“Let’s face it,” the founder of a super PAC recently told Mother Jones magazine. “Politics in this country is coin-operated.” True enough, as evidenced by the billions projected to be spent in this year’s elections — untold amounts of it unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. While much of the mainstream media looks the other way, some journalists are working hard to identify the fingerprints super PACs and their benefactors leave on our victimized democracy.
At the top of this list of journo-detectives are Mother Jones editors Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein, who continue to throw light on what they call “dark money.” In this conversation with Bill, Jeffery and Bauerlein talk about the conspiracy of cash that allows the rich to influence our most fundamental political freedoms.
BILL MOYERS: It’s not just the wealthy, their super PACs and the candidates they buy who profit from all this money. Dan Froomkin and Paul Blumenthal at “The Huffington Post” report that the top 150 political consultants and media buyers already have grossed nearly half a billion dollars in this election cycle, and there’s still five months left to go.
These vast amounts of cash, much of it from anonymous sources, have rightly been described as “dark money,” and few have pursued the dark money trail more vigilantly than the people who coined that phrase, the hard working journalists at Mother Jones magazine.
Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein have been the co-editors of Mother Jones since 2006. Clara Jeffery was senior editor at Harper’s Magazine and worked at “Washington City Paper” in Washington, DC. Monika Bauerlein was the investigative editor of Mother Jones and an editor at “City Pages” in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Their “Dark Money” project is produced with support from the Schumann Media Center, of which I’m president; their latest issue of Mother Jones is a spellbinding look at dark money’s history in the forty years since the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon in a tangled web of break-ins and bagmen.
Welcome to both of you.
CLARA JEFFERY: Thank you very much.
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: Thank you Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Love your cover. “Want To Buy An Election?” Dracula with has jacket open and an American flag in it. “Want To Buy An Election?”
Both parties play this game. Both parties raise as much money as they can, go as close to the law as they can, will do almost anything to raise it. But is there some distinction between the money that flows through the Republican Party and the money that flows through the Democratic Party?
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: It used to be more equivalent than it is today. We remember covering the Clinton era scandals and at that time, that was really a time when we saw the Democratic Party being, turning to big business and to Wall Street for funding that was no longer coming from organized labor and other Democratic constituencies. But now it’s the money coming from conservative and deregulatory interests is so much larger and so much—
CLARA JEFFERY: More extreme.
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: Better focused in many ways, that it puts to shame what Democrats can do.
CLARA JEFFERY: I mean let’s look back at Obama’s ability to raise, you know, a pretty decent amount of money from Wall Street. And, you know, Obama managed, for better or for worse, the response to the recession. Did not come down heavily on the banks. Did not, you know, no one’s in jail. There’s been some scolding but nothing’s really happened to the hedge fund managers. To the big banks. And yet that money is not 100 percent, but close to 100 percent going to Romney this time because those interests see in Romney and see in the Republicans that their agenda is going to be pushed to where they want it. That it is a more extreme, pro-business, deregulatory climate that the Republican party is eager to usher in.
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: Both sides can play this game but Republicans have an inherent advantage in that their natural constituency has a lot more money. Outside expenditures, the kind of money that we tend to refer to as dark money, is, you know, about two thirds to three fourths Republican and the rest is on the Democratic side. I’m sure Democrats and liberals in general would take more of that kind of money if it were—
CLARA JEFFERY: Sure.
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: —available, but it’s just not.
BILL MOYERS: Mother Jones was the first I saw that used the term “dark money.” What were you after there? Why that term?
CLARA JEFFERY: Well, we were searching around for a metaphor and we had some celestial inspiration, as it were, because like dark matter, which is something that’s in the universe and we know is very powerful but we don’t really understand it and we can’t really see it and we’re only beginning to be able to measure it, that’s true of dark money especially since Citizens United. There’s just so much unregulated, undisclosed money flowing through super PACs and their 501(c)s that are going to candidates. And, to paraphrase John McCain, very often we don’t know where the money’s coming from, who it’s going to, what its purpose is. It’s just out there. We can see the effects of it later but we don’t really know in anything close to real time what’s being raised and spent.
