WASHINGTON – Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) described Democrats as “reluctant participants” in today’s post-Citizens United campaign finance system who want “unlimited dark money” removed from the political process.
“The Republican Party is the party of dark money these days. They’re fond of pointing out that given that they have defended these dark money rules that Democrats have also followed that path as well, now that these are the rules of political engagement,” Whitehouse said on a conference call Thursday about requiring “high-ranking government officials” to disclose their political contributions.
“We on the Democratic side are reluctant participants who continue to try to solve this problem legislatively, so there is a partisan divide on this and it has to do with where the Republican Party gets its money and how badly those big special interests, particularly the fossil fuel industry, want to obscure their hand in the political influence game,” he added. “So this is not going to be easy.”
Whitehouse, who recently introduced the Conflicts from Political Fundraising Act, said Republicans are trying to “protect the anonymity” of special interest spending in politics because they “depend” on the money.
“That’s a fight we are eager to have, and in the pressure of that fight they might decide that they have to listen to the public for once and not their big, dark-money donors,” Whitehouse said.
According to Whitehouse’s office, the new legislation “would require presidentially appointed executive branch officials to disclose whether they have solicited donations for or contributed funds to political action committees (PACs), political nonprofits, and industry trade associations.”
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said he hopes the Republicans move toward “full disclosure” rules in the political process.
“There’s so much of this dark money and it’s growing every year, and we want to make sure that there’s full disclosure so the people know who individuals are acting on behalf of,” he said. “Transparency and sunlight really make a difference.”
In a press release about the proposed legislation, Whitehouse’s office argued that the bill would “prevent potentially serious conflicts of interest for cabinet secretaries and other top executive branch officials who may be charged with regulating the very donors who propelled their political careers.”
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) introduced the House version of the Conflicts from Political Fundraising Act.
“The level of big money political activity by Trump cabinet nominees was outrageous, but somehow we weren’t allowed to see exactly who they were working for and how much money they were flooding our elections with,” Deutch said. “We need these disclosures to ensure that agency heads and others won’t put their political connections above the interests of the American people.”
PJM asked Whitehouse and Deutch if they think individuals who have made a set amount of political donations should be disqualified from serving in high-level positions in the federal government.
“Look, the question you asked raises the fundamental question of where we are in a post-Citizens United world and the goal all of us share is getting big money out of politics,” Deutch replied.
“In a perfect world, cabinet positions wouldn’t be for sale to billionaire campaign donors, but even in an imperfect world the public should at least know what connections cabinet officials have to big special interests,” Whitehouse responded.
Whitehouse said there’s a separate question that should be asked of the current administration.
“A separate question is why Trump is choosing billionaires and what private understandings might have been reached with them about continued support should he run for re-election?” he said.