“Who Says Money In Politics Doesn’t Buy Influence?”: The Distorting Impact Of Money, Enabled By Supreme Court Rulings
One recent day, my newspaper had two front-page stories related to money and politics. One was about financial contributions made from the political action committees of prospective presidential candidates to Iowa office-seekers of the same party. Another reported that former Texas Governor Rick Perry has been appointed to the board of the corporation planning the controversial Bakken pipeline.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled money in politics is free “speech,” and doesn’t buy influence. But both of those stories offered small examples of how it might. In the first, potential presidential candidate Rand Paul wants Iowa operatives in his camp, so he donates some of his PAC funds — a thousand here or there — to their campaigns. They in turn may feel grateful enough to repay the favor by talking Paul up to their supporters.
In the second case, prospective presidential candidate Perry gets a direct financial stake in a controversial oil-pipeline proposal. The Bakken pipeline, which would stretch from North Dakota to Illinois, is widely opposed by environmental and other groups. But by investing in Perry and his campaign, the company could bank on having a friend in the White House to create a climate favorable for such projects. In 2012, the head of Energy Transfer Partners gave a quarter million dollars to a SuperPAC for Perry. And now Perry has a seat on its board.
A Perry spokesman said Perry won’t be publicly promoting the pipeline, but he doesn’t have to. His board presence is endorsement enough.
Traditional PACs are chicken feed compared with the filet mignon influence SuperPACs can buy. The first allow a group of people with a common goal — say, reducing environmental regulations — to donate up to $5,000 to a candidate in each round of an election campaign, and $15,000 a year to a national political party. But SuperPACs — authorized by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Speechnow vs. FEC — can raise and spend unlimited amounts of corporate, union or private dollars to promote or discredit a candidate in a federal election. They just can’t donate directly to the candidate or party.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that in 2014 elections, 1,300 SuperPACs had raised more than $695 million. They ranged from the liberal Senate Majority PAC, which raised $67 million, to the conservative American Crossroads PAC, which raised $23 million. Ten billion dollars were spent in the 2012 election cycle — combining the presidential, local, state and regional races — according to national journalist/author John Nichols. But for all that spending, Nichols told a Des Moines audience, 2014 had the lowest turnout in midterm elections since 1942.
Nichols, the Washington correspondent for the progressive Nation magazine and co-author of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America was brought to Iowa by the Quaker American Friends Service Committee to kick off a project provocatively titled “Governing Under the Influence.” It aims to focus attention in Iowa and New Hampshire, the leadoff presidential selection states, on the distorting impact of money in politics, enabled by Supreme Court rulings.
In a rousing speech in the basement of a United Methodist Church, Nichols said most Americans feel too overwhelmed to know what to do. Rather than motivate voters, the excess negativity of political ads causes many not to vote. But Nichols maintains that Iowans get more one-on-one time with presidential candidates than anyone else and should use that to grill them. “Iowans should be saying, ‘How much money have you taken from this interest?’” and how do they stay independent of it, he said. He suggested everyone ask the candidates if they agree with the Supreme Court that corporations are people, and if unlimited spending to influence elections is protected free speech.
Ultimately, those rulings can only be overridden by a constitutional amendment. But history, notes Nichols, was filled with people organizing in response to an injustice and getting the constitution changed — like the 19th amendment, ratified in 1920, granting women the right to vote, the 13th amendment (1865), abolishing slavery and the 15th amendment (1870) giving black people voting rights.
It takes either a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress or in two-thirds of state legislatures to amend the constitution. That must be ratified by three-quarters of the states. But some states have begun the process. Montana and Colorado voted differently for president in 2012, but both voted to amend the constitution to curb money in elections.
It’s a long and laborious process. The 27th amendment, on congressional pay, was submitted in 1789, but not ratified until 1992. On the other hand, the 26th amendment, giving 18-year-olds voting rights, took only three months to be ratified in 1971. Most Americans understood the absurdity of drafting young people who couldn’t even vote. I hope most Americans also understand the absurdity of politicians using their office to return a debt to the deep pockets that helped get them elected.
