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Patt Morrison Asks

Sheila Krumholz -- she follows the money

As executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, she monitors the witches' brew of federal lobbying and loot at

November 06, 2012|Patt Morrison
  • Sheila Krumholz is executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
Sheila Krumholz is executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center… (Handout )

It was a California politico, Jesse Unruh, who nailed the relationship between dough and democracy: "Money is the mother's milk of politics." Where does it come from, and where does it go? Sheila Krumholz makes it her business to tell us. As executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, she monitors the witches' brew of federal lobbying and loot at which names donors and tracks categories like earmarks, interest groups, even contributions by ZIP Code. Just before election day, she talked about this year's political cash cows, and the 20-plus years she's spent following the Watergate admonition to follow the money.

Something like $6 billion was spent on this election cycle — scads of it from unknown donors — as a consequence of the Citizens United ruling.

The Supreme Court got it wrong in Citizens United in terms of the transparency their decision relies upon. The justices argued that money does not corrupt the system because we have disclosure. But the disclosure the court sanctioned 8-1 is sorely lacking. So they got it wrong. It's possible some of them are regretful.

We have a series on our OpenSecrets website called "Shadow Money", which documents how groups are raising and spending money in secret.n The system is not working as it was intended.

Why not?

The Federal Election Commission is its usual mostly non-functioning self. They're at loggerheads because they're designed to be so, so nothing of great importance gets done [the commission by law has three Democratic and three Republican members]. In the case of requiring disclosure of donors to independent expenditure organizations running ads, several members of the FEC have essentially acted as agents of nullification. It's a sock in the eye to transparency and the Congress.

Those organizations call themselves nonprofit social welfare groups. People think of nonprofits as helping children or the needy, not as political expenditure groups.

It's hogwash. These organizations are taking advantage of the tax-exempt status offered to nonprofits. The IRS allows political activity as long as it's not [a group's] primary purpose. The IRS is slow [to audit them] because, who controls the IRS' budget? Congress. And Congress has said: Don't you dare. It will take public outcry to say, hell, yes, the IRS needs to audit these activities, which no one believes are primarily conducted on behalf of the public welfare.

Money and politics have always been conjoined twins in this democracy.

I wonder what folks thought about [19th century] candidates essentially purchasing votes with money or rum. Even then, there was a sense that money greases the skids. In Montana, mining barons ran the state. That brought about [campaign] reforms. Watergate was a watershed event, with suitcases of cash, which clearly didn't fly with the public; change was imposed.

Whatever campaign reform law is passed, someone figures out a way around it.

The hydraulic theory of campaign finance, yes: Money will flow around and over and under barriers. Every 10 years or so, we figure out how the lawyers have gamed the system, then we close the loopholes. There's the law of unintended consequences; with each reform, the intent may not match what ultimately happens. This is the rallying cry of the forces against reform: We should just get rid of all regulation. Many also want to get rid of limits and disclosure. I think that would be incredibly dangerous.

But you don't mess with the system lightly because [that] may create scenarios where the elite accumulate more power and less transparency. Most Americans agree that this is, as Churchill said, the worst system but for all the others. We've got to keep plugging away at improving it.

Why are campaigns so expensive?

There's always pressure, particularly from the machinery around politics, to earn and spend as much as possible. It's about what the market will bear. And now, post-Citizens United, that has just skyrocketed, the pressure on candidates to be constantly dialing for dollars. Look at the presidential candidates: They [spent] precious time fundraising in tony living rooms on the Upper East Side and Beverly Hills, in states which were not in play, when they would otherwise have been reaching out to voters in swing states.

Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis said sunshine — openness and scrutiny — is the best disinfectant. Is it the solution to everything?

No, but it's an essential element. If you want to know how democracy functions, you have to seek out the facts. We provide facts so that, should the people decide that someone is trying to use the rules to their narrow advantage, the people can say, this is what we need to change.

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