “committed to nominating highly qualified individuals to lead the FEC.”

SEC RULES

More than 1.2 million Americans asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to draft a rule requiring corporations to notify investors of political donations. Three former SEC commissioners were among those who said such information would be of material interest to stockholders. But the agency, headed by an Obama appointee, declined to act.

EXECUTIVE ORDERS

The Obama administration drafted an executive order in 2011 that would have required government contractors — which include 70 percent of the Fortune 100 — to disclose their political spending.

A year later, the White House abandoned the idea.

The picture is bleak for those of us who want a government that represents the people, not corporations and billionaires. Donald Trump has already named a leader of one of the major dark money groups of 2016, Todd Ricketts, to a top spot in the U.S. Commerce Department. And Republicans in Congress plan to  introduce bills to remove campaign contribution limits.

The Obama administration still has a few weeks to issue an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose “dark money” expenditures. That’s enough time to make a start at redemption.

Daniel G. Newman is the President of MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization that reveals money’s influence on politics.


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