By Andrea Rau
It is very easy to complain about money in politics, as George Beck does in his Feb. 3 commentary in the Star Tribune ("Who is bankrolling campaigns, really?"). First of all, the nature of politics is that there is always someone or some policy that you don't like. So it is easy to complain about that individual or policy.
Now imagine that you are wrapped up in your cozy blanket on the couch, watching the latest episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Blacklist or America's Got Talent, when an ad comes on with glowing reviews of that policy you hate. It is brought to you by a group called Everyone Loves America's Got Talent. Now you can really complain about money in politics.
But should you? And maybe even a better question: How did we get to a point where some group called Everyone Loves America's Got Talent runs ads during America's Got Talent railing against your pet issue, which of course has nothing to do with America's Got Talent?
That ad ran because the people who support that policy were squeezed out of the political system years ago—at least that is what advocates of our current campaign finance laws think should be true. The complex web of different shadow organizations with money flowing from one to another is the result of campaign finance laws that are growing ever more stringent, and making it ever-harder to follow the money.
These laws, put in place to shine light on where money flows, have failed, and failed miserably. The problem is that they have not stopped the flow of money. The valve is still open, with only a dam put in place to stop the money from flowing to the candidates.
After the initial dam was constructed, the money started pooling in other places—especially in the coffers of political parties. But then some elected officials thought the flow there was too heavy, so more dams were put in place to limit the amount going to the parties.
But the valve still wasn't closed. So the money kept flowing and new pools were created. Now we have so many different pools we can't keep track of them, and people are complaining more than ever. They used to be able to blame the candidate, but then they had to blame the parties, and now they blame so-called "shadow groups."
Some of these groups, I admit, are shadow groups. They have been set up to take advantage of the pools of money that will always flow into politics. Some of them may only be around for an election cycle before changing names. Working around the complex laws that exist, they have figured out how to largely hide their identities while spending millions of dollars to deliver a particular message.
But many of the groups now decried as shadow groups are nothing of the sort. Many are well-known within their communities and have worked on the same set of issues for decades.
New proposals to require complex reporting from these organizations, and from nearly anyone who wishes to mention the name of a candidate, would have a significant impact on the ability of such organizations to do their work. And, perhaps more important to those who are pushing for these regulations, they would have little influence on political spending.
Why? Because campaign finance laws always fail.
There are an infinite number of ways to spend money to spread a message, so we can never actually turn the valve and stop the flow of money in politics. Past efforts to do so have never worked and have actually made it harder to find the source of the funds in the ever-growing backwaters that our current laws have created.
We can learn from the past. New attempts to limit the flow of money into politics and campaigns are doomed to failure.
It would be easier to follow the flow if we didn't have to wade all the backwaters. Rather than putting new dams in place, it is time to drain these backwaters of political funding by removing the regulations currently in place and allowing the flow to return to a more natural state.