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Campaign cash: Corporations get more power, political parties get less

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War chests from right-wing billionaires and corporate titans are funding tremendous portions of political activity, from the so-called grassroots activism of the Tea Party to the streamlined lobbying assaults of the nation’s largest corporations.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s wildly unpopular ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, secret election financing by elites is exploding, even as the public visibility of such electoral purchasing power evaporates.

Corporations get more freedom as political parties get less

As Jamelle Bouie emphasizes for The American Prospect, election funding from political committees and non-profits is already up 40 percent from 2008 levels. But the oft-cited the liberation of the corporate purse was accompanied by less-well-known constraints on political parties themselves. While corporations like Wal-Mart and Bank of America are free to spend as much as they want attacking or promoting specific candidates, the political parties themselves cannot.

As Bouie notes, this scenario further rigs the electoral game in favor of the wealthy and corporations. Candidates who know that their party can’t help them out become even more dependent on corporate cash during elections. And while few entities are less popular right now than the Republican and Democratic parties, they are ultimately accountable to their voters. They reach out to a broad array of individuals across the country, while corporations merely advance their own interests.

Political parties -- however imperfect -- can serve as a check on such destructive corporate influence. Citizens United has made that check much weaker. As Jesse Zwick writes for The Washington Independent, political parties used to dominate independent election spending. This year, for the first time, thanks to Citizens United, front-groups and corporations have taken the lead.

The Tea Party “grassroots” movement is anything but

Billionaires are on the attack, exploiting campaign finance loopholes to prop-up phony “grassroots” political movements. The most egregious -- and successful -- effort has been waged by David Koch, a long-time GOP fundraiser who is now backing major Tea Party organizers. Koch is the executive vice president of Koch Industries, Inc., which refines and distributes petroleum and other raw materials.

As Adele Stan details in her latest in-depth expose for AlterNet and The Nation Investigative Fund, Koch has found ways to funnel money to the Tea Party in just about every way imaginable. But it’s most sinister maneuver was the establishment of two right-wing front groups that keep their donors anonymous. After Citizens United, we’ll never know how much money Koch is funneling to the Tea Party, and his front groups -- FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity -- provide the same cover for other elites.

How much cover? Americans for Prosperity brags that they’ll spend at least $45 million on the 2010 elections, while FreedomWorks plans to throw in another $10 million.

As Stan emphasizes, these two groups are the major organizers of all things Tea Party. They provided logistical organizing for Glenn Beck’s 9/12 rally, held over 300 rallies against health care reform and hosted “voter education” workshops pushing the glories of deregulation to anyone who would listen. They even have an unofficial partnership with Fox News, hosting conservative Fox personalities at their rallies, which are, in turn, promoted by Fox programming. Glenn Beck is even featured in advertisements and fundraising pitches for FreedomWorks.

The anonymity provided by Koch’s front-groups is critical to the Tea Party’s appeal. In popular media, the Tea Party is often described as a grassroots coalition of ordinary, mad-as-hell citizens. That image is hard to sustain in the face of a wildly expensive top-down campaign orchestrated by billionaires. As Stan explains:

The armies of angry white people with their “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, the actual grassroots activists, are not the agents of the Tea Party revolt, but its end users, enriching the Tea Party’s corporate owners just as you and I enrich Google through our clicks.

Of  course, Koch isn’t the only man operating anonymous front-groups. The Citizens United decision allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of their own cash directly influencing elections. But so long as that money is laundered through a third-party, they can keep these expenditures out of the public eye.

Oil giants dominate U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Nobody has exploited this loophole more aggressively than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying clearinghouse for the nation’s largest corporations.

The Chamber doesn’t just rely on domestic donors. It also accepts cash from dozens of foreign corporations. As Kate Sheppard explains for Mother Jones, no less than 14 foreign oil giants belong to The Chamber, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual dues alone. This is important, because as sweeping and destructive as Citizens United was, it did not grant foreign corporations the right to spend on U.S. elections.  There’s nothing xenophobic about that -- it’s a U.S. election, after all, and foreign firms don’t have to live with many of the social and ecological consequences of U.S. deregulation. The Chamber insists it has accounting devices in place to separate its funding and keep its operations within the law, but so far, it hasn’t explained how these work.

But ultimately, as Sheppard and her MoJo colleague Nick Baumann note, the influence of domestic corporations on the American political process is equally sinister as foreign corporate influence. If the narrow interests of a U.S. corporation hijack our democracy with campaign war chests, that can be just as bad as subjecting our democracy to the whims of a foreign corporation. Whether the Chamber’s foreign funding follows the letter of the law or not, the organization is still running a destructive campaign to further entrench corporate power in our political system -- and shield those same corporate titans from public accountability.

And the existing campaign finance regulators aren’t even enforcing the meager laws that do exist to curb legalized bribery. As Jesse Zwick explains in another piece for The Washington Independent, three recent appointees to the Federal Election Commission have waged an all-out war to mire the agency in gridlock, preventing it from cracking down on straightforward abuses.  President George W. Bush actually named former Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX)’s campaign finance lawyer to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). His term has expired, but getting new FEC commissioners confirmed by the Senate in the face of Republican filibusters appears nearly impossible. So Delay’s lawyer, Donald McGahn, is still working to keep campaign finance laws from being enforced, and succeeding.

Democracy is not a corporate bidding war. Corporate cash belongs in the board room, not the voting booth.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the mid-term elections and campaign financing by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit The Media Consortium for more articles on these issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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