When the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority dismantled a century’s worth of law governing political money in the Citizens United decision, there was every reason to believe that Americans would obliviously accede. Only the most outlandish abuses — such as the huge sacks of cash raised and spent by Richard Nixon’s henchmen during the Watergate era — have ever mobilized citizens to demand reform. But this year Karl Rove, once Nixon’s young apprentice, is among those provoking public outrage again with secret sewer millions and sleazy advertising.
As the Bush White House political czar, Rove sought to build permanent Republican dominance of American politics and government. Today he pursues the same goal, building a gigantic political machine known as Crossroads GPS that with characteristic effrontery he denotes a “social welfare” organization under IRS and Federal Election Commission rules. Not only can they avoid paying taxes on multi-million-dollar donations from wealthy individuals and corporate interests, but they can lawfully conceal donors’ identities.
The FEC’s politically appointed commissioners habitually accept such absurd explanations but the IRS isn’t so pliable. As Dan Froomkin and Paul Blumenthal observe in the Huffington Post, an IRS audit that uncovers serious violations of Crossroads’ tax-exempt status — such as misusing money for political campaigns rather than promoting social welfare — could result in dire consequences. Substantial civil penalties might be levied and Crossroads just might be required to disclose those hidden names. None of that will happen, if ever, until after November.
Meanwhile some of the most troubling predictions about the impact of Citizens United continue to be vindicated. In Tuesday’s Indiana Republican Senate primary, millions of dollars poured in from special interest groups, not only outside the state but outside the borders of the United States. A Japanese-based corporation that owns the 7-Eleven convenience store chain funneled donations into a California-based SuperPAC called “Hoosiers for Jobs” to support losing incumbent Richard Lugar – perhaps as a reward for a vote on credit cards, according to investigative reporter Lee Fang.
Whatever becomes of Lugar or the Indiana Senate seat, the 7-Eleven money represents a potentially disastrous cascade of disguised foreign funding of U.S. elections and candidates, as foreseen by Justice John Paul Stevens in his Citizens United dissent – and vehemently denied at the time by the court’s Republicans.
The only hopeful sign is that citizens at last seem to be aroused to anger, watching the tsunami of sleaze washing away their democracy. A new poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for Democracy Corps and the Public Campaign Action Fund, to be released on May 9, finds large majorities of voters convinced that Washington is so corrupted by political money from “big banks, big donors, and corporate lobbyists” that politicians no longer work for the middle class. Large majorities regard campaign finance reform as essential to make government work for them. Almost three-quarters of all voters believe in simple limits that would reduce big money’s power in politics – and are prepared to elect candidates who emphasize that issue. They would consider public funding and do not regard limits on corporate spending as a violation of free speech.
Having finally achieved legally what sent Richard Nixon’s bagmen to jail – the undoing of democracy by money – the Rove Republicans may now inspire a movement for real reform.