By: Rekha Basu, Columnist for the Des Moines Register; The National Memo, February 18, 2015
The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision today dealt another serious blow to the regulation of money in politics. In its 5-4 decision, the Court struck down the federal aggregate contribution limits, which restrict the amount one person can contribute to all candidates, parties, and political committees combined. As a result, one person can now give more than $3.6 million to one party’s candidates and committees in a single election cycle (under the limits, one could give “only” $123,200 per election cycle). With a sufficiently sophisticated joint fundraising apparatus, this money could be given in response to a solicitation from a single party leader.
While this is troubling by itself, the more sinister part of the decision lies in the groundwork the decision laid for future money in politics cases.
The Court doubled down on its holding that corruption only includes contributions given with the expectation of receiving official action in return — essentially a direct bribe in the guise of a political contribution. The Court also acknowledged that contributions can be used to gain ingratiation with and access to government officials while not reaching the level of outright bribery. But the Court praised this relationship rather than condemning it:
“We have said that government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford. . . . They embody a central feature of democracy—that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be responsive to those concerns.”
This vision of the Constitution is wrong. It elevates wealthy donors who can afford to buy influence over 99.99 percent of Americans, who have an equal right to representation. Although the Court may talk in the language of protecting constituents, the outcome is clear — big donors can give to however many candidates they want, regardless of whether they can vote for those candidates or would be constituents of those candidates. This case is about big money, not constituents.
Beyond this, the overtones of the decision suggested that contribution limits may be subject to harsher constitutional scrutiny in the future. If the Court changes this standard for review, it will be more difficult to successfully defend contribution limits from First Amendment challenges in future cases. The Campaign Legal Center’s Trevor Potter describes this danger in a blog post that predates the McCutcheon decision.
There are still meaningful ways to limit the power of big money in our political system. We need to enact disclosure laws to eliminate dark money, elevate the voices of ordinary voters through small donor public financing, strengthen rules against coordinated spending and the circumvention contribution limits, and ensure existing rules are enforced.
But until then, even more money will flow directly to candidates, further marginalizing average voters at the expense of the wealthy. While this is just the latest step in a long line of recent cases weakening our campaign finance system, the decision strongly signals that more is still yet to come.
By: David Earley, Brennan Center For Justice, April 2, 2014
“It is time to Draft Ted Cruz for president,” says RedState diarist “razshafer,” and to that end, Raz has established RunTedRun.com, and an affiliated Draft Ted Cruz for President PAC. Raz is, Dave Weigel explains, Ted Cruz’s (now former) regional director Raz Shafer, and not just some person using Cruz’s name to convince conservatives to send along their lucrative email addresses.
Here is part of Shafer’s pitch:
I know there are other candidates who may run as conservatives, but I believe Ted Cruz has demonstrated that he’s the only consistent conservative who will do what it takes to roll back Barack Obama’s agenda. He’s the only one who has the passion, principles, and courage needed to deliver real results for Americans.
I’ve never spoken to Ted about him running for president and I honestly don’t know if he will do it, but I do know he won’t succeed unless freedom-loving Americans like you and me begin organizing this effort now.
Ted Cruz is the people’s candidate and we need to be the ones driving the effort to elect him.
So if you’re ready to be proud of your vote again and you agree that Ted Cruz should run for president, please do three things:
Go to RunTedRun.com and sign the official Draft Ted Cruz for President petition.
Urge your friends and family to join you.
Donate whatever you can to help us spread the word and build support.
My advice, even if you do support Ted Cruz and think he should run for president, is don’t do any of this. It is a waste of your time and you will be exploited. Your name and contact information will be sold. You will have no effect whatsoever on Cruz’s decision to run for president or not. Your monetary donation will have no effect whatsoever on Ted Cruz’s potential 2016 electoral chances.
