Three weeks ago, before the political life of Michigan got interrupted for important things (Thanksgiving, turkey, football) we were treated to a bombshell from Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.
Responding to a request by the State Bar of Michigan to require public disclosure of donors who sponsor millions in so-called “issue ads” in judicial elections, Johnson (a GOP officeholder elected in 2010) proposed to issue a new rule outlawing anonymous spending on all political ads, whether or not they actually use words of express advocacy — vote for, vote against, and so forth.
That shook up her Republican colleagues, big-time. The very next day — after an emergency sudden closed-door recess — the Republican-dominated Committee on Local Government and Elections committee adopted, without any public discussion, a bill that would gut Johnson’s proposed reporting requirement.
The full Senate, more than two-thirds of whose members are also Republican, agreed within less than 24 hours — remarkable speed for a normally “deliberative” body.
Money has long been recognized to be the mother’s milk of politics, and it is clear that many of those feeding are unwilling to be weaned. A top state elected Republican official gets slapped down by an alarmed Republican-dominated state Senate.
Political reformers are screaming bloody murder. And all eyes are now focused on Gov. Rick Snyder, whose “vision” statement back when he was running in 2010 said:
“Michigan’s citizens are tired of the divisive political culture in Lansing. Midnight deals, closed door meetings, lobbyists, and special interest influence have stood in the way of long-term solutions. As governor, I will ensure that government is open, fair, and accountable to the citizens by making Michigan a national leader in transparency and ethics.”
The question now is: Will the Michigan House of Representatives — still Republican, but by a much narrower margin - pass this bill? And if they do… will Snyder sign or veto it?
In a column published Nov. 24 in Bridge Magazine, Rich Robinson, executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, asserted that “The statistical truth is that Michigan has become swamped by dark money.”
By “dark money,” Robinson means anonymous contributions to the astounding number and variety of political advocacy organizations, including: candidate committees; party election committees; and 501(c) 3 and 501(c) 4 nonprofit committees.
What is indisputable is that we certainly live in an era when a ton of money — we simply don’t know how much — that is spent on elections comes without any public disclosure. And that, in turn, opens the door to all kinds of citizen skepticism about who in the dark of night is paying for all that political campaigning. You don’t have to be very sophisticated to know they expect something for it.
Lansing wags immediately labeled the Senate bill designed to stop Ruth Johnson the “vampire amendment,” since vampires do their bloody business in the dark of night.
Government should do its business in the sunshine. When this became news, we were quickly inundated by various arguments from those trying to stop full disclosure of campaign contributions.
Opponents of openness said this would violate free speech and exposes contributors to retaliation once their names are made known. Maybe so. But nobody’s requiring anyone to make those big contributions, and if they want to put their money where their mouths are they have a corresponding obligation to be accountable to the public for their financial expression of their political will.
Frankly, when you cut through all the double-talk, the only freedom put at risk by requiring public disclosure is the freedom to launder money. As long as millions of dollars in dark money is sloshing around Michigan — much of it from anonymous, out-of-state donors — most citizens are perfectly justified in figuring that the only reason to keep this stuff secret is that something corrupt or scandalous is going on. And the only way to fix this problem is to require public disclosure for all campaign contributions.
For years and years, we’ve heard argument after argument about campaign contribution limits and reporting. At both the federal and state level, well-intentioned reformers keep making various proposals to tighten up the rules. Solving the campaign contribution problem is simply not going to be done by adopting ever tighter and more prescriptive rules; the candidates, their advisors and the sharpies who want to finance them are much smarter and much, much more nimble than any rule-making public body.
The real solution is very simple: Take all limits off any campaign contribution of any sort — finishing a process the U.S. Supreme Court started in its Citizens United decision in January 2010.
But in return, require immediate public disclosure of all contributions — something the nation‘s highest court also said was perfectly acceptable. Only if we do that will we clean up the secret dark money mess that has haunted Michigan politics for decades.
Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.