The New Democrats and Wall Street Love

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October 27, 2010; Source: MinnPost | In case anyone thinks that the Democrats are wearing campaign fundraising togas while their Republican opponents are trawling for ways of circumventing any and all rules of campaign finance disclosure, we offer this ProPublica piece looking at the so-called New Democrat Coalition. The 69 members of the Coalition are both business friendly and lobbyist cozy.

Some of them campaigned against “pay-to-play” politics in Congress, but in practice have pitched themselves as business-friendly, attracting corporate campaign largesse in the bargain. For example, the New Democrats opposed efforts of the Obama Administration to reduce executive bonuses at TARP-subsidized financial institutions and blocked legislation that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to adjust home mortgages, a strategy that would have reduced foreclosure numbers.

The New Democrats have their own well-heeled PAC (NewDemPAC), which has received donations from 243 other PACs and 63 individuals. What makes the New Democrats interesting to nonprofit readers is how they get around the $10,000 limit that any PAC can give another PAC. (In theory NewDemPAC could put no more than $10,000 into the PAC of any individual New Democrat’s campaign.)

So the New Democrats created an entity called the Keystone Group, co-directed by Congressman Jason Altmire (D-PA), himself a former federally registered lobbyist, and NewDemPAC’s chief fundraiser. This membership organization garners lobbyists to join the group, then pledge $500 directly to the campaigns or PACs of New Democrat candidates without having to to contribute through NewDemPAC itself, and potentially breach the $10,000 PAC contribution ceiling.

ProPublica described the Keystone Group as “functioning like an invisible PAC . . . without filing papers with the FEC, leaving no record of the New Democrats’ role in facilitating the transfer of funds.” Because Altmire wouldn’t speak to ProPublica about the organization – in fact, every New Democrat Coalition member refused to speak to ProPublica – not much is known about Keystone Group, other than the fact that Altmire and the New Democrats are exceptionally happy with how it has managed to circumvent PAC donation limitations and attract corporate and lobbyist contributions.

The issue isn’t that the New Democrats sound like or act like Republicans when it comes to attracting support from groups such as the Financial Services Roundtable (headed by former Republican Texas congressman Steve Bartlett, applauding the New Democrats as “awesome” for their work in softening financial services regulation). What is really at stake is the increasingly secretive flow of money into campaigns through mechanisms designed to frustrate the public’s right to know.

Nonprofits should be champions for full disclosure of campaign finance moneys, whether directly into “nonprofit” mechanisms such as 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s or outside of nonprofit venues such as whatever the kind of organization the Keystone Group turns out to be. The time for sacrosanct donor confidentiality came and went long ago. It’s time for nonprofits to get in front of the parade and call for full disclosure of all electioneering donations, no matter what instrument they flow through.—Rick Cohen