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The Rise of Sewer Money

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Friday, October 29, 2010

In New York, there is a traditional name for the kind of anonymous cash now cascading into the American electoral process. It's called sewer money.

Political observers in the Empire State know that sewer money is generally nonpartisan, but in the national midterm contest, the largest amount by far is going toward the election of Republicans.

Although precise amounts may never be known, thanks to the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case, reasonable estimates still can be made from research provided by Washington's Center for Responsive Politics, which seeks to improve political and government transparency. Data from the Federal Elections Commission show that conservative, Republican-oriented "independent" groups are outspending progressive, Democratic-oriented groups by a factor of roughly 10 to one so far.

Organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove's American Crossroads, Americans for Job Security and the American Futures Fund are on track to spend well over $200 million before Nov. 2, while the Sierra Club, Working America and the United Mine Workers, among others, will probably spend about $80 million by then.

The center's figures may not account for all of the spending on the right and left, but the rough proportions are accurate enough. Nobody disagrees that lifting restrictions on corporate contributions in this election has flooded the airwaves with nasty advertising in many congressional districts that is designed to elect Republicans.

Why does sewer money matter? It's bad enough that corporations and wealthy individuals can use their disparate resources -- too often ill-gotten, for instance, in the case of Wall Street banks -- to influence the outcome of elections toward their own benefit. It's far worse, however, when that influence can be exercised without acknowledgment of the real interests at work, with voters kept ignorant of the actual donors behind groups with names like "American Crossroads," "American Futures" and "Americans for Job Security." Those names don't reveal anything about the intentions and beliefs of the people hidden behind them -- except their need to hide and to deceive.

What does sewer money want? Usually the purveyors of hidden cash to state legislators and city council members have specific desires, such as the awarding of tax breaks or public contracts. In this election, however, the stakes are much higher, with sewer money directed toward electing extremists on the right whose views on the Constitution, the economy and many other issues do not resemble those held by most Americans.

The sewer money candidates favor policies that have been outside the mainstream in this country for more than 70 years, including the abolition of the minimum wage, the destruction of Social Security and Medicare, and the repeal of most laws governing environmental pollution, labor exploitation, consumer protection and child welfare. They would end the direct election of senators, returning that function to the state legislatures, where sewer money often ensured the selection of pliable corporate stooges rather than honest public servants.

Implementing this vision of a return to 19th century standards of governance would mean a grim future for most Americans and would certainly relegate the United States to second-class status, perhaps permanently. In no sense conservative, it represents a radical departure from the consensus that built a powerful, prosperous and free nation. But it would be good for business, or at least so the benighted businessmen pumping out the sewer money seem to think.

Someone should ask Karl Rove why the donors to his organizations are so determined to shelter their identities behind phony fronts. And then he could answer the question that cuts to the heart of American democracy at this dangerous moment. What does sewer money buy?

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

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