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Secret Cabinets of Cash

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Byron Tau makes a great point in Politico: Obama's reversal on super PACs returns "to a system where corporate donors, unions and other wealthy individuals are able to pay big money for access to policymakers, lawmakers and key administration aides."

The President's announcement not only opened the door to cabinet members and top White House staff headlining fundraisers for unlimited checks, it announced with certainty that they would be doing so:

Senior campaign officials as well as some White House and Cabinet officials will attend and speak at Priorities USA fundraising events. While campaign officials may be appearing at events to amplify our message, these folks won't be soliciting contributions for Priorities USA.

That might take a bit of thought to fully digest. We often assume that the laws structuring the Executive Branch generally protect merit and official work from being polluted by inappropriate political activity. But this announcement changes the stakes significantly.

There's a huge difference between regular fundraisers and super PAC events. Obama announced that White House Officials and Cabinet officials will be appearing at events "to amplify our message." "Amplify our message" means raise money, and at these events, there is literally no limit to the money. Whether or not top officials are soliciting the checks or not is beside the point. Some of the most powerful officials in our government are selling their time to the highest bidder, and, as things stand now, the public isn't even able to know about their meetings.

Cabinet secretaries have, in many ways, far more power than individual Members of Congress. Laws often give them broad, unilateral discretion in carrying out the work of the country, making decisions that affect everyone's business in profound ways. Of course, that fact is not lost on moneyed interests, who are willing to pay dearly to move policies even the slightest bit in any direction.

Unlimited checks are now going to upset that balance. Top administration officials are going to advertise their attendance at super PAC (Priorities USA) events, to bring in as much money for them as possible. The Obama announcement wasn't about getting out a message, it was about raising money. And we shouldn't be naive about why top officials are attending fundraisers either -- their attention is for sale to the highest bidder.

And the public has no way of knowing whether or when top White House officials are attending these fundraisers. If the transportation secretary attends an event that people have given $200,000 each to attend, shouldn't we know that? Especially this administration, that prides itself on openness, should recognize that the public needs to know whether and how its top officials are involved in these unlimited-funds fundraisers.

The White House likes to pride itself on saying they released the visitor logs. But getting into the White House is free. If someone pays a million dollars for access to the Secretary of State, then we really need to know about it.

So what happens next? Will this announcement from the President be accepted as sufficient, especially when his likely rivals aren't even disclosing their bundlers?

If the President is going to let his cabinet be involved in raising huge sums of money from individual contributors, he should at least make that process transparent. The President should lean on Priorities USA, who should disclose top officials' attendance at fundraisers. He should also require White House officials and Cabinet Secretaries to disclose their attendance at fundraisers somewhere as part of their schedule, as the President himself does (see "campaign activity"). The Hatch Act may create some difficulties in finding the right mechanism for this disclosure, but we need a better answer than total secrecy.

Because under the system we have now, the country's most powerful officials have an incentive to precede every official action with a meeting of the most well-heeled donors who are likely to be affected. If cabinet officials attend unlimited fundraisers, every act of their work becomes a potential hook for juicing donors. The very least we can do is make it possible for the public to understand how top officials are involved with these fundraisers.

Without public disclosure of cabinet and White House officials' involvement in unlimited fundraisers, who gets to define acceptable cabinet-level involvement in fundraising? At its best, cabinet officers all get a new distraction to their duties, at its worst, the executive branch itself becomes an extension of the Presidential dark money machine.