BILL MOYERS: I want to show you an ad that I think is a perfect example of dark money. Your reporter, marvelous reporter, Andy Kroll, as the Wisconsin recall was taking place, followed the money back to a Virginia based super PAC called The Coalition For American Values, which spent something like $300,000 on ad time in each of Wisconsin’s seven major media markets. But let me play this ad for you.
KAREN, Teacher: I didn’t vote for Governor Walker.
LINDA, Contract Administrator: I did not vote for Scott Walker.
TIM, Machinist: I didn’t vote for Scott Walker, but I’m definitely against this recall.
JIM, Restaurateur: Recall isn’t the Wisconsin way.
KAREN: There’s a right way. There’s a wrong way. I think this is the wrong way.
JIM: I elected him to do a job.
BOB, Hospitality: Let him serve it out.
BOB, Purchasing Agent: Living in a democracy you have to have faith in who the people elect.
CHAD, Foreman: I didn’t vote for Scott Walker but I’m against the recall.
JOE, Laborer: And I agree. I agree with you.
WOMAN’S VOICE: End the recall madness. Vote for Scott Walker June fifth.
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: That ad is really a perfect example of what we call dark money because, as you saw at the very end. It names a treasurer. And that is literally the sum total of the information really that’s available about this group. You know, when our reporter, Andy Kroll, tried to figure out who was behind this ad buy he found, you know, a P.O. Box in Milwaukee that leads to a P.O. Box in Virginia, that leads to nothing. And that is possible now, especially in the wake of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision. And it doesn’t allow voters to make up their own mind about where this message this very sensible sounding message from, you know, Bob and Chad and so forth is coming from.
BILL MOYERS: And the message is, you know, people would say it’s a legitimate message. If you may not believe that recall was the way to punish the governor or—
CLARA JEFFERY: Sure. And interestingly a lot of people who declare that they didn’t really like Walker or his policies, but they did not vote to recall him because they did not think this was the right remedy. Now would they have had that opinion so firmly with if the state had not been bombarded by these ads for a week ahead of time? It’s impossible to say. But what we can say is that this group, you know, Andy was able to figure this out the day before the election. That this group was dumping all this money in and who they were as best we know. But that’s still precious little information for the voters of Wisconsin to really judge who’s trying to influence them.
BILL MOYERS: What does it mean that the money can’t be traced? That the public, the voters, the other candidate, the opponents, cannot figure out who’s putting up this money. What are the implications of that?
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: Well, that’s really the question that you want to know as a participant in a policy debate is who is my opponent? Who am I debating? And what is their motivation for making the argument that they’re making? That’s all part of the totality of information that in a democracy citizens should have available to them. And with dark money that’s really not possible because you get a message, a very well crafted, stage managed message, and you can’t assess for yourself whether the person telling you this has an ulterior motive. And that’s why historically we’ve had conflict of interest laws and we’ve looked at lobbying disclosure and we’ve looked at, we’ve had legislation limiting how much money you can invest in a political campaign because people fully understand that those vested interests make a difference.
CLARA JEFFERY: I mean Americans have had essentially the same debates about the role and size of government and who should be helped by government and to what extent since our founding, right? That’s a fair debate. It’s a worthy debate. But if you are being influenced by things and you don’t know who is doing it and the messages are maybe not 100 percent honest, shall we say. If it’s advertising. If it’s push polling and robocalls that imply things about your candidate that are not true, that fundamentally changes the debate from one that’s a fair and honest debate that should be held vigorously to something that’s just much more insidious. And when the power stacks up on to the side of the wealthy again and again then you’re talking about the large portion of people in this country essentially being disenfranchised.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think there’s a connection between Citizens United and what happened in Wisconsin?
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: There’s a direct connection. There is absolutely no doubt about it. When you look at the money that flowed into that campaign. That was made possible in part by Citizens United because Citizens United wiped out the clean elections laws in states like Wisconsin and wiped out a tradition of disclosure. People were able to play the game in a way that they would never have been able to had Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito and the rest of the Citizens United majority not paved the way for them.
