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Time to crack down on 'dark money'

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.


Money Politics Government
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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.

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The best way to shine a light on all of this "dark money" flooding into our elections would be for Congress to pass legislation requiring all organizations to disclose their political spending in a timely manner. I've introduced such a bill – the Disclose Act. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have repeatedly blocked attempts by Democrats to pass this commonsense bill (despite the support of many for disclosure in the past), so the flow of secret money continues unabated.

In the absence of congressional action, President Obama could implement an executive order requiring all government contractors to disclose political spending, including this dark money. At a minimum, this would ensure that entities doing business with the federal government are being transparent about whether and how they are attempting to influence elections.

I recently joined my colleague, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), in bringing together a coalition of senators and representatives to call for such an executive order. We were proud that over two dozen senators and 100 House members signed onto our letters to the president. And earlier this year, a coalition of organizations delivered more than 500,000 petition signatures to the White House calling for an executive order. An executive order will not solve our campaign-finance problems but it will be a big step in the right direction.

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Hillary Clinton, who I hope will be our next president, said recently that, "We have to stop the endless flow of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political process, and drowning out the voices of our people." One newspaper has called this flow a "tsunami of slime."

Please urge President Obama to use his executive authority to stem the tide of slime.

Commentary by Sheldon Whitehouse, a U.S. senator for Rhode Island and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter @SenWhitehouse