peaker Paul Ryan is on his way out of the rolling freak show that is our national politics, having cemented our budding plutocracy in the tax code. Considering that, by one analysis, 83 percent of the Republican tax “reform” bill’s benefits , it’s safe to say the Speaker delivered for The Donors. So it’s only fair for The Donors to return the favor, especially as Ryan’s House Republicans face the prospect of a Blue Wave in November. To emphasize the point, Ryan flew out to Las Vegas last week for something that, thanks to Politico, didn’t stay there.
Apparently, Republican mega donor and total heartthrob Sheldon Adelson cut a $30 million check to a Super PAC benefiting House Republicans after Ryan met with him last week. Insane amounts of money sloshing around our politics isn’t exactly new, but one part of this deal, as flagged by OpenSecrets’ Anna Massoglia, captures perfectly the fundamental corruption of our system of campaign finance:
The long-sought donation was sealed last week when, according to two senior Republicans, House Speaker Paul Ryan flew to Las Vegas to meet with the billionaire at his Venetian Hotel. Also at the meeting with Adelson was his wife, Miriam; Norm Coleman, the former Minnesota senator who chairs the Republican Jewish Coalition; Corry Bliss, who oversees the super PAC; and Jake Kastan, Ryan’s No. 2 political aide. They laid out a case to Adelson about how crucial it is to protect the House.
As a federally elected official, Ryan is not permitted to solicit seven-figure political donations. When Ryan (R-Wis.) left the room, Coleman made the ask and secured the $30 million contribution.
So Ryan can’t ask for $30 million, but he can make the entire case for it—and lend the scene a certain gravitas as perhaps the country’s second most powerful elected official—then promptly leave the room so the sausage can get made. It’s almost like there are no actual rules about how much rich people and corporations can pour into our elections—out of the goodness of their hearts, of course, and with no expectation of getting their money’s worth from those they get elected.
In the immortal words of Anthony Kennedy in the Citizens United decision:
Independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quocorruption.
There is, technically, a rule against this kind of thing. As part of that disastrous Citizens United ruling, which allowed “independent” groups like Super PACs to spend unlimited sums of money on our elections, the Supreme Court held that those PACs can’t “coordinate” with the candidates or campaigns they support. (Then politicians could essentially accept unlimited money through their Super PACs. That would look like corruption!) Of course, politicians have continually flouted this rule, because it is basically unenforceable and is fairly ridiculous on its face.
Ryan’s routine, in which he essentially asked for the money then left the room when the money changed hands, is not an exceptional case. The sum of money was exceptional, however, because of Ryan’s position and the donor involved. Adelson earned the title “megadonor” in 2012, when he spent at least around $100 milliontrying to get Mitt Romney and Republicans down the ticket elected. In 2016, he pledged to drop $45 million on the election (after reportedly taking time to warm up to Trump).
None of that accounts for whatever Adelson spent in Dark Money, the term for cash funneled through “charitable” outfits listed as 501(c)4 organizations under the tax code. These groups call themselves “social welfare” organizations, which are allowed to participate in politics so long as it’s not their primary pastime. While these groups are also supposed to be independent, they’re usually paired with a Super PAC to which they can transfer funds. (The original model was Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, a Super PAC, and Crossroads GPS, the “social welfare” setup.) The 501(c)4s can also, like Super PACs, accept unlimited sums—but because they are considered charitable organizations, they don’t have to disclose their donors. Since we then don’t know where the money is coming from (or what the donor’s motives might be), it’s considered Dark Money.
If you’re wondering if anyone has made a complete mockery of that part of our campaign finance system, look no further than a Super PAC supporting the president. Again, as flagged by Anna: