Ever since the Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates to unlimited and undisclosed special interest and corporate spending in our elections, President Obama has repeatedly warned that these undisclosed contributions will give special interests even more power over politicians. And, with that power, they plan to return to the days when lobbyists wrote the laws in Washington to benefit special interests at the expense of the American people.
The President fought hard to block this troubling development by repeatedly calling on Congress to pass the DISCLOSE Act -- legislation that would establish the strongest-ever disclosure requirements for election-related spending by special interests. But Congressional Republicans blocked every attempt we made to put our democracy back where it belongs -- in the hands of the American people. Their opposition wasn't rooted in policy differences, because they've supported this type of legislation in the past. Rather, it was a cynical decision based on electoral considerations. And now, thanks to aggressive investigative reporting, we are getting a glimpse of the consequences lax disclosure rules have on our political process.
The New York Times reported today that one Texas billionaire alone has given at least $13 million to outside groups that are able to accept donations of unlimited size and are spending tens of millions of dollars on misleading, negative ads. This donor refused interviews, but his spokesman said, "We'll let the donations speak for themselves." And NBC News reported yesterday that this special interest money has been pouring in to these shadowy groups at such a rate in the past few weeks that they expect to raise as much as $250 million between now and Election Day.
Donations to many of these groups never have to be disclosed, which means the American people no longer have the right to know who is financing ads that are "overwhelmingly spreading exaggerations and falsehoods" in an attempt to influence an election. As the President said yesterday: "They could be insurance companies. They could be Wall Street banks. We don't know. We don't know who it is."
And this kind of activity is not limited to election season; it is a year-round campaign to take over our democracy as these groups attempt to bully lawmakers and distort key legislation on behalf of corporate interests. Additional reporting, based on corporate records, revealed a number of contributions from major corporations to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. For instance, Dow Chemical gave the Chamber $1.7 million last year as it fought rules tightening security requirements at chemical facilities. Prudential Financial gave the Chamber $2 million last year as the Chamber led a national advertising campaign against new financial regulations. And there was little doubt that Prudential expected a return on its investment. The company spokesman admitted that the money was designed to influence votes. "I am not suggesting it is a coincidence," he said in the Times story.
These types of stories about special interest power grabs will only become more common until Congressional Republicans end their blockade against stronger disclosure rules, like the DISCLOSE Act. Otherwise we risk a situation where laws are being made with shadowy special interests who hide behind their checkbooks, and not based on what's in the best interest of the American people.
And, more importantly right now, these groups spending millions ought to be straight with the American people. Who is funding your ads -- and what do they expect in return?
Dan Pfeiffer is White House Communications Director. This post originally appeared at The White House Blog.