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The Corporate Money Denial Game

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On Sunday, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele took to the airwaves with his party's twin messages of corporate pandering and denial.

It was a remarkable performance.

Asked by Meet the Press host David Gregory if he was worried about the unprecedented amount of undisclosed special interest money being spent in this election, Steele answered, "I don't know what they're talking about. No one's produced one shred of evidence that any of that is happening."

Steele then proceeded to explain that he doesn't have any evidence of secretive corporate spending in elections because organizations doing such spending aren't required to disclose their donors:

MR. GREGORY: But, Chairman, are you denying, are you denying that there is special interest money, that there's outside money that's coming into the campaign that is not being disclosed?

MR. STEELE: I...

MR. GREGORY: We don't know who the individuals are in these, some of these groups that are sponsored?

MR. STEELE: I--Dave, how would, how would I, how, how would I know that? I don't run those organizations, number one. I'm prohibited by law from engaging such--in such activity, number two. So I know we don't take it, and I suspect that those organizations out there, those 527s and others know what the law is and are complying with the law. So if you have evidence to the contrary, produce it. Otherwise, put up or shut up.

So, asked Gregory, should the law require greater transparency for this corporate campaign spending?

MR. STEELE: Absolute--I--David, absolutely. I'm always--I'm--at the end of the day, I agree with--I am absolutely all for transparency. It's--I think it's an appropriate part of the system. It instills the trust that people have in the system, and it also avoids questions like this because that, that information is out there. And it's absolutely will avoid the, the allegations and the charges just thrown out there in the middle of a, of a, of a, of a discussion about health care and the economy.

MR. GREGORY: All right. Let...

MR. STEELE: So I agree, the transparency should be there. But the law is what the law is right now. And if people are that bothered by it, then the Congress needs to change it.

The glaring problem with Steele's supposed embrace of transparent elections is that just a couple of months ago, people were "bothered by" hidden corporate spending in elections, the majority in Congress did draft a law to make that spending transparent...but Steele's party united to stop the law in its tracks just before the midterm elections.

Steele's bumbling and disingenuous response was infuriating, but it served as a perfect illustration of why Republicans have done everything they can to allow unfettered, undisclosed corporate influence in our elections. With the system as it is, Steele can watch corporate interest groups spend millions of dollars to help elect Republican candidates, and nobody is held accountable to voters.

The post-Citizens United landscape -- where corporations are allowed to spend unlimited amounts from their treasuries to run ads for and against candidates, but aren't required to disclose that spending -- has been a boon to candidates who push a pro-corporate agenda. Michael Steele knows it. And so does every candidate who is benefiting from the influx of secretive spending. They know it, but they don't have to own up to it.

And this isn't just an excuse to play coy games with voters. It's strongly in the interest of both candidates and their corporate benefactors to keep the public in the dark about their dealings. Poll after poll has shown that voters are repulsed by the mutual back-scratching that results when corporations can use money from their treasuries to influence elections, and don't want to vote for candidates who benefit from that money.

And, as Gold's Gym found out this week, consumers really don't like it when their money is spent to benefit political causes they disagree with. The holding company that owns Gold's put $2.3 million into the division of Karl Rove's mud-slinging outfit American Crossroads that requires disclosure of its revenue. Gold's is now facing a backlash from supporters of LGBT equality, who don't want their gym membership fees going toward campaign ads supporting anti-gay candidates. Target learned a similar lesson this summer when its $150,000 contribution to a group supporting right-wing, vehemently anti-gay Minnesota candidate Tom Emmer didn't sit well with shoppers or shareholders.

The reaction to Target and Gold's isn't surprising. When we spend money at the grocery store or on a hotel or at the gym, we don't want that money going to elect candidates who will take away our rights and our benefits, send jobs overseas, and ignore our voices in Washington. When a group like the Chamber of Commerce is taking money from businesses across the country and spending millions to elect far-right pro-corporate candidates, anybody who patronizes any of those businesses is unwittingly giving a political contribution. It doesn't take a PhD in political science to call that out as a big swindle.

The groups funneling corporate money know this. Politico reported this week that less than a month after an American Crossroads board member said, "I'm a proponent of lots of money in politics and full disclosure in politics," the organization created a spinoff group that could collect the lots of money, but without the full disclosure. Fundraising skyrocketed.

Just as these pro-corporate donors have no incentive to disclose their activities, without disclosure they have no incentive to conduct an honest political debate. As a recent People For the American Way report outlined, these groups have been running shamelessly misleading, and often outright false, attack ads smearing Democrats on issues like health care reform and Wall Street reform. And they can do this without consequences: the people putting up the money for the ads don't have to own to it, and the candidates benefiting from them can play dumb.

Michael Steele dares us to produce evidence of massive corporate spending in elections, knowing that his party has done everything it can to hide that evidence. And when the next Congress starts work next year, we'll be left knowing that corporate interests have bought themselves a healthy number of pro-corporate members of Congress...but we won't have much evidence to "put up."

The majority of Americans might be disgusted by this lack of any accountability, but pro-corporate candidates and their corporate patrons will keep on trying to pull this trick every year until we act on that disgust. And this is not just a one way street. We should all work to encourage Congress to pass laws requiring transparency from groups on all sides of the political debate. In the long term, Congress and state legislators should pass a constitutional amendment to completely reverse Citizens United. But in the meantime, citizens have the power to go to the polls and stop candidates who are getting their backs scratched by corporate donors from coming to Washington to return the favor.