Retiring Senators Lament Money in Politics

Senators Kerry, Harkin, and Levin all decried the state of campaign finance in retiring remarks.

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Sen. Carl Levin speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill on Feb. 26, 2013. Levin said Thursday, March 7, he will not seek re-election in 2014.

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In announcing his retirement Thursday, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin became the third veteran senator in two months to step away from the upper chamber citing concerns over money in the political system.

In his statement, Levin called campaign finance a "challenging issue" he hoped to address without worrying about his re-election campaign.

"A third item I want to tackle is a growing blight on our political system that I believe I can help address: the use of secret money to fund political campaigns," Levin's statement reads.

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Levin, the chair of the Armed Services committee, was not known as a champion for campaign finance reform. He never ran for election in the Citizens United era, as his final term began in 2008, two years before the ruling. Yet the state of campaign laws has been a concern for him this term. Levin voted for the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required more disclosure in political advertising and campaign contributions. He also cosponsored the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, a bill that aimed to widen the jurisdiction of the Federal Election Commission. His concern is "dark money," or money from unknown sources that slips through via nonprofits that aren't reported to the FEC.

"Our tax laws are supposed to prevent secret contributions to tax exempt organizations for political purposes," Levin's resignation statement continued. "My Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations needs to look into the failure of the IRS to enforce our tax laws and stem the flood of hundreds of millions of secret dollars flowing into our elections, eroding public confidence in our democracy."

The tax exempt organizations Levin refers to are 501(c) groups that are not regulated by the FEC. As nonprofits, they are regulated only by the IRS, and therefore don't report their spending or their donors, but still spend millions on advertising and contributions. By the campaign finance watchdog group Sunlight Foundation's count, nearly $300 million in unreported cash flowed into the 2012 elections.

Levin is apparently not alone in his concerns about dark money. He, Sen. John Kerry, and Sen. Tom Harkin—Senate Democrats with a combined 90 years of experience—all pointed to the corrupting influence of money in their retirement statements this year.

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Kerry, in his farewell speech in late January, said the influx of political money corrupted the chamber's legislative agenda.

"There's another challenge that we must address and it is the corrupting force of the vast sums of money necessary to run for office. The unending chase for money I believe threatens to steal our democracy itself," Kerry—who is married to the heiress of the Heinz corporation—said on the Senate floor. "The insidious intention of that money is to set the agenda, change the agenda, block the agenda, define the agenda of Washington."

While some campaign finance experts claim more money lead to more speech, Kerry implied it only stifled the voices of everyday Americans'.

"The truth requires that we call the corrosion of money in politics what it is—it is a form of corruption and it muzzles more Americans than it empowers, and it is an imbalance that the world has taught us can only sow the seeds of unrest."

The impact of special interest or anonymous money also forces senators to raise more to keep up, an issue which Harkin spoke about in a retirement interview in January. Harkin lamented the time burden of constantly raising money.

"We used to have a Senate Dining Room that was only for senators. We'd go down there and sit around there, and Joe Biden and Fritz Hollings and Dale Bumpers and Ted Stevens and Strom Thurmond and a bunch of us—Democrats and Republicans," Harkin told the Washington Post. "That dining room doesn't exist any longer because people quit going there. Why did they quit going? Well, we're not there on Monday, and we're not there on Friday. Tuesday we have our party caucuses. That leaves Wednesday and Thursday—and guess what people are doing then? They're out raising money."