Reform group targets the 'money state' of anonymous donors

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
Tim Roemer (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mukhtar Khan/AP, Getty Images (2)).
Tim Roemer (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mukhtar Khan/AP, Getty Images (2)).

WASHINGTON — President Trump may decry the “deep state” supposedly undermining his administration, but former Rep. Tim Roemer is worried about a “money state” of anonymous wealthy donors who he says are corroding American democracy.

“I think you can say there’s only, sadly, one thing important in our politics, and that is lots of money,” Roemer, who co-chairs a political reform group called Issue One, told the Yahoo News podcast “The Long Game.”

“There is this reliance on money to recruit candidates, and ask them to write their own checks, and how rich they are, not how rich their ideas are for our country to make it better,” Roemer said.

Complaints about the role of money in politics are commonplace. But what’s also widespread is confusion about what people mean when they talk about money in politics. Do they want to get rid of money in politics? Or do they simply want to get rid of dark money, which is the ability of wealthy individuals to give huge sums of money to candidates or unaccountable outside groups without ever having their identity disclosed?

Roemer said that for him and Issue One, it’s the latter. Anonymous donors and dark money groups can have massive influence over the outcome of elections without ever being detected.

“I think due to our First Amendment rights, and due to other considerations in our Constitution, that there is going to be money in politics, a certain amount. I’d like to see it decrease significantly, but … I think transparency is the key,” Roemer said.

He said that, personally, he would also like to see the elimination of leadership PACs, the fundraising vehicles used by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to help the candidates they prefer in party primaries and in general elections.

Issue One wants to change the way the Federal Election Commission is structured, so that election laws preventing coordination between campaigns and super-PACs are enforced.

“Nobody’s going to jail for that, because the Federal Election Commission is designed not to work,” Roemer said. The FEC currently has two Republican and two Democratic commissioners, and Issue One would like to see another member added to break ties. (There are two vacancies, but the panel has long been evenly divided between the two major parties.)

Roemer, a conservative Democrat who represented Indiana’s Third Congressional District for most of the 1990s, went on to become President Barack Obama’s first U.S. ambassador to India and is now a strategic counselor at APCO Worldwide, a prominent crisis management and public relations firm.

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “The Long Game” by Yahoo News

Issue One was started by a former liberal magazine publisher, Nick Penniman, in 2013, but touts itself as the “only nonprofit political reform group in Washington with a track record of uniting Republicans and Democrats.” The group has an impressive bipartisan membership of more than 125 former members of Congress.

The group is working on Capitol Hill with lawmakers to push a handful of reforms. One would require the largest digital platforms such as Google and Facebook to disclose and publicize any entity that pays more than $500 to promote its content online, with an aim toward shining a light on any attempts by foreign entities to influence American politics.

Facebook has already announced some of its own measures to disclose the source of paid advertising on its platform amid a firestorm over how it approached the 2016 election.

Russian intelligence services used online platforms like Facebook to inflame and heighten divisions between American voters during the 2016 election, according to multiple findings by the U.S. intelligence community, the independent media and Facebook itself. In addition, the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee, the U.S. intelligence community and special counsel Robert Mueller have all determined that Russian meddling in the 2016 election was intended to aid Trump’s candidacy versus Democrat Hillary Clinton.

And the U.S. intelligence community’s top leaders said Russia is already targeting the 2018 midterm elections.

Separately, Issue One is also pushing for tax credits and rebates for those who give small dollar political donations. Roemer argued that such reforms are needed to make American voters feel like “they’re in control.”

“And right now they believe donors are in control, they believe lobbyists are in control, and they believe that the people with money are in control, and that they’re at the bottom of the line,” he added.

“We can’t sustain our great democratic principles in our republic if the American people don’t believe that they matter, and voting goes down to 50, 45, 40 percent, and people don’t trust their sacred institutions here in America,” he said.

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