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Recently a couple of stories broke about attempts to bring disclosure back into the political fundraising process. The first was about a draft executive order that will make it harder for federal contractors to use campaign finance vehicles like American Crossroads GPS to support candidates without disclosing that fact. The second article covers DCCC chairman Rep. Chris Van Hollen's (D-MD) suit against the FEC as part of an attempt to get that very same group (Crossroads GPS) to disclose its donors. 

Neither article mentions the larger context:

In 2010, a Republican filibuster doomed the DISCLOSE act in the Senate. The DISCLOSE act was a response to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v FEC, and would've enacted the disclosure requirements explicitly called for by Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion. Republicans killed the bill because they knew disclosure would limit the amount of money they could raise through vehicles like Crossroads GPS. There are plenty of corporations out there that support Republicans, but not all of them are looking to be Target

With the Senate deadlocked, the FEC seemed like another route for protecting disclosure. Unfortunately, it's also paralyzed. By law, the FEC is composed of 3 Democratic and 3 Republican comissioners. As in the Senate, the Republican members of the FEC are hostile to anything that might increase disclosure and bring transparency into the system. So the FEC remains deadlocked (for more on exactly how/why this is happening, see the link above).

That context is important because, when the legislative and regulatory routes are closed down by Republican obstruction, only the courts and executive branch remain. Any right-wing vitriol directed against these measures that doesn't acknowledge the GOP's role in closing off all other routes is an attempt to deceive the audience.  

The issue of disclosure is of critical importance to our democracy. Think of it this way: speech, as most of us understand it, is associated with identifiable voices. Accordingly, if money is speech, we need to know who is speaking. When that link breaks down, it's hard for voters–and the reporters they depend on–to tell what interests are moving through our political process. The advertisements run by Mom 'n Pop Apple Pie Shop could be a underwritten by money from Big Pie, and there'd be no way for anyone to know. Ultimately, there's no way to make an informed decision about who to vote for if you don't and can't know who's backing them.

One option is to take money out of politics, but I'm not sure there's an effective way to use politics to keep money out of politics. If you accept the proposition that interest groups can affect political outcomes, then it seems only natural that they'd work to ensure their main avenue for exerting that influence isn't cut off by an act of Congress. Even if you're willing to assume a perfect piece of campaign finance legislation, you still run into the problem that the law is constantly evolving. A decision down the road that couldn't possibly have been forseen can punch a hole through even the most well-crafted campaign finance law. In fact, we just saw that very thing happen with the Citizens United decision that undermined years of precedent and opened huge gaps in McCain-Feingold. 

That reality is why ActBlue is so important. We're taking the most settled aspect of campaign finance law (the right of individuals to give to candidates) and using it as a way to demonstrate that small donors can have a powerful voice in our politics. By disclosing those donations, we're working to remove the stigma of political giving and make it an easy and regular part of American life. In the end, we're working to restore the very confidence in our political system that Republicans are actively undermining in search of an ever larger, ever less accountable grip on our political system.

In a pair of articles for the New York Times, Michael Luo delves into the role that anonymous donors are playing in the 2010 elections. Oddly, given his subject matter, he doesn't address the ways in which anonymity conditions what we are willing to say and how we say it.

Anyone who has glanced at a comment thread in the last ten years knows that anonymity and vitriol are intimately linked. Anonymous speakers are insulated from the consequences of their words, and that disconnect inevitably leads to harsher speech. Things we wouldn't say to a stranger on the street are happily tossed around in chat rooms and on forums.

That occurs because anonymity means less accountability: speech by unknown speakers can't rebound to their detriment, though it can damage both the target and the means through which that message was conveyed. That, in turn, incentivizes nastier messages conveyed through disposable conduits. In internet lingo, a flame war started by someone with an anonymous or misleading handle can damage its target, and the reputation of the forum as a whole long before it hurts the author.

These habits have their analogues in our politics. The astonishing growth and success (h/t CRP) of right-wing outside groups this cycle is about damaging Democrats through what are ultimately expendable conduits. Speaking through the ads aired by these organizations, GOP donors are able to elide not one, but two questions: who are you, and what does this ad mean if your guy wins?

Anonymity is the guarantor of security in both cases. It ensures the first question goes unanswered, and prevents the press from doing much more than guesswork when it comes to the second. When a harsh ad debuts, the donor needn't worry about reporters asking them whether they endorse the content. Any politician who benefits from the ad has enough room to distance himself from its content, during the campaign and afterward.

In short, the GOP filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act didn't just enable unlimited spending by anonymous donors. These groups–if they or their equivalents persist after election day–will slowly lead us down the path toward politics-as-flame-war.