Unless you have a lot of money, and giving that money to politicians is how you gain access to those politicians in order to convince them to advance your agenda, most of the time you shouldn’t give money to politicians. Especially credible presidential candidates and sitting members of Congress. Mainly because most presidential candidates and sitting members of Congress are awful, but also because generally they already have a lot of money, have access to more money, and don’t need yours. (Again, this all assumes you’re not very rich. The very rich waste plenty of money on losers and dumb causes, but they can afford it. Plus, many of their political investments show some pretty impressive returns.)
You really shouldn’t donate money — or give away your contact information — to shady (or even reputable!) organizations devoted to “drafting” someone or other to run for president. Especially if the person they are drafting is probably already going to run and doesn’t need some sort of pseudo-grass-roots demonstration of mass appeal and fundraising ability. Ted Cruz knows he is popular and can raise money and he probably will at least pretend to run for president, unless he decides it would be more lucrative to just be a right-wing media star, in which case you have still wasted your money.
This isn’t just about Ted Cruz! Hillary Clinton is almost definitely running for president too, and she really doesn’t need your support. She has a vast fundraising network and national campaign experience; you don’t need to sign a petition (or, god forbid, write a check) to nudge her toward deciding to run again. She has already done extensive polling on the subject of whether Americans are “ready for Hillary,” and (I can’t stress this enough) she has very rich friends who will write her much bigger checks than you will.
Sometimes, these PACs or other groups dedicated to drafting someone to run for office are truly aimed at convincing reluctant candidates that they have enough already existing support to make a presidential campaign feasible. In that case, your name and donation could make a real difference! And then you end up with Wesley Clark 2004. But for the most part, national politicians don’t need or deserve your money, and people running officially unaffiliated outside groups shouldn’t be gifted your valuable data. Don’t draft anyone.
By: Alex Parene, Salon, March 20, 2014
“The Lord Works In Mysterious Ways”: FEC Investigation Into Michele Bachmann’s Election Campaign Now Focusing On Marcus
In 2011, Michele Bachmann claimed God spoke to her and told her to run for president. Apparently, the Lord works in mysterious ways. The Minnesota Congresswoman’s presidential campaign was a disaster on the inside even more than on the outside, as evidenced by all the ethics investigations she’s facing. Now Marcus Bachmann, the Congresswoman’s husband, is the subject of a Federal Elections Commission investigation, according to the New York Times.
“The latest is a federal inquiry into whether an outside ‘super PAC’ improperly coordinated strategy with Mrs. Bachmann’s campaign staff, including her husband, in violation of election laws,” the Times reports
In a complaint to the F.E.C. in February, Peter Waldron, a Florida Republican operative hired to enlist evangelical Iowa pastors, described overhearing the president of the super PAC ask Brett O’Donnell, a senior campaign adviser, about radio and TV stations.
In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Waldron said Mr. O’Donnell had replied, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Election law prohibits substantial coordination, though not all contacts, between campaigns and super PACS, Mr. Ryan said.
Mr. Waldron, who calls himself a whistle-blower, also disclosed an e-mail from Mr. Bachmann describing a phone call Mr. Bachmann made to a donor asking for $7,000. In the e-mail, Mr. Bachmann wrote that the donor had agreed to give the money through the super PAC. He concluded: “Praise the Lord!! Thank you Peter for your servant leadership.”
Mr. Ryan said the call appeared to violate a rule against campaign staff members raising more than $5,000 for a super PAC.
Even the Times notes Waldron “has a controversial past,” and adds:
In 2006 he was jailed briefly in Uganda for possession of assault rifles, according to news reports. In the 1990s he led a Florida youth charity that received more than $600,000 in state and local grants before it collapsed amid questions about its effectiveness, according to The St. Petersburg Times, now The Tampa Bay Times.
But there’s so much more.
