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Murkowski crosses aisle to rein in Super PACs influence

Jill Burke
Loren Holmes photo

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is teaming with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to clean up the indulgent and secretive excesses of so-called political Super PACs. She's pledged to take on the project early in the 113th Congress, and co-authored with Wyden an opinion piece on the subject published in the Washington Post.

Super PACs emerged in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United Decision, which cleared the way for unlimited fundraising and spending by political action committees that act independently of any candidate or candidate's campaign.

In their piece for the Post, released late Thursday to reporters, Murkowski and Wyden explain:

"This influx of unregulated political cash stemming from the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision spawned a particularly vitriolic political cycle. Groups on both sides dumped some $6 billion into tearing down candidates for public office. The anonymity of much of this spending encourages ads that lower the level of political discourse and makes it harder, not easier, for Americans to make informed decisions.”

Murkowski has herself benefited greatly from a Super PAC. Back in 2010, when independent expenditure groups got the green light to go hog wild, she was in a heated battle to keep her Senate seat from going to Alaska's tea party-backed challenger, Joe Miller. Miller won the primary, but Murkowski chose to stay in the race and mount a write-in campaign. With the help of a Super PAC called Alaskans Standing Together, largely funded by Alaska Native corporations reliant on federal money streams, Murkowski won re-election.

Delay listing donors

In the few months between the August primary and the November election, Alaskans Standing Together raised more than $1.8 million dollars, spending $1.6 million of it on media advertising. All together, Murkowski's candidate committee raised $3.6 million; Miller's, $2.9 million. Alaskans Standing Together openly stated it planned to educate Alaskans on matters important to the state and familiarize them with the nuts and bolts of a write-in campaign, but denied any direct coordination with the Murkowski camp.

By then, Miller had made an enemy of the state's powerful Native business interests who found a voice in Alaskans Standing Together.Arctic Slope Regional Corporation was the top single donor, with $140,000 contributed. The smallest – $1,000 – came from Tyonek Corporation. Miller repeatedly complained about the Super PAC and alleged it was corrupt to its core, but ultimately his protestations failed.

While donors to Super PACs must be listed, that process can take months. And a Super PAC can avoid disclosure requirements completely by creating a nonprofit "political advocacy" organization through which to funnel money. Murkowski and Wyden are looking to tear down some of the Super PAC curtains behind which donors are currently able to hide. In the Washington Post opinion piece, the senators explain:

“Under our proposal, any organization engaging in federal political activity of any kind, from candidacy to advocacy, would be required to disclose their donors in real time. The law would apply to every candidate running for office and every billionaire hoping to influence an election. The same rules would apply equally to corporations, nonprofits and every type of organization in between, so long as they are using money to try to influence elections.

'Follow the money'

The senators are drawing from campaign finance requirements advanced by their home states of Alaska and Oregon, which they believe offer more stringent and transparent models allowing the public to “follow the money” aiming to influence campaigns.

A draft version of reforms under consideration is available on their respective Senate websites. Anyone with ideas or feedback was encouraged to email Murkowksi's office at disclosure@murkowski.senate.gov.

Without campaign finance reform, the senators have said, Americans will be “forced to suffer through another election cycle filled with anonymous sleaze and innuendo.”

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com