Sheldon Whitehouse, U.S. Senator for Rhode Island
With an election season looming that promises to feature upwards of 20 candidates spending untold sums of cash as they vie for the White House, it’s time again to take a serious look at how we can improve our broken campaign-finance system. Without serious reforms, and with so many candidates drawing support from powerful special interests, the stage is being set for a campaign that caters to the needs of everyone but the American people.
How did we get to this point? Simple: Citizens United. That disastrous and misguided 2010 decision by the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for unlimited, secret spending in American elections. Since Citizens United, there has been a dramatic rise in political spending by so-called “independent” groups with no disclosure requirements. In the 2014 elections—the most expensive midterm elections in our history, with over $3.7 billion spent—the Washington Post reported that at least 31 percent of all independent spending was spent by groups that are not required to disclose their donors. And that doesn’t even count spending on so-called “issue ads,” ads that purport to advocate for a specific policy rather than a person, which is not reported.
Here’s how it works: Corporations and wealthy individuals funnel money through organizations with names like “Americans for Prosperity” and “Crossroads GPS,” which are classified as nonprofit “social welfare” organizations by the IRS. This classification enables them to buy campaign ads without disclosing their donors. As a result, the public never knows who is really behind those commercials trying to influence their vote.