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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Driving Elections While Hammered on Foreign Money

Drunk driversImagine a world much like our own. In this world, drunk driving is just as illegal as it is here. Everyone agrees that intoxicated drivers are a menace and the world would be a much safer place without them. But, in this world, it's also illegal to pull a driver over and check to see if they're intoxicated. People who aren't crazy argue that this check would be essential to enforcement and we ought to start doing it, while people who are crazy argue that enforcement is unnecessary -- after all, drunk driving is illegal, so no one will do it, right? If someone's weaving all over the road, they probably have a good reason and pulling them over to see what that reason is would be an invasion of their privacy. Drunk driving has been eliminated by making it illegal and, if you need proof of that, then just look at the record -- no arrests ever. Success!

This alternate reality may strike you as a little on the stupid side, but welcome to the world of American politics post-Citizens United v. FEC. Foreign money in federal elections is still illegal, but there's no way to pull a candidate over to find out if they're soused on foreign money. Candidate X may be positively hammered on Bahraini dinars or Russian Rubles, but -- by the easiest money-laundering scheme in the world -- there's no way to prove it, because there's no way to check.

That's what we're beginning to see play out with the US Chamber of Commerce. The Chambers is running millions of dollars worth of attack ads across the nation and no one can find out for sure where the money comes from.

Think Progress:

In recent years, the Chamber has become very aggressive with its fundraising, opening offices abroad and helping to found foreign chapters (known as Business Councils or “AmChams”). While many of these foreign operations include American businesses with interests overseas, the Chamber has also spearheaded an effort to raise money from foreign corporations, including ones controlled by foreign governments. These foreign members of the Chamber send money either directly to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or the foreign members fund their local Chamber, which in turn, transfers dues payments back to the Chamber’s H Street office in Washington DC. These funds are commingled to the Chamber’s 501(c)(6) account which is the vehicle for the attack ads...

Or maybe not. But probably. The Chamber denies that foreign money is going toward election ads, but refuses to prove it. They say they have "a system in place" to make sure AmCham funds don't find their way into political funds, but won't say what that system is or how it works. The Chamber says they're "not obligated to discuss our internal accounting procedures." What does that say about the Chamber's guilt or innocence here?

"Put it this way," wrote Steve Benen, "what are the odds that the Chamber has a perfectly reasonable, legal defense for its campaign activities, that would fully exonerate the organization and make Think Progress look bad for even raising the allegations, but it's choosing not to share this defense because it isn't 'obligated' to?"

I'd say the odds are pretty slim. But we can't know for sure, because we can't check. Is the Chamber's campaign fund hammered on foreign money? There's no way to know. The president and the Democratic Party have begun to raise the alarm here, warning that our democratic system is at risk. Predictably, some "centrist" (read "corporate") Democrats are busy helping Republicans and the Chamber build a defense against the charge.

L.A. Times:

In a potential sign of Democratic unease with the White House midterm political strategy, some of President Obama's allies have begun to question his sustained attack on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long claimed bipartisanship but is being increasingly identified as a GOP ally.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill worry that the White House is going too far in charging that the politically powerful business lobby may be using foreign money to fuel its election efforts this year. The charge ignites strong feelings among job hungry voters. But Democrats are concerned that that it may be overstated and could harm moderate Democrats in swing districts.

See, the idea that the US Chamber is spending foreign money to elect pro-corporate candidates is "baseless," despite the fact that it's obvious. Why is it baseless? Because no one can prove it. Why can no one prove it? Because we can't check.

"The White House may reap the whirlwind," a "top Democratic staffer" told the Times. "What are we going to do next year if a Republican Congress is making baseless claims about President Obama? We'll want the media to hold them accountable to the facts and the evidence."

Obviously, I don't know who "top Democratic staffer" here is, but if you want to find out, look for someone who was born yesterday. Republicans will be making "baseless claims about President Obama" next year. They're doing it now, so you don't have to be freakin' Cassandra to see that one coming. Top dem just hasn't been paying attention.

But there we are. The Chamber's probably driving while wasted on foreign money and there's nothing we can do about unless we have proof. And we can't prove it unless we pull the Chamber over and make them blow into the little box. We can't do that. So we ought to do something about it, but we probably won't because dem numbers will be down and some of these pro-corporate dems will be among the survivors. So it'll be illegal for foreign money to fund election campaigns, but de facto legal because there's no enforcement mechanism.

Really doesn't seem like the best way to run a democratic process, does it? That's OK, that's the way the Chamber likes it.


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