The Republican grab for Congress is being funded by a pack of wolves masquerading as a herd of sheep.
How sweet and innocent they seem, these mysterious organizations with names like Americans for Job Security. Who could argue with that? Who wants job insecurity?
It turns out, according to The Washington Post, that an entity called Americans for Job Security has made nearly $7.5 million in "independent" campaign expenditures this year, with 88 percent of that total going to support Republican candidates. Who's putting up all that money? You'll never know, because Americans for Job Security — which calls itself a "business association" — doesn't have to disclose the source of its funding.
Likewise, the American Future Fund has spent $6.8 million on campaigns this year, with every penny of that money benefiting Republicans. The patriotically named group — and, really, who doesn't want America to have a future? — is based in Iowa and has never before been a big player in the Great Game of campaign finance. Now, suddenly, it has a king's ransom to throw around.
Whose money is it? The American Future Fund won't tell you.
And then there's American Crossroads, which at least is being "advised" by some people you've heard of — Republican strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. This group has spent $5.6 million so far, but is just getting started: American Crossroads says it will spend an astounding $50 million in this election cycle.
You will not be surprised to hear that all of this money is being used to try to oust Democrats and replace them with Republicans. And where is the money coming from? Silly of you to ask. There is no limit to the amount that an individual, corporation or trade association can give to American Crossroads — but the group is not required to tell you who those deep-pockets donors might be.
Democrats are doing the same sort of thing, or trying to. But Republicans are outspending Democrats by 7-1 in this kind of "independent" campaign spending. So while Democratic candidates enjoy a big advantage in official campaign funding — the kind that has limits and disclosure requirements — this edge is blunted by the wave of "independent" GOP cash.
According to the Post, $80 million has been spent thus far on midterm election campaigns by these shadowy "independent" groups — as opposed to just $16 million at this point in the 2006 midterm cycle.
I put "independent" in quotes because this spending is anything but. Officially, groups such as Americans for Job Security and American Crossroads are not allowed to spend on behalf of specific candidates; rather, they are supposed to confine themselves to such anodyne activities as highlighting issues and advocating policy positions. In practice, however, this gives them the latitude to attack one candidate — a Democrat, say — for his or her position on health care, financial reform or whatever.
There can be no overt coordination between these groups and any specific candidates, but there doesn't have to be. The political operatives in charge of the American Future Fund, for example, can read a map of congressional districts as well as anybody else. All they have to do is identify a potentially vulnerable Democrat and start pouring in the cash, mostly to buy television ads accusing the incumbent of being an enemy of all that America holds dear — and, gasp, a friend of Nancy Pelosi.
The Supreme Court made all this possible with its ruling earlier this year, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which legalized unlimited campaign spending by corporations, unions, trade associations and other such entities. And the independent-expenditure groups with the patriotic names are often structured as nonprofits, which means they are not required to disclose their donors publicly.
The result is a system in which oil companies opposed to an energy bill that would begin to steer the country away from fossil fuels, or Wall Street firms who want to undo financial regulatory reform and return to the days of the Big Casino, or gazillionaires who want to keep George W. Bush's tax breaks can all spend as much as they like to try to buy Congress for the Republican Party.
And they can do it secretly, in the dark, without anyone knowing. It's bad enough that public offices can be purchased. It's unconscionable that we can't even know who the buyers are.
Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. E-mail him at email@example.com.