The money hunt for the 2016 election cycle is in full swing, and there is no surer sign of it than the first complaints recently filed by reform organizations. While, as in the past, there is intense interest in the likelihood of record-breaking sums and innovative spending strategies, this year, perhaps more than in the past, attention has turned to transparency. “Dark money” is dominating the campaign finance lexicon. Current conversations on this topic have a Groundhog Day quality, and it seems that they are stuck between the dreary and the dreadful. Part of the problem is that nearly 40 years ago, the Supreme Court limited the objective of campaign finance regulation to the prevention of corruption or its appearance, and decades of debate ensued about what is and what is not corruption. And all this in the service of identifying when candidates and political parties come under the “undue influence” of money.
It’s time to retire the tired discourse of corruption and return to the core objective of giving voters access to relevant information. Disclosure today is best understood as a service to voters. Voters care about the “big money,” large contributions and expenditures in support of candidates. Those are the funds that most shape the issues raised and emphasized in campaigns and compel our attention.
The goal should be to avoid going about this task like the drunk looking for car keys under the streetlight — because it is the only illuminated stretch of road. The scale of undisclosed political spending is like the rest of the unlit parking lot, where the lion’s share of the action is increasingly to be found. With the 2016 elections just over the horizon, the Koch brothers alone have announced a billion-dollar network, and there is every indication that this massive spending without transparency will occur on both sides of the partisan divide, and among varying ideological camps as well. As a result, a steeply declining fraction of the total money devoted to winning the White House and the Congress will come from parties and candidates who must report the source of their funds.