Dark Money

Did you ever hear of the Sixteen Thirty Fund?

If the answer is no, you’re not alone; most people haven’t. But they should, and now they will.

The Sixteen Thirty Fund achieved a certain fame — or infamy — this week when it became the focus of an exposé on the huge sums of “dark money” which have been financing liberal-left causes in recent years.

The nonprofit outfit, headquartered in Washington, “spent $141 million on more than 100 left-leaning causes during the [2018] midterm election year, according to a& new tax filing from the group,” Politico reported on Wednesday.

The anonymity of its donors is protected by campaign finance laws, which do not require disclosure of the names of the big givers when the giving is to “social welfare” groups.

This seems like a reasonable exception. That is, until you try defining “social welfare.” If you consult, say, the Merriam-Webster dictionary, you will find it described as “organized public or private social services for the assistance of disadvantaged groups.” The Encyclopedia Britannica says the term covers “any of a variety of governmental programs designed to protect citizens from the economic risks and insecurities of life.”

So, one might be excused for thinking that the altruistic folks at the Sixteen Thirty Fund are all about such worthy causes as providing shelter for the homeless, reaching out to the elderly or job training for the unemployed.

The group’s mission statement, however, liberally expands the definition to include such items as “confronting climate change” and “advocating for criminal and racial justice…”

What the fund doesn’t say is that money funneled through it has gone to such “social welfare” projects as opposing Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment and the appointment of other Trump judicial nominees, and changing laws on voting and redistricting in various states.

Just one example: Demand Justice, a group run by Brian Fallon, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, spent millions of dollars on mass media ads in the campaign to deny the conservative Kavanaugh a seat on the Supreme Court.

The Democratic party has made much of small-donor contributions to the 2020 presidential campaigns. They have gone so far as to restrict the much-coveted participation in the party-sponsored debates to those who meet small-donor thresholds.

This has led to the absurdity in some cases of candidates spending more per dollar on fundraising promotions than the donors themselves pledge to the campaign — the payoff being a spot in the debates, worth millions.

Where do they get the money to obtain those small donations? Ironically, in no small part from big donors.

While the Democrats refurbish their image as a party of the people — of the poor and minorities, in contrast to the stereotype of the Republicans as the party of big business — millions of dollars are gushing in from wealthy types whose identities remain secret. According to the tax report, Sixteen Thirty raked in numerous outsized donations, including one gift totaling $51.7 million.

The revelations of dark money in Democratic coffers is especially galling in light of years of denunciations of the very same type of anonymous funding with Republican players.

“Dark money” is not “illegal money.” But there are good reasons why it should be, or at least why dark money should be much more carefully restricted.

For one thing, the “darkness,” that is, the anonymity, makes it difficult to detect violations of campaign finance law, such as money from foreign donors or contributions that surpass the legal limit.

Furthermore, wider disclosure is in the interests of the voters, who deserve to know who is paying for candidates’ expensive campaigns. As the Supreme Court observed in Buckley v. Valeo — a 1976 campaign disclosure case — identifying a candidate’s financial backers “alert(s) the voter to the interests to which the candidate is most likely to be responsive.”

Information on a candidate’s sources of funding affords a means to distinguish between populist rhetoric and his or her true intentions. Someone whose political career is enabled by certain wealthy donors is unlikely to turn around and back measures that will harm those donors’ interests.

As such, voters would like to be alerted to the fact that some of the leading slayers of the billionaire class quietly receive generous endowments from those same types of folks. That Joe Biden is no stranger to wealthy lobbyists, and that Elizabeth Warren has collected some 30 percent of her money from big donors, is information that the small donors out there would appreciate knowing, including their names.

It also might make a difference to a voter to learn that a favorite candidate is being bankrolled by an anti-Semite or a racist.

The argument for non-disclosure — that it constitutes an invasion of privacy — cannot be entirely dismissed. But amending the law to require disclosure of organizational donors and very large individual donors would still take its intent into account. That is something to be worked out in legislative consultation.

In the meantime, any light shed on the dark money problem is a good thing.