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Maine Sen. King: 'Dark Money' Threatens U.S. Democracy

After chairing a congressional hearing on so-called "dark money" - undisclosed money in federal elections, independent Maine Sen. Angus King is calling for greater transparency around campaign financing. The Senate Rules Committee took up the issue, in part, because of the recent Supreme Court decision abolishing caps on an individual's total donations to federal candidates, parties and political action committees.  Tom Porter has more.

In his opening statement, King said he is "deeply worried" about the future of U.S. democracy.  He says a "perfect storm" of recent events has created a new political landscape "where candidates are compelled to raise more and more money, and yet, at the same time, have to contend with virtually unlimited spending by shadowy entities representing nameless donors."

King referred to a recent report by the Wesleyan Media Project and the Center for Responsive Politics that shows more than $43 million has already been spent on Senate races in this election cycle.  That's a 45 percent increase compared to this point two years ago.

Even more startling, he says, is that nearly 60 percent of  that money was from undisclosed sources.

"This isn't a gradual growth of a change of a few dollars here and there," King said. "What we have is an explosion of this kind of money, not only of outside expenditures, but also of expenditures where we don't know the source. We've created a kind of parrallel universe of campaign finance."

On the other side of the argument is Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, who believes restrictions on campaign contributions are an infringement on First Amendment rights.

"All people, individually and as groups, have every right to make their views known," Roberts said.

And "making your views known," as Roberts and others see it, means the ability for a person or an organization to spend  money as it see fit when it comes to political races.

"We have nothing to fear from a free marketplace of ideas," Roberts said. "We do, however, need to fear a government empowered to investigate its own citizens for exercising their rights."

To try to beef up disclosure requirements, Sen. King recently introduced the Real Time Transparency Act. It would require campaign contributions of $1,000 or more to be filed with the Federal Elections Commission within 48 hours, as opposed to waiting for the next reporting deadline which could be months away.

The idea, says University of New England Political Science Professor Brian Duff, is to give the public a clearer and more immediate insight into where a candidate's money is coming from.

"So up until three days before the election, candidates are on the line for who they're taking money from, and that seems like a really reasonable reform," Duff says. "It's bringing some transparency to the process, and that seems great."

But Duff says there's a wrinkle in the plan, which could result in larger amounts of money being channeled to the more opaque side of campaign politics: the super PACs. These are PACs which can indirectly support a candidate by funding ads that might criticize his or her opponent, for example.

In an effort to get a handle on dark money, Senate Democrats at Wednesday's hearing proposed a constitutional amendment that would give Congress more power to regulate campaign spending. That will be voted on later this year.  

But as the debate over campaign finance picks up steam in Washington, Maine election officials are also confronting the issue. This week, a Virginia-based advocacy group, called the Center for Competitive Politics, sent a letter to state officials, urging Maine to repeal a state law imposing limits on campaign contributions, or risk a lawsuit.

The group's president, David Keating, says the law is unconstitutional in light of the recent Supreme Court decision known as McCutcheon vs. the FEC, which lifts individual contribution limits.

"We think this is something where the state should move to bring its laws into conformance with the First Amendment of the Constitution," Keating says.

"It's terribly concerning," says Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, which works to keep large private donations out of politics. "What we have here is an elevating of money in our political process that diminishes the voices of everyday people."

The Center for Competitive Politics says it's sent similar letters to officials in 17 states, and says two states - Massachusetts and Rhode Island - have announced they'll no longer enforce contribution limits in light of the Supreme Court decision.