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Tom Toles is worth a thousand words

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The Democrats' attack on foreign campaign contributions is pretty much bunk. The Chamber of Commerce, like many large organizations with an international presence, takes in money overseas. It also spends money here. That does not mean it spends foreign money here. As far as I can tell, no one who has seriously looked into this thinks it's any more than some election-season hardball from the Democrats.

What's more serious is the issue Toles gets at in the cartoon above, and which Democrats have also been hammering (though it hasn't gotten as much attention as the more sensational charge about foreign money): large amounts of domestic money, from domestic groups and corporations, being funneled into elections without any disclosure. As T.W. Farnam and Dan Eggen reported, "the $80 million spent so far by groups outside the Democratic and Republican parties dwarfs the $16 million spent at this point for the 2006 midterms. In that election, the vast majority of money -- more than 90 percent -- was disclosed along with donors' identities. This year, that figure has fallen to less than half of the total."

So contributions are up fivefold and disclosure is down by about half. That's not a good situation. Meanwhile, I really wish the Democrats' push on this issue was connected to a serious campaign-finance agenda. They're not going to win any races by calling for more financial disclosure from the Chamber of Commerce, but maybe they could at least unite the party around something like the Fair Elections Now Act.

By Ezra Klein  | October 12, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
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Comments

Since it has been widely reported, and confirmed by the CoC that they do get contributions from foreign entities and those funds do go into the same account that the CoC uses to fund its political advertising, there is plenty of reason to believe that the money in is some part of the money out. Also, since the CoC does lobby for its foreign affiliates, the appearance of CoC using foreign money to advertise in elections in order to acquire leverage to push recipients of that advertising to vote in favor of legislation favorable to those foreign entities, and often unfavorable to U.S. entities that those foreign entities compete with, there is the definite appearance that the CoC is participating in the election as an agent of foreign entities, apparently including foreign governments.

We are back to the conflict of interest debate, where one side says that the appearance of a conflict of interest is sufficient for their to be a conflict of interest, and the other side says that there is no such thing as a conflict of interest.

The CoC could certainly segregate its foreign contributions, so that there was no appearance that they were using it to campaign for republicans. It makes good financial and accounting sense to do so. Instead they dump everything in one account and then say that they don't have to account for anything to anybody.

Except, of course, to those foreign entities trying to buy a U.S. election.

Posted by: ceflynline | October 12, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

It's a little more complicated for the CoC and they have not addressed the issue of US subsidiaries of foreign based corporations of which there are probably many. They get a contribution from ForCompany US that is the subsidiary of ForCompany based in Switzerland. Does any one think that ForCompany US is not taking direction from the CEO and Board that are based in Switzerland? This is the crux of the problem and not the $100K that the CoC says are the "foreign" funds that they are segregating.

Probably when one looks at all the foreign subsidiaries that contribute to the CoC we will see real money.

Posted by: agoldhammer | October 12, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, your column is pretty much bunk.

The fact that the CoC - whose word both you and "FactCheck" both unquestioningly accept - admits they get foreign money but refuses to show how much they spend on U.S. elections - should raise huge red flags.

You have completely lost credibility.

I can't believe that the Bushington Post fired Dan Froomkin yet employs you.

Posted by: solsticebelle | October 12, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Bunk? How do you know? Please share that with us.

And, while you're at it, please share with us how Clarence Thomas had no conflict of interest in Citizens United. Or is that just bunk too?

Posted by: IndigoJoe | October 12, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I don't really see why foreigners shouldn't be allowed to contribute to political campaigns. Foreigners are effected by our elections, so they should be able to get involved in our campaigns. It just seems like petty nationalism to exclude foreigners. They should be subject to the same campaign finance regulations, but it seems unfair to ban them from contributing entirely. What's the danger?

Posted by: usergoogol | October 12, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Money is fungible. That $100,000 from a foreign company may not be going into an accounting to spend on elections, but it does free up someone else's $100,000 to be spent on elections that they wouldn't otherwise be able to do.

The Chamber of Commerce is a money laundering operation.

Posted by: lol-lol | October 12, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Your column got so totally under my skin, I had to come back with another comment. In my opinion, the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court is the worst decision of, at least, the last 30 years. It is a threat to democracy. And you dare use the word bunk for an unsubstantiated opinion, which has major implications if you're wrong. Go investigate, rather than opine.

Further, asking the democrats to unify around the Fair Election Now Act is so lame. The democrats already tried passing a disclosure bill, only to be outvoted 41-59 in the Senate. What do you think will happen this time? Hardball is the only thing they have, and they're not good playing it. You're not helping.

I'm not going to check your blog records, but I sure hope you blogged "bunk" at Palin's "death panels", or that matter, that you blog "bunk" any time she farts (sorry, I mean posts) on Facebook. Please have a sense of perspective, Ezra.