Meg Infantino, Treasurer for Sestak For Senate:

ActBlue has been an essential, integral part of our grassroots fundraising efforts.

We've always used ActBlue, starting with Joe Sestak's initial, successful run for Congress back in 2006. That year, Joe led all U.S. House candidates in online fundraising, with contributions totaling almost $1M. Congressman Sestak matched that success during his 2008 re-election campaign, once again leading all US. House candidates with over $1M in online contributions.  Our campaign continues to break new ground this cycle, leading all U.S. Senate candidates on ActBlue with total contributions totaling over $2M and continuing to flow.

ActBlue's ease of use and low cost enabled us to set up our online fundraising operation swiftly, and the knowledge and responsiveness of their support staff continues to impress, year after year. Lastly, but most importantly, ActBlue enables us to receive next-day wire transfers of the money we raise on their site, and that speed is a crucial part of executing a winning campaign strategy in the closing weeks of the election.

ActBlue has been–and continues to be–a valuable partner in offering a convenient and powerful way for our supporters to make a difference in our campaign. Our grassroots campaign doesn't rely on establishment support; for us, and for any successful Democrat, ActBlue is the only way to go!

I don't often do this, but I wanted to highlight the efforts of Progressive Kick, a group that's used a dollar-for-dollar match to raise $103K for down-ballot races. There are a couple of reasons why this is a big deal:

First, those dollars will go a lot further in smaller races. While the fundraising numbers that get national attention are measured in millions, a few thousand can make a big difference to candidates running in, say, Montana's 15th legislative district, where the delightfully-named Frosty Calf Boss Ribs won in 2008 with a warchest of $490. (She was unopposed.)

Second, In 2011 the states will redraw the boundaries of their congressional districts to account for population shifts observed in the 2010 census. In most states, the state legislature is responsible for carrying out redistricting; state legislators exercise a tremendous amount of control over what kind of candidate is electable in a given district simply by drawing its borders. Oddly-shaped districts like Trent Franks' vertical pirate ship (AZ-02) and Randy "The Neuge" Neugebauer's LEGO hook-hand (TX-19) are increasingly common these days; districts like Iowa's comfortingly regular blobs are on the wane.  

In other words, control of state chambers results influences redistricting, and redistricting determines the composition of congress. The results of state races in 2010 will define the boundaries of national politics, both literally and figuratively, for a decade to come.

Tom DeLay's (R-TX) involvement in the the '02-'03 "Dancing with the Districts" scandal grew from his appreciation for the importance of redistricting and his willingness to abuse legislative arithmetic to get his way. The Republican attitude toward procedural abuse in search of political advantage has not improved since, a fact that underscores the importance of what Progressive Kick is doing on ActBlue.

Ben Smith picked up on a blog post* by Lauren Hepler at the Center for Responsive Politics about out-of-state money, noting:

The numbers are interesting on the merits, though the general, bipartisan flow of money from big metropolitan areas to powerful members from smaller, poorer places is hardly a surprise. The data is also pretty much made for attack ads.

Ben's final point about attack ads is an example of how out of step our perceptions about virtuous politics are with reality. If we want to argue it logically rather than intuitively, we need to establish and defend three premises:

  1. All in-state or in-district money is inherently "better" than out-of-state/-district money
  2. Conversely, all out-of-state money is inherently pernicious or distorting.
  3. Campaign finance legislation, which is subject to influence by the same powerful interests whose power it's attempting to curtail, can be sufficiently well-written to be both politically viable and achieve its aims.

It turns out that there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about these premises, both collectively and in isolation.

To begin with, a government that is entirely funded by local interests more likely to create a gridlocked republic than a virtuous one, especially given current Senate rules. Moreover, it's an equilibrium state that's highly (and narrowly) cartelized and accordingly hostile to change, which further decreases the likelihood of meaningful action in Washington D.C. Finally, because barriers to entry are high, voter choice suffers. Out-of-state money creates the potential for change by giving candidates who are outside of local fundraising networks a viable path to elected office (See: Tea Party). That can be good or bad, but that's a question of the ends to which that money is applied, not the fact that it exists.

To take the second premise seriously, you have to ignore the "federal" aspect of our federal government. Legislators from outside your state or district often vote for or against laws that affect you. If you don't live in their state or district, your means of indicating your approval or disapproval of their actions are limited to activism or fundraising. And while there's a natural, tribal reflex against people from outside [arbitrary boundary] making themselves a part of the electoral process inside  [arbitrary boundary], the decisions we make at the polls affect them. It's a speech issue, and protected as such.

