Mistakes We Should Not Repeat: Part 2

Congress has failed to act on climate change because of dark money, the weapon of choice of the fossil fuel industry used to obstruct climate progress and destroy climate bipartisanship. Another mistake made in the last administration was to let dark money loose in our system.

The dark money issue arose after five Republican Justices used the 2010 Citizens United decision to set unlimited special-interest money loose in our elections. Able to spend unlimited money, big donors now saw an urgent need for anonymous spending, to hide their identities and thus their motives. For a twenty-eight-hundred dollar campaign contribution, anonymity is not worth much effort; for a 28 million-dollar political assault, anonymity can be essential — helpful in proportion to the nefariousness of the donor.

The device of choice at the outset was a tax-favored IRS entity called a 501c4, which is not obliged to disclose its donors. It’s also not supposed to get involved in politics, but dark money forces pushed regulatory loopholes to pour dark money into political organizations and political ads.

The IRS tried to figure out how to deal with this on its own, and bumbled into creating a special regulatory review for 501c4s that filed under obviously political names. Because most of the dark money then was from the right wing, most of the sketchy 501c4s were conservative, although there were Democratically-aligned ones as well.

This presented a ripe opportunity for the big donors’ ‘faux outrage’ machine. The right wing loves to feel aggrieved, and this was catnip. No one likes the IRS much anyway; because so many of the 501c4s were Republican, it did seem to be discriminating against Republicans; and a big detonation here could jam open the dark money gates. So the right-wing machine went to work, with lawsuits, screeds, investigations, editorials, denunciations, even impeachment threats of the IRS Commissioner. He was never impeached, but that was not the point.

The Commissioner spent the rest of the administration terrorized, making no effort to close any loopholes or conduct any investigations. There were IRS filings under oath that contradicted election filings under oath by the same groups, but a cowed and battered IRS did nothing to ask about the discrepancies, and neither did DOJ.

This was a chance to plug the dike before too much noxious dark money flooded in. It was also a chance to stand up for the beleaguered IRS Commissioner. And it was a teachable moment. People hate dark money, and an explanation could have helped. But we walked away. Indeed the White House accepted and echoed the Republican narrative. It was within our power to recast the narrative, point out the dark money problems, clarify the regulations in line with the law they were enforcing, and stop the dark money flood. We just chose not to.

Ever since, Democrats have been battered by right-wing dark money, and the Republican Party has fallen into virtually perfect alignment with its big dark-money donors. We lost a decade on climate change, and our political system was as polluted as our atmosphere. It didn’t have to be this way.

Democrats have recently caught up in dark-money spending, but that’s small consolation because the stuff is poisonous, whoever is spending it. It was a mistake not to seize the moment. For the price of a fight — a fight for the narrative, for the teachable moment, for the battered Commissioner, for well-predicated investigations, and for proper regulations to clean up this mess — America could have been spared years of dark-money evil. It is another painful lesson.



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Sheldon Whitehouse

Sheldon Whitehouse

U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, the Ocean State.