“It is illegal to use foreign money to influence federal elections.”
In case anyone needed the reminder, McClatchy gave this sentence its own line in the outlet’s recent piece breaking the story that the FBI is investigating the National Rifle Association (NRA) for possibly funneling Russian money to help Donald Trump win the presidency in the 2016 election. Will this new revelation finally prompt Republican lawmakers to support transparency reforms that will end the ability for companies, wealthy donors and foreign adversaries to secretly run our democracy?
For years, gun violence prevention advocates, as well as those calling for the rollback of the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous 2010 Citizens United decision, have been sounding the alarm on the NRA’s troubling secret spending. In 2016, the NRA topped its own record by spending more than $419 million to influence election outcomes with that money focused on supporting Trump and Republican candidates in six key U.S. Senate races. More than $35 million of that was spent by the NRA Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), which, due to its tax status, does not need to reveal its donors.
Beyond 2016, NRA political spending has almost solely benefited Republican candidates, who in turn rarely support commonsense gun violence prevention reform or measures to increase transparency in our democracy. For example, conservatives in Congress are trying to use the must-pass budget to block a key secret money reform: a rulemaking at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that would require companies to disclose their political spending to their shareholders and the public.
And now, as if taking a page out of a gripping political TV drama, the NRA may be helping Russia meddle in our elections.
McClatchy reports that the FBI’s investigation is focusing on Putin ally and deputy governor of Russia’s central bank Alexander Torshin, who has cultivated a close relationship with the NRA. Torshin, who already has been implicated for money laundering by investigators in Spain, is reported to have tried to broker a meeting between then-candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin around the same time in 2016 that he met Donald Trump Jr. at the NRA Convention. A lifelong member of the NRA, Torshin also hosted two dinners in Russia for a visiting NRA delegation in late 2015.
While the conclusion of the FBI’s investigation is still unknown, what is clear is that the ability for secret money to enter our politics is putting our country at grave risk – whether from foreign influence in our elections or from no federal effort to curb gun violence.
The American public knows that the problem of secret political money needs to be fixed. According to a recent Washington Post poll, 65 percent of Americans assign “a lot” of blame to money in politics “for causing dysfunction in the U.S. political system,” and 96 percent assign at least some blame.
The good news is that solutions exist that could upend the system, and passionate advocates and dedicated leaders at the state and local levels are making great strides in implementing changes. In October 2017, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California DISCLOSE Act, which makes it easier to know who is paying for political ads in the state. In New Mexico, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver created a rulemaking that requires groups that spend significantly on politics in the state but are not directly connected to campaigns to disclose their donors. In addition to these and other state and local transparency wins in recent years, 19 states have supported a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizen United. That’s half of the 38 needed to ratify.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and was a well-known fan of the Second Amendment, wrote in his Doe v. Reed opinion that “requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
The mounting evidence that secret money is destroying our democracy has reached a crescendo. Since the bodies of fallen Americans lost to gun violence have not been not enough, will the possibility of Russian money influencing our elections finally be the wakeup call Republicans need to restore transparency and free our democracy from the grip of wealthy special interests like the NRA? Their track record suggests not, but nevertheless, Americans deserve swift action from lawmakers to change the course of our country before it’s too late.