“Dark money” has featured prominently in Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. But some of those complaining loudest about dark money are uniquely responsible for the deluge of secret political spending that has corrupted U.S. politics.
On the day President Joe Biden announced Jackson’s nomination, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared she “was the favored choice of far-left dark-money groups.” During the first day of Jackson’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, feigned concern about the “troubling role of far-left dark money groups” in the judicial selection process.
Politicians who rail against dark money while refusing to support legislation to clean it up are part of the problem.
Outside of the hearing room, Judicial Crisis Network — which pioneered dark money spending on judicial nominations — has dropped at least $2.5 million on ads attacking the “dark money” it claims is behind Jackson’s nomination. (These attacks are largely focused on Demand Justice, which formed in 2018 as a liberal counterweight to JCN, but whose spending thus far has been dwarfed by that of JCN.) As The Washington Post’s Fact Checker and others have pointed out, it is certainly ironic for a prominent dark money group to critique dark money.
In fact, just last year, McConnell, Grassley and their colleagues had a chance to do something about the dark money flooding judicial nominations. But instead, these Republican senators used their power to keep dark money dark.
In 2021, the House passed the For the People Act, which, among many other things, had robust provisions to shine a spotlight on dark money, including dark money spent on judicial nominations. When the bill reached the Senate, some of its voting rights and ethics protections were jettisoned, but the transparency provisions remained intact.
McConnell, Grassley and every other Republican senator blocked the legislation. If they hadn’t, then dark money groups like Demand Justice on the left and Judicial Crisis Network on the right would have been required to disclose the wealthy donors who had given $10,000 or more. There would’ve been little “dark money” today for these politicians to complain about.
McConnell’s new attack on dark money is particularly cynical. He not only blocked the legislation, but expressly critiqued its anti-dark money measures and proposed an amendment that would’ve stripped out the bill’s transparency provisions, arguing that keeping wealthy donors secret was necessary to protect “associational privacy.” When the House passed the bill, McConnell issued a statement declaring that it “tramples on citizens’ privacy,” echoing a talking point he has used to argue against more donor transparency. (That’s on top of the amicus brief he filed with the Supreme Court last year urging it to strike down California’s charity disclosure laws.)
He made it his personal mission to keep the dark money spigot open. In a recording obtained by The New Yorker, a top McConnell aide told a number of powerful dark money groups that McConnell was “not going to back down” in his opposition to the bill, especially its “donor privacy” provisions.
But the recording revealed another insight, one that may be relevant to the GOP’s latest messaging: Internal polling conducted by one Koch-run advocacy group showed that ending dark money is popular with voters across the political spectrum. “There’s a large, very large, chunk of conservatives who are supportive of these types of efforts,” a representative of the Koch group said on the call, according to The New Yorker.
Given the public’s broad, bipartisan opposition to secret political spending, McConnell and other wealthy special interests have apparently given up on trying to convince voters that dark money actually stands for “donor privacy” and that transparency is really an “attack on speech.”
Instead, they’re going to cynically muddy the waters and attempt to confuse the public about who is spending dark money — and who is working to keep dark money dark.
The public is right to be concerned about dark money. When judicial confirmation battles are dominated by millions of dollars in secret political spending, the public and lawmakers cannot know who is trying to influence them or how the wealthy special interests who are secretly bankrolling these campaigns may stand to benefit from the Supreme Court’s opinions.
As the 2022 midterms approach, we are certain to see millions more in dark money spent by both Democrats and Republicans to influence our votes. When millions of dollars in dark money are spent on elections, voters cannot know what secret donors might be getting in return from the politicians they are backing.
Candidates of all political stripes are critiquing the role of dark money in politics, but voters should demand more than just talk. Politicians who rail against dark money while refusing to support legislation to clean it up are part of the problem.