The U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to spend $100 million to influence this year’s elections, and it will do anything to make sure no one knows where it gets its money from. In March, a federal judge issued a decision concerning a type of political ad that the Chamber has used heavily in its attempts to influence elections, called “electioneering communications.” The decision requires that any group (or individual) that runs electioneering communications must disclose its donors. Advocates of transparency in elections praised the ruling, hoping it would increase the disclosures that allow voters to evaluate the messages they are being bombarded with this election. But the Chamber is defiant. It has announced that it will switch from using electioneering communications to another type of ad, called “independent expenditures,” which still allow spenders to avoid disclosing donors.
The Chamber’s move proves that our campaign finance system is so broken that the only law really governing is the law of unintended consequences. That’s because electioneering communications must stop short of expressly supporting or opposing a candidate for office — that is, they don’t say “vote for” or “defeat.” Independent expenditures, on the other hand, do expressly call on voters to vote for or against the candidate targeted. So in order to keep its donors secret, the Chamber is going to switch to ads that are more overtly political than those it has used in the past. That’s right — being more explicit in trying to influence elections allows the Chamber to disclose less about the sources of its spending.
Citizens United and other court decisions have reasoned that spending by outside groups shouldn’t be limited because courts assume that independent spending can’t have a corrupting influence. The campaign finance system has been rocked by the explosion of outside spending that has resulted. Super PACs have spent record amounts in this election. Some Senate candidates are being outspent by super PACs by a margin of three to one. And the undeniable cooperation of super PACs and the candidates they support exposes deep problems with the assumption that independent spending can’t corrupt.