Waldron, who one year before the 2012 elections announced that the Holy Ghost had told him Michele Bachmann is the one for president, just published a new book, Bachmannistan: Behind The Lines, that claims Rep. Bachmann fired a staffer who had seven children, and another on the way, on Christmas eve.
Christian family values?
By: David Badash, The New Civil Rights Movement, September 6, 2013
“Fighting Big Money With Big Money”: Until Citizens United Overturned, Best Way Out Of Our Dilemma Is To Democratize The Money Game
If you are tired of seeing the debate on guns dominated by the National Rifle Association and yearn for sensible weapons laws, you have to love New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When most politicians were caving in or falling silent, there was Bloomberg, wielding his fortune to keep hope alive that we could move against the violence that blights our nation.
But imagine that you also believe the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision was a disaster for representative government because a narrow majority broke with long precedent and tore down the barriers to corporate money in politics. The decision also encouraged the super-rich to drop any inhibitions about using their wealth to push their own political agendas.
When it comes to policy, I fall into both of these camps — pro-Bloomberg on guns but anti-Citizens United. So I have been pondering the issue of consistency or, as some would see it, hypocrisy.
Put aside that the hypocrisy question rarely is raised against those who defend unlimited contributions except when the big bucks are wielded against them. Can I be grateful for what Bloomberg is doing and still loathe Citizens United? I say: Yes.
Are opponents of Citizens United and the new super PAC world required to disown those who use their wealth to fight for causes we believe in? I say: No.
To begin with, even before Citizens United, the regulations on “issue advertising” — most of what Bloomberg is doing now — were quite permissive for activities outside the period shortly before elections. The Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision already had given wealthy individuals such as Bloomberg a great deal of leeway.
And, unlike those who donate large amounts anonymously, Bloomberg is entirely open about what he’s up to. He is simply offsetting the political might of the arms manufacturers.
Supporters of universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines simply cannot be asked to repudiate the help they need to face down the power of the gun lobby.
To put it in an unvarnished way, I’m glad some members of Congress will have to think about whether enraging Bloomberg is more dangerous than angering the NRA. And Bloomberg’s advertising serves to remind politicians inclined to yield to the gun lobby that their constituents support universal background checks by margins of around 9 to 1.
The Supreme Court has stuck us with an unsavory choice. If the only moneyed people giving to politics are pushing for policies that favor the wealthy, we really will become an oligarchy. For now, their pile of dough needs to be answered by progressive rich people who think oligarchy is a bad idea.
But playing the game as it’s now set up should not blind anyone to how flawed its rules are. Politics should not be reduced to a contest between liberal rich people and conservative rich people. A donor derby tilts politics away from the interests and concerns of the vast majority of Americans who aren’t wealthy and can’t write checks of a size that gets their phone calls returned automatically. A Citizens United world makes government less responsive, less representative and more open to corruption.
That’s why many who welcome the continued political engagement of President Obama’s campaign organization are nonetheless concerned about its dependence on big-dollar givers. This creates a troubling model that other politicians are certain to follow. It would be far better if Obama concentrated primarily on building off the pioneering work his campaigns did in rallying small donors.
This points to the larger danger for those who tout their tough-mindedness about using the current system for progressive purposes while still claiming to be reformers: Politicians are growing so comfortable with the status quo that they largely have given up trying to change it.
Two who haven’t are Reps. David Price (D-N.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), sponsors of the Empowering Citizens Act. It would provide a 5 to 1 match from public funds for contributions of $250 or less, thus establishing strong incentives for politicians to rely on smaller donors while offering the rest of us a fighting chance against the billionaires. Harnessed to new technologies, this approach could vastly expand the number of citizens who are regular contributors. Similar reforms are being proposed at the state level in New York, and Obama’s organization says it will push to get them passed.
Until Citizens United is overturned, as it should be, the best way out of our dilemma is to democratize the money game.
So, yes, let’s cheer for Mike Bloomberg. But let’s also insist on creating a system in which we will no longer need his money.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 27, 2013