BILL MOYERS: You say something in your joint editorial, “The right recognizes something that few on the left recognize. That campaign finance law underlies all other substantive law.” What does that mean?
CLARA JEFFERY: It doesn’t matter whether your primary issue is Second Amendment issues or abortion rights or the environment. All of those policies are made by politicians that are now deeply and unhappily influenced by the kind of money that’s sloshing through the system. So essentially you can create the regulatory landscape that you want if you can, essentially, buy elections.
BILL MOYERS: Take the role of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents these very huge corporations. And the instant that the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United, the Chamber of Commerce said, “We’re going to be a big player.” And even when a district court—
CLARA JEFFERY: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: —distinct judge required that they disclose the money they’re giving they just thumbed their nose at the court and said, “We’re not going to.”
CLARA JEFFERY: Right. That ruling came down a few weeks ago and that district court was essentially saying groups like the Chamber of Commerce, “You will have to disclose your donors.” And the Chamber of Commerce said, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’ll wait for appeal.” And I think it’s a pretty straightforward calculus. A) They can have, by spending in this election they can guarantee the results that they want in these elections. But also they’re looking at a Supreme Court that has come down quite clearly on the side of deregulation.
BILL MOYERS: So the Chamber of Commerce can contribute unlimited amount of money that it has collected from corporations and wealthy individuals and we’ll never know where that money is coming from, right?
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: Well interestingly yes, they can. Exactly. And that’s what one of the things that everybody was wondering after Citizens United first came down was who will be the first. Which corporations, which individuals will expose themselves to public scrutiny by going in and taking advantage of their freedom to spend money however they like, wherever they like.
And the answer it turned out is nobody. Everybody likes to hide behind an organization with an innocuous name like Americans for Prosperity and, you know, Americans for Apple Pie. And spend unlimited, unregulated money without any scrutiny and any disclosure.
CLARA JEFFERY: Or they give their money to the Chamber knowing full well that the Chamber will spend their money, generally, to eliminate regulations that are onerous to businesses, whether they’re clean water and clean air act type of regulations or tax regulations or, you know, pushing for things that are would reign in the sub-prime industry. That the Chamber of Commerce is going to try and make it the least friction to business as possible. And so corporations don’t want to be known that they’ve dumped a ton of money into one particular race, but they can give money to the Chamber with the full knowledge that the Chamber will do it. And, furthermore, the Chamber then has filtered money through things like the Republican’s Governor Association, so it’s this just, you know, ever-changing, complicated set of, like three card Monty where the money’s under there and it eventually gets to where they want it to go, but you can’t really trace it.
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: It’s particularly bad at the state level, actually. That’s something that even people who have followed the evolution of dark money don’t really fully understand. Is that at the federal level it created this new structure of super PACs and, you know, 501(c)s and so forth, but at the state level a national or federal organization can go into Wisconsin, register as a politically active corporation, check a box on a form, and never tell anybody anything other than, “Yes, our income comes from, you know, another P.O. Box in another state which gets its income from another P.O. Box in another state.”
BILL MOYERS: Should you be and we be looking at the money going into the races for Congress and the Senate as much as we look at the money going into the presidential race?
CLARA JEFFERY: Maybe more so.
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: If not more so. We will be looking at it very closely. And you know what else, we will be looking at that nobody is really paying attention to yet is if you can get a lot of bang for your buck in a state-wide election like this one and you might be able to get even more bang for your buck in targeting a few seats in a state House and swinging the majority in a state legislature you can get untold bang for your buck in a judicial race.
If you decide to invest in removing a judge who is in a habit of ruling in favor of consumers, for instance, or for upholding government regulations, if you can get rid of those people, as people have done. There have been fascinating John Grisham-worthy cases of corporations and corporate executives specifically investing in judicial races.
CLARA JEFFERY: Like our old friend Bob “Swift Boat” Perry, who has given money to every single member of the Texas Supreme Court, which—
BILL MOYERS: In their race for office?
