Disclosure of all political spending is something that most Americans want. Yet as we watch the most moneyed midterm election in history, we continue to drive in the slow lane toward some of the most obvious transparency solutions to our dark money in politics problem. At the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the rule-making that is needed for investors to understand corporate political spending has gotten significant momentum, but now waits for the chair to prioritize it. At the Federal Election Commission (FEC), five years after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United decision, the commissioners finally finalized rules to react to the decision, only to omit mention of disclosure (although they left us with an avenue to comment on the matter with a February open meeting). At the IRS, the agency continues to work slowly on rule-making that would define political activity and push dark money groups into more appropriate entities with required disclosure. And we can't forget the many pieces of important transparency legislation that have been introduced and then stalled in Congress, including the DISCLOSE Act, the Real Time Transparency Act and the Shareholder Protection Act.
The good news is that momentum for regulators and elected officials to act on these key reforms is growing steadily, and that this election gives us the perfect rationale for these changes.
The 2014 contest has been termed the "dark money election" for a reason. As Nick Confessore reported for the The New York Times, more than half of all ad spending this cycle — 55 percent — has come through dark money groups, and a recent analysis from the Sunlight Foundation tells us that Republican-focused dark money groups have spent $94.6 million in money from undisclosed sources, while Democratic-focused groups have spent $28.4 million in dark money (Approximately $1.9 million in dark expenditures could not be assigned).
Take the most outrageous perpetrator of secret money, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A trade association and vocal dark money advocate, chamber President Tom Donohue has proudly said that the chamber intends to "give [members] all the deniability they need" when it comes to political spending. The chamber's spending so far in this election makes it the largest overall spender in 2014 among outside groups that do not disclose their contributors, and the largest such spender in 28 of the 35 races in which it has gotten involved. Public Citizen's U.S. Chamber Watch project reported this week in new research that the overall spending number for the U.S. Chamber is a whopping $32 million.
Voters have had enough of the shady spending, and Americans of all political backgrounds agree that there is too much dark corporate money being funneled into politics. A poll by Bannon Communications found that nine in 10 Americans agree with that statement and 51 percent strongly agree. By huge margins, Americans think that if corporations are going to engage in political spending, that spending must be controlled by shareholders and reported to the public. Eight out of 10 Americans in the poll agreed that corporations should spend money on political campaigns only if they give information about the spending to their shareholders and even go so far as to support prior approval from their shareholders for the spending.
This public sentiment is reflected in real-time action. For example, at the SEC, more than 1 million comments have been sent to the agency supporting a rule requiring corporations to disclose political spending (10 times the previous all-time record number of comments to the SEC). Retail investors and the public are speaking loudly about their need for this spending information.
This momentum means it's time to stop slamming on the brakes of transparency solutions to our dark money problem and time for regulators and elected officials to push policy reforms that bring clarity in this space. Before we address the massive amount of money in the system and what it means via substantial reforms like small-donor public financing, coordination reform and eventually overturning Citizens United, we need to better understand (as voters, shareholders and engaged citizens) where all this money comes from.
It's time to hit the gas on reform.
Gilbert is the director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division.