Montana GOP Rep. Scott Reichner of Big Fork has put forward what can best be described as a Republican solution to the problem of “dark money” in politics. Dark money is the anonymous, unlimited and unregulated money, usually of corporate origin, that has helped the GOP win seats in the legislature in the last two elections and also helped Tim Fox become attorney general. Most of it was funneled by a group called American Tradition Partnership, a group that has been in severe legal trouble in Montana. Dark money is bad because whoever spends a fortune bankrolling a candidate will later demand something in return. Its legality, unfortunately, has been partially decreed by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court in its pathetic collection of Citizen United decisions. Steve Bullock has led the fight, in Montana and nationally, against dark money.
Unless I’m missing something, Rep. Reichner’s proposal (HB 229) seems designed to make the problem worse. He wants to raise the contribution limits, so that more money could be donated to candidates. His bill, the Billings Gazette reports, would allow a maximum of $2,500 to be contributed to a gubernatorial candidate (current law allows only $620). And, he wants political action committees and other third party groups to be able to donate unlimited money to a candidate. Currently these groups are limited in the same way as individual donors (although they often circumvent these limits, and campaign finance laws in general, by forming non-profit “issue groups” through which they can influence elections without even disclosing who the donors are).
Exactly how Rep. Reichner’s scheme would put an end to political corruption is unclear. Indeed, in fashioning his solution, Rep. Reichner [pronounced Rich-ner] has turned to the most dog-eared page of his party’s playbook: if something is creating a problem for society, it is merely because there isn’t enough of it. To wit: if gun violence in schools is a major national problem, it’s because there are too few, not too many, guns in schools. Or, if conservatives keep losing elections, it’s because they are not being conservative enough, and are mistakenly pandering to moderate voters (claim people like Rush Limbaugh). This is the new Republican logic. If conservatism is is constipating our society and preventing progress, the argument goes, it’s only because we aren’t having a big enough helping of it.
There’s another proposal, by Rep. Rob Cook (R-Conrad), to go along with Reichner’s bill. This one is a riot, and deserves credit for being elegant in its simplicity and getting right to the point: Cook’s bill (HB 254) wants disclosure–not of funding sources, but of the mere fact that the money is anonymous. His bill would require anonymously funded campaign ads to have a disclaimer at the end, saying “This ad was paid for by an anonymous money.”
Why not just introduce a bill that actually forbids anonymous money in the first place?
Our issue in Montana may have been partially settled by a state court in recent days. Judge Sherlock in Helena has ruled that the nebulous category of expenditures known as “issue ads”–those awful advertisements made by non-profit groups to attack or support candidates, done under the guise of a supposedly “non political” 501(c)4 non-profit status which allows donors to remain undisclosed–are in fact purely political and thus break state law. That was the latest ruling against American Tradition Partnership, the group that has fifteen Republican legislators in hot water. So perhaps we will see a sharp abatement of the use of the non-profit loophole next election season (but don’t hold your breath).
American Tradition Partnership might not be able to appeal Sherlock’s decision. From the sound of it, the group has virtually disbanded. It’s staff has run for the hills and it’s bank accounts may have been closed, and all that is left (all that there ever was, in fact) is a P.O. Box and a bunch of ghosts, who gamed our political system while hiding behind the veil of corporate legal status. Perhaps a Republican legislator should come up with a new law to prevent that.