CLARA JEFFERY: Uh-huh. Which ruled in his favor regarding a lawsuit involving the sort of quality and conditions of— he makes his money by being a mass— the biggest home builder in America. And basically people who were suing him for having shoddy construction. You know, they ruled in his favor. It’s impossible to say that they wouldn’t have otherwise, but here’s the thing. The appearance of corruption is almost as bad as actual corruption because it just makes people think that they have no stake in their government.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I agree with you about the appearance of corruption and that was the main argument when I was young in journalism. But the fact of the matter is it seems to me, as a journalist today, it is the actual corruption, the payback in which the donor gets favorable regulations or favorable judicial decisions. That’s corruption. It’s bribery by another name.
CLARA JEFFERY: And I think what’s interesting is it also works, to some extent, the other way. When the politicians are shaking down lobbyists because they so desperately need the money in the race. I mean the lobbyists are saying, “You know, it’s not us shaking them down. They’re shaking us down.” But they are locked in this arms race where they just have to raise more and more money. I mean we broke down how much Congress people have to raise per hour. And say in the case of our own Senator Barbara Boxer, it’s if she just fundraises for 40 hours a week she has to raise $2,400 an hour. I mean that’s just a phenomenal amount of money that they have to raise. And, you know, ordinary people don’t have that money to give.
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: So it’s not even so much listening to some specific person who gave you some specific contribution. And I think that’s how people used to look at it. But now it’s really much more about, “Can I have a career in politics if I routinely antagonize the interests, the only interest that can afford to underwrite a campaign?” And that’s something that everybody from a city council member all the way to the president has to contend with.
BILL MOYERS: So how do we change the game? The Supreme Court has essentially said, “Money is speech, corporations are people. Therefore under the First Amendment a government cannot stop corporations from spending almost anything they want to spend.” That’s pretty awesome. How do you change it?
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: The start really probably is information. Because even to us, you know, when we work on these stories a lot of the time it’s not so much outrage that grips us as it is astonishment. You know, we follow this stuff for a living and we’re still flabbergasted some of the time at what we find. And transparency, fortunately, is not something the Supreme Court stops us from doing.
The Supreme Court came right out and said, “Transparency is a good thing. It’s Congress’ job to make sure there is transparency. You over there, take care of that.” Knowing full well, of course, that it’s very, very difficult to get an incumbent in Congress to mandate transparency. But in theory there’s nothing to stop the Congress from passing fantastic disclosure legislation tomorrow.
BILL MOYERS: Well, in fact there was a Disclose Act introduced a couple of years ago and the Republicans killed it. Mitch McConnell in the Senate killed the Disclose Act. That’s not very encouraging.
CLARA JEFFERY: But it’s back. It’s back. It’s winding its way through Congress again. And this time John McCain, for example, who did not speak out for it the last time, has started to speak out on its behalf. So there is a chance that that could pass.
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: And then once you have that and you no longer have dark money filling every crevasse of the political system and there’s sunshine on some of these activities, then you can start having a conversation about do we want this to happen? Who is buying and selling your politics for you? And with that comes potentially momentum for change.
CLARA JEFFERY: Shame. Shame is a great motivator. And sunshine would allow, you know, us to see who is doing this and for what reason. And in real time. I mean that’s completely possible. It’s not like, you know, in the days of old where if someone gave money the FEC couldn’t possibly know for a full quarter. I mean they can know right away. We just need the laws to demand that transparency happen immediately.
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: In fact we have fantastic tools. I mean now with what’s available online you could really make this kind of information available in real time to voters in every channel imaginable. You could annotate every political statement with pop up video showing who paid for it.
CLARA JEFFERY: Create a Twitter stream showing exactly who gave when and what, you know, in real time. So that’s all technologically possible. It’s just a matter of pressuring Congress first to pass the Disclose Act or something like it and to have similar measures in the state houses. And just to bring some transparency back. And really what can be the argument against transparency?
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, what can be the argument against transparency?
CLARA JEFFERY: Not a good one that can think of. I mean, I can see all kinds of reasons why corporations and other vested interests wouldn’t want people to know that they’re doing this, but it’s really hard to make an argument, a public argument.
BILL MOYERS: Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein, thank you very much for being with me.
CLARA JEFFERY: Thank you so much for having us, Bill.
MONIKA BAUERLEIN: Thank you.