The third premise gets at the tension underlying Larry Lessig's "economy of influence" argument. As I wrote a long time ago, the problem with the argument is that it goes to great lengths to establish that Congress is broken, hopelessly captive to special interests, and so on. Then Lessig argues for federal legislation to address this issue. See the problem? If, as Lessig asserts, legislators have a clear idea of their self-interest (usually preceded by a $ sign), why on earth would any given leader act against it? At the most basic level, how do you persuade someone that money they've already gotten is less valuable than money they might get in the future? Unclear.

What really matters is not where the money comes from, geographically speaking, but what its source is and how clearly that information is tracked and disseminated. If Candidate X is extensively funded by the local chapter of Baby Eaters Anonymous, we should probably care about that more than the fact his opponent, Candidate Y, gets large checks from Americans for the Laughter of Children, based in the neighboring state. Or, put simply, the problem with Citizens United v. FEC isn't that it allows huge spending by corporate interests–the old system allowed that–but rather that it provides no disclosure requirements. That's why the fate of the DISCLOSE act (59-39! Stunning defeat!) is arguably more troubling than the ruling it addresses.

*The CRP post misuses the phrase "begging the question," which is a huge pet peeve of mine. To "beg the question" is to assume your conclusion as a premise and thereby make a circular argument, not to beg someone to ask you a question. Also, I stole the title of this post from a Bon Jovi song. That's just how I roll.

A few days ago, I wrote about the ways in which ActBlue makes donors nimble and campaigns competitive by helping resources get where they need to go, quickly. I used the Alaska Senate race as an example, and in response a spokesperson for the McAdams campaign emailed this statement along:

Because of ActBlue thousands of people, including Alaskans, were able to donate funds to the Scott McAdams for Senate Campaign. The groundswell of grassroots support helped generate even more momentum for the campaign in the days immediately following the Alaska primary election. It was a great way to illustrate how many people support Scott and is a reminder that individuals can really impact the way campaigns are funded.

I think the key word there is "illustrate." When you give through ActBlue, you're not just helping the candidate out with a little cash. You're also sending a signal to everyone watching those numbers that the support is there. Anyone with 30 seconds and access to the internet can see how their chosen candidate is doing.

Today, McAdams is closing in on Senator Mark Begich's 2008 ActBlue total, and Sen. Murkowski, the GOP incumbent defeated in her primary by Joe Miller, has launched a write-in campaign. In short, what was once a safe GOP seat is now a wide open race.

Your donations on ActBlue have a lot to do with that.

Jonathan Martin has a story on POLITICO about the Republican edge in third-party spending. The argument runs as follows: conservative groups like American Crossroads, American Crossroads GPS, the Chamber of Commerce, and the constellation of powerbrokers Yahoo called the Shadow GOP have outspent outside Democratic groups. That's true. Where Martin errs is when he equates that with Democratic donor disengagement and disarray:

Liberal-leaning organizations answer that it’s not a matter of desire but something more simple: They don’t have the money.

And that’s partly because, even after the historic accomplishments of the current Congress, some on the left are unhappy that priorities, such as a climate change bill, weren’t passed.

That strikes me as a misreading of the situation. For those of you who are political traditionalists, I'll note that the major Democratic committees, (DNC, DSCC, DCCC) all raised more in August than the major Republican committees. The Democratic committees also spent more and have more cash on hand. 

If you're curious about how outside groups are doing, let's compare some quick numbers. According to Justin Elliott of Salon, American Crossroads raised $2.6M in August, with $2.4M of that coming from just three billionaires. In contrast, ActBlue sent $4.2M to 1,422 Democratic candidates and committees, via 34,000 donations. It's true that American Crossroads does something different than ActBlue–they'll be making ad buys. We won't. Instead, we'll be sending money to people who make ad buys. That seems like a fairly minor difference, from the perspective of Martin's argument.

There are two things at work here, and neither of them are donor unhappiness.

The first is a change (a change that Martin's editors have noted) in how individuals relate to large institutions that's become an essential part of the zeitgeist. The Tea Party derives its support from a claim to represent authentic conservative values, rather than compromised establishment mores. ActBlue makes a less-ideological pitch: we send your money where you tell us to send it–provided you're sending it to a Democrat. But both ideas feed off the zeitgeist in different ways, and represent a shift away from the more traditional conduits that Martin quotes in his story. But it's a shift, not a diminution.

Second, a major factor behind support for Republican groups like American Crossroads is the sheer disarray of the Steele-driven RNC. In the table I linked to above, the RNC is the only body with a negative change in cash on hand, and the Republicans have been forced to compensate. In short, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Martin examines the lagging indicator on the Democratic side and the leading indicator on the Republican side, and then concludes that Democrats are off their game.

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