Posted by: IndigoJoe | October 12, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

And today, by decree of Ezra Klein, Money is no longer Fungible!

Posted by: jakek | October 12, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

I agree with lol-lol, if only because it points up the hypocrisy of the right wing. During the health care fight, "fungible" was their favorite word. They said there was no way to keep taxpayer money from paying for poor women's abortions under the health care law, even if their benefits were prevented from doing so. But I guess the CoC has an impenetrable firewall that Medicaid doesn't.

Posted by: commercestreet | October 12, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I completely second @commercestreet.
.
This is hypocrisy at its finest. Sorry Erza, you're wrong here. This is perfectly valid issue to complain about.
.
What should be done is to directly tie it to Citizens United to get everybody back on the same page to get something done about it.

Posted by: rpixley220 | October 12, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

To all those complaining about the "bunk" phrasing, please remember that ezra cited a source, factcheck.org, which elaborated the reasons why the claim was bunk.

Accusations of wrong doing on the part of the CoC are all purely speculative. There is no evidence that substantiates those claims. Complaining that a private, not-for-profit organization is secretive does not constitute proof.

The real absurdity, however, are people who fret that organizations that spend money on elections are a threat to democracy. The bulk of empirical evidence shows that election spending has an extremely marginal impact on elections. (The most notable example being Levitt's classic: http://www.rochester.edu/college/psc/clarke/204/Levitt94.pdf)

For the most part, people are not dumb lemmings that can herded to one candidate or another with enough bumper stickers or television advertisements.

Posted by: kevinadolph | October 12, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

kevinadolph engages in an interesting bit of non-logic. We shouldn't give Ezra a hard time because he cited a source. Ezra used the word in his first sentence before citing any sources, and that source does not use the work "bunk".

The point is precisely that we do not know one way or the other, not that it is bunk. The danger is not in the charge being wrong, the danger is that the charge is right. So let's have the media go after the Chamber of Commerce until we get resolution. In fact, the defense of the Chamber of Commerce by the media is fascinating to watch. It reminds me of what happened when the White House first tried to go after Fox. The media defended Fox. So much for left-wing media. All the nonsense that's thrown out in our politics that's portrayed in he said/she said fashion and this gets push-back. I never cease to be amazed.

Also, if you're not a lemming, I congratulate you; I'm not either. That still does not make me happy about money in politics. If you don't believe that money talks, I don't know what Congress you've been watching.

My problem with Citizens United is that the decision totally changes the scale of the problem. The money flowing in is buying tons of advertising. Maybe you don't believe in the power of propaganda, but I do. Again, tell me quickly, what percentage of the population believes Obama is a Muslim? You can keep your Rochester study. It may be a classic, but so is the information in modern polling data.

Posted by: IndigoJoe | October 12, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse

Hi Indigo, thanks for the response.

I'm afraid the non-logic is on your part, in this instance. You say:
"The point is precisely that we do not know one way or the other, not that it is bunk."

There is no evidence that the CoC is using foreign money on US political ads, and it is not illogical to point that out.

We could groundlessly speculate on alot of things which we "do not know one way or the other." Maybe Obama is the biggest contributor to the CoC. Maybe Santa Claus.

Maybe Michelle Obama secretly uses her personal money to buy cocaine. There is no disclosure! I have as much evidence of that as naysayers who claim the CoC uses foreign money for political ads.

On the effect of money in politics, I do not "watch" congress and make up my mind. I look at the evidence, including peer-reviewed studies like the one I linked earlier, and make up my mind based on that.

Even if 90% of people believed that obama was a muslim, that doesn't mean propaganda works. Your leaping from A to B in a way that doesn't make sense.

Posted by: kevinadolph | October 13, 2010 12:36 AM | Report abuse

As some have pointed out, money is fungible. So what if it's not "the same" money -- if they have an extra million dollars laying around they can re-allocate the money they would've used for salaries or office furniture or whatever.

The real question is if their account was suddenly drained by the amount they're spending on the ad campaign--before they spent it on the ads--would they spend the same amount? Of course not

Posted by: newsjunkie10 | October 13, 2010 12:50 AM | Report abuse

Hi NewsJunkie,

Three things:

First, the claim is that the CoC used foreign money to purchase attack ads, not that foreign money freed up other money to purchase attack ads. If you agree that the CoC has not used foreign money to purchase attack ads, then you agree that much of the left wing blogosphere and the DNC's most recent attack ad are wrong.

Second, just because the CoC received foreign money doesn't necessarily mean that the CoC is spending more on attack advertisements than they would have without the foreign money. For all we know, the increase in 'income' might have led to new carpet and higher salaries, and nothing more. Saying that money that would have been spent somewhere else is now being spent on ads is speculative.

Third, I doubt that people are likely to see a controversy if non-profits use money in non-political activities, regardless of what that means for the other, domestic money.

Posted by: kevinadolph | October 13, 2010 2:06 AM | Report abuse

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