Politics is fun. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg
Politics is fun. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

The political system in the era of brothers Charles and David Koch is awash in cash, with much of the spending being done by political organizations that are independent of candidates and party committees. Koch-affiliated groups spent more than $400 million in the 2012 election cycle, according to a Washington Post analysis -- and that's just the money reporters could trace.

Bloomberg View writer Jonathan Bernstein (with a hat tip to political scientist Seth Masket) has argued persuasively that U.S. political parties are more than their respective committees and candidates: They consist of all the "networked" party actors, including the Kochs and other members of the rising plutocracy who play a growing role in financing U.S. politics. On the Republican side, for example, Casino owner Sheldon Adelson spent $100 million financing Republican causes in the 2012 campaign. On the Democratic side comes Tom Steyer, promising to spend $100 million to make climate change a winning issue for the future. (Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg has funded efforts to regulate guns.)

Most of these mega-donors make party business their business. For example, it's hard to find issues dear to the Kochs that are not also central to Republican orthodoxy. (Adelson might be another matter.) Likewise, the legal line that separates independent expenditures from direct contributions to the parties and candidates is very, very thin. Yet it's also real.

Because it's illegal -- for now -- to contribute millions directly to parties and candidates, the Kochs, Steyer and TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and his youngest son, Todd, have all established their own institutions to advance the goal of purchasing election victories. (I'm not being snarky; that's the job for which these organizations are expressly designed.) Bloomberg News reports that hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer has begun courting donors for another independent Republican group.

Campaign finance reformers want to keep limits on contributions to parties and candidates in part because they view direct contributions as potentially more corrupting than independent expenditures made to advance similar -- or even identical -- political goals. (Here's the Campaign Legal Center explaining its view.)

I've never really bought that argument. It seems silly to pretend that legislators who have collectively and individually benefited from hundreds of millions in spending on their party's behalf are ignorant or ungrateful. All of Washington recognizes the Kochs' role in funding Republican politicians and conservative causes.

If contribution limits were eliminated, mega-donors might find it convenient to pour all their money into one party or candidate. (You could do it with one check!) But for the handful of power players who are driving so much of the action, sublimating their egos to party leaders may never be their idea of fun. The powerful can be petulant. (Much of Adelson's spending has been arguably less strategic than shoveling large-denomination bills into a raging bonfire.)

Once begun, well-funded institutions can take on lives of their own, pursuing self-interest and evolving in unexpected ways. We seem to be witnessing the emergence of a new para-political infrastructure. Networked with the parties? Sure. But also answering to idiosyncratic founders with extraordinary resources.

Even if the Supreme Court one day eliminates the entire campaign finance regime -- and the court could take a first shot in an upcoming ruling on McCutcheon v. FEC -- all that independent money may still slosh around quite independently. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars flowing right inside the parties' orbits, just outside their control.

To contact the writer of this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.