Instead of asking questions of Amy Coney Barrett at the first meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave a brief lecture—with charts—on dark money, political-influence campaigns, and the unknown millionaires who have long sought to shape America’s courts. Anyone surprised by this performance shouldn’t have been. Whitehouse, a Democrat, previously served as the United States attorney in Rhode Island and then as that state’s attorney general. He has long campaigned against the massive legal and financial apparatus that has been designed to hide money around the world—using shell companies, anonymous ownership, tax havens. He has introduced several pieces of legislation designed to curb money laundering, including a bill, co-sponsored by the Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, that would require states to obtain information on the true owners of corporations and limited liability companies formed within their borders.
Whitehouse argues that dark money is not only an underrated national-security problem for the United States—hidden money funds crime, terror, drug trafficking—but also a distorting force in domestic politics. During Barrett’s confirmation hearing, Whitehouse portrayed her nomination as, among other things, a triumph for business interests that hide their identities behind conservative legal organizations. Not everyone liked the performance: The Wall Street Journal dismissed Whitehouse as “Sheldon the Vampire Slayer,” and said he was trying to “delegitimize the current Supreme Court in the eyes of the public.” But the lack of transparency about the funding of lobbyists in Washington and political campaigns more broadly is not delegitimizing just the Court, but Congress itself. In no other Western democracy does hidden money play such a decisive role. Refusing to talk about it will not solve the problem.