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Mystery funds undermine democracy

By Donna Brazile, CNN Contributor
  • "Independent" political operations have spent $80 million so far on midterm elections
  • Donors of more than half of the money have not been disclosed
  • Donna Brazile says U.S. Supreme Court rulings opened way for corporations to donate
  • She says foreign corporations' money could be used to support or oppose U.S. candidates

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee, a nationally syndicated columnist and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000 and wrote "Cooking With Grease."

(CNN) -- Give them credit where credit is due: Republicans know how to spend big dollars. In this election, Republican political strategists and their rich, anonymous supporters are really thinking big.

The Washington Post reported that "independent" political operations have spent $80 million so far, five times as much as in the 2006 election. The vast majority of that money is being spent on behalf of conservatives to defeat Democratic candidates in the midterms.

More than half of the money is coming from undisclosed donors -- and now foreign corporations may be getting into the act. It's time for those of us who care about democracy to think big, too.

This week, more than 50 high-profile former government attorneys (including the Republican former attorney general of Arizona) and law professors told congressional leaders they need to take a serious look at amending the Constitution to give the people the power to limit corporate election spending. They're right.

Welcome to the new Wild West of campaign finance the Supreme Court has ushered in. Citizens United is Bush v. Gore on steroids: The 5-4 ruling by an activist, right-wing majority held that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as actual citizens.

Video: Secret spenders sway voters?

The decision that corporations can use their general treasury funds for unlimited political expenditures, added to an earlier ruling striking down reasonable restrictions on "issue ads" that air close to elections, threatens not only the 2010 political landscape but our democratic core.

The real-world results of that decision are becoming clear. The new "super PACS," with friendly names like Americans for Prosperity, are the favored conduits for the torrent of unlimited corporate cash drowning out the voices of ordinary people.

A wave of investigations shows that much of this money comes from a small circle of very wealthy, conservative individuals and corporations. Their millions are being spent at the direction of political operatives such as Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, who are determined to buy what they cannot win.

And for the first time in decades, that money may be coming from foreign corporations, including some controlled by foreign governments. The Chamber of Commerce will spend $75 million this year to defeat Democrats.

And according to a new report from the liberal blog Think Progress, overseas corporations will underwrite that work through memberships on the Chamber's "Business Councils" in nations such as Bahrain and India.

Why would foreign interests support the U.S.-based Chamber? Presumably to help big business attack Democrats who have fought the outsourcing of jobs and supported free trade. And wasn't it the Chamber that suggested U.S. taxpayers should help pay for the BP oil spill?

Worse, voters have no way of knowing who's writing the checks. A new analysis by People for the American Way demonstrates that many of these groups are operating as 501(c)(4) "social welfare" or 501(c)(6) "trade association" organizations, which don't have to reveal their donors. The report, "After Citizens United," documents how these groups fund ads that are not only misleading, but mysterious.

Ads by the American Future Fund attacking Rep. Bruce Braley for refusing to be drawn into the Islamic cultural center debate, for example, prompted the editorial board of Iowa's Quad City Times to plead with AFF to tell the community "who you are."

At this point in 2010, all we can do is hope that the unbridled excesses that the Supreme Court has allowed will pave the way for reform. There are some promising signs.

Just last week, a House committee approved a congressional public financing bill for the first time ever. There is also hope that the Disclose Act and its transparency provisions will be adopted by the next Congress.

As recently as 2000, Democrats and Republicans could at least agree that "shadow donors" had no role in the political process; all Democrats and 89 percent of Republicans in the Senate voted for disclosure requirements for so-called 527 political groups. Somehow, by last week, all Republicans in the Senate seemed to change their minds.

Disclosure and public financing are necessary -- but thanks to Citizens United, they will not be sufficient. That's why Sens. Max Baucus and Chris Dodd, along with Reps. Donna Edwards and Paul Hodes, have each proposed constitutional amendments designed to restore the First Amendment to its original intent.

This isn't a partisan issue for the American people. A People for the American Way poll this past summer found that 84 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents and 69 percent of Republicans support a constitutional amendment if it's needed to curb corporate influence on elections.

For the sake of the American people, I hope that our next Congress takes up these measures with their constituent's best interests -- and not the interests of mystery group "Americans for ___________" -- at heart.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.