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Are Foreign Interests Funding Political Ads in the U.S.? Who Knows!

October 14, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

In my article yesterday refuting the claims Republicans are making in their attack ads alleging that conservative Democrats have liberal voting records, several people in the comments asked if I was going to address similar falsehoods in Democratic ads. I responded that of course I would if someone could show me an example of a Democratic attack ad that uses data to bolster lies. The suggestion was that I look at Obama’s claim that the Chamber of Commerce is funding ads against Democrats with contributions from foreign entities. So let me address that.

Here’s what we know about the Chamber:

  • They do take foreign money. They acknowledge receiving dues from at least 115 foreign affiliates in 108 countries. According to a Chamber spokesperson, this money goes into the “general fund and then to the international division.” Politically-active groups on the left also take money form foreign entities.
  • Under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the Chamber does not need to disclose who is funding its political ads, and they’re not.

Here’s what we don’t know:

  • What kind of internal accounting the Chamber is using to keep its foreign money separate from its political action committee that is running. If it is all in fact going into the same general fund before being split off to the international division and the political action committee, the foreign money is not kept away from political activities because money is fungible.

When Obama says, referring to the Chamber, that “one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations,” he is speaking truthfully, but suggesting something (i.e. that the foreign money funds the ads) that can’t be known for sure.

Obama has been a vocal critic of the Citizens United decision and an advocate of the DISCLOSE Act, which sought to prohibit foreign influence in elections and bring transparency to political ad funding in light of the floodgates that were opened by the Supreme Court. The bill passed the House in June by a vote of 219-206, but it failed in the Senate twice when every single Republican voted to maintain a filibuster of bringing it up for debate.

Since the bill never made it through the Senate, the current situation is that we just don’t know for sure if there is foreign money going into political ads. The lack of transparency of both the Chamber’s internal accounting and their political donors makes it possible that foreign money goes to political ads, but it does not make it necessarily so. Anyone alleging to know for sure is stretching the facts. In fairness, Obama has started to stress more that, “you don’t know” where the money is coming from. That’s what this is really about. It’s the fact that, outside of the Chamber and similar groups, none of us know for sure that foreign interests aren’t directly influencing U.S. elections to serve their own purposes, which could be contrary to our own well-being. That is the real problem here, and making it partisan and suggesting that somehow you do know that it’s happening only distracts from the real issue.

Pictured above is Minnesota’s Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event in Shanghai.

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