WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is among those urging Congress to rein in the ever-increasing spending on elections.
The retired justice was scheduled to testify Wednesday during a Senate committee hearing on campaign finance rules, which have been eased since 2010 court decisions that opened door for super PACs that can accept unlimited donations.
Stevens strongly disagreed with those rulings. Since his retirement, the justices have gone a step further in increasing donors' influence and striking down an aggregate limit on total giving.
"The voter is less important than the man who provides money to the candidate," Stevens told The New York Times in a recent interview. "It's really wrong."
At issue are the millions of dollars that influence elections -- if not determine their outcome -- with various degrees of openness. Recent Supreme Court rulings have permitted individuals and corporations to write unlimited checks to independent political committees, while other groups can accept cash without disclosing the donors' identities for months or years, if ever.
Democrats have been vocal in criticizing the new rules and those who take advantage of them, including some of their allies. Republicans, meanwhile, have embraced the system and used the rules to power well-funded groups such as Americans for Prosperity.
"While this hearing can't change the way campaign laws work overnight, it is a much-needed first step," said Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who sides with the Democrats. "It's far past time we shine a bright light on the dark money dominating campaigns."
Groups such as the conservative Americans for Prosperity, for instance, operate under rules that allow them to keep donors' identities secret, unlike those who give to groups like the Republican National Committee. The conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have backed Americans for Prosperity with millions, but understanding their impact in real time is impossible because they technically do not operate as political groups.
"No matter who you are, or whether you live in a red state or a blue state, you deserve to know who's funding the ads on your TV during an election year," King said in a statement ahead of the hearing he is leading. "But tracing the origin of campaign money -- so-called dark money -- has become nearly impossible."
King is pushing a bill that would require that all campaign contributions of $1,000 or more be recorded with the Federal Election Commission within 48 hours -- a huge shift from the current rules, which require senators to file their fundraising tallies every three months.
That measure faces scant chance of becoming law, given that senators routinely reject calls for them to file their campaign finance reports electronically. Most still file their reports on paper.
But there is a growing frustration about the increasingly level of cash making its way through politics.
For instance, the Karl Rove-supported American Crossroads super PAC raised almost $5.2 million last month from three organizations and 21 individuals. The average donation was more than $218,000. The largest donation -- $2 million -- came from former Univision owner Jerry Perenchio. A trust tied to Oklahoma coal executive Joseph Craft III gave $500,000, as did Arkansas-based investment manager Warren Stephens and Kentucky-based self-storage mogul B. Wayne Hughes.
Despite their unrelenting criticism of the Kochs and Rove, Democrats are not bypassing the super PAC circuit.
Fred Eychaner, the founder of Chicago-based Newsweb Corp., wrote a $4 million check to the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group with ties to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The group raised $11 million during the first three months of the year, including $2 million from James Simons, founder and chairman of investment firm Renaissance Technologies.
Wednesday's hearing by the Senate Rules Committee is the first since the Supreme Court's ruling that lifted limits on how much total money individual donors can give to candidates. The court left in place a limit on how much individual candidates can take from each donor, but the justices cleared the way for donors to give the maximum amount to every candidate.
Stevens has spoken out against that decision and, in a new book, has proposed a constitutional amendment that would limit how much money candidates and their supporters can spend on elections.
Others joining Stevens include FEC vice chairman Ann Ravel, former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter, and Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.