There's a memorable episode of "Seinfeld" in which George invents a fake organization called the Human Fund, to fool coworkers into believing that a gift was made on their behalf to a seemingly worthwhile cause. In dreaming up an innocuous, patriotic-sounding name the writers might just as well have called it the American Future Fund.
Thing is, the American Future Fund is no piece of fiction. It's based in Des Moines, Iowa, and so far this year has donated roughly $7 million to Republican candidates and funded largely misleading attack ads on Democrats. Yet the organization is every bit as mysterious as the Human Fund because the source of its financing is secret - thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court decision sanctioning unlimited campaign spending by corporations and other private organizations. When structured as nonprofits, groups like American Future Fund are not required to disclose the identities of contributors.
The landmark Citizens United case has resulted in a surge of spending by special interest groups, most of them favoring Republican candidates, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Other secretive cash funds include Americans for Job Security ($7.5 million spent so far), and American Crossroads ($5.6 million), which lists as an "advisor" GOP strategist Karl Rove. In all, The Post determined these murky groups have spent $80 million to date in this midterm cycle.
Of course, Democrats do it too, just not as effectively. Seems there are more deep-pocketed corporations and wealthy individuals wishing to anonymously back Republican causes than on the Democratic side. That's not surprising considering that those with the biggest bankrolls are those who stand to benefit most from conservative positions - such as renewing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
President Obama has been critical of the Supreme Court ruling that made this all possible, but has twice failed to win enough votes in the Senate to create new laws that would force corporations to be more transparent about political spending.
In the absence of legislation, the New York City Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio, announced this month a coalition to secure voluntary disclosures from corporations about election financing. The group has already persuaded Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley to adopt policies forbidding expenditures from their general treasuries on campaigns; however, the firms can still run political action committees, which are operated independently.
Although better than nothing, winning voluntary commitments by a limited number of corporate players doesn't meaningfully address the problem.
The American Future Fund is using its undisclosed corporate backing to purchase ads in key battleground areas this fall, in which the facts are fudged as much as the funding. Under federal election law, the organization is prohibited from engaging solely in "express advocacy," which would include asking voters to vote for or against a certain candidate. But ads by the American Future Fund deal with issues - from gay rights to building the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan - and fiddle with facts, much as the Swift Boat attack ads did in distorting the military record of Sen. John Kerry. The same media consultants who bashed Kerry are behind the Future Fund.
Money already plays far too great a role in American politics. When corporations hide in shadows cast by nonprofit political attack groups, the problem reaches a level that, to be kind, the Supreme Court must have overlooked in its 5-4 decision regarding Citizens United.
In an era when the public understandably seeks accountability in government, loopholes provided by the court and the Congress have fostered deniability in campaigns. Candidates deny involvement with ads and their content, corporations deny making contributions to buy the ads - and mysterious nonprofits deny links to both the candidates and the corporations.
It's a scene that even the "Seinfeld" writers would have rejected as too far-fetched to be funny.
©2010 Peter Funt. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate. For info call Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or e-mail [email protected].