Add up every nickel and dime recorded by the Federal Election Commission and state election commissions in this decade now ending. Result: Americans have given more than $24.2 billion in campaign contributions to federal and state incumbents and challengers.
Contributions to all federal candidates for House and Senate seats and the presidency from the 2000 through 2010 election cycles totaled $9.7 billion, according to an S&R analysis of records aggregated by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Contributions to candidates and committees in all 50 states, from 2000 through 2009, totaled about $14.5 billion, according to records aggregated by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
In this decade, thanks to computerization of records and a few top-notch, non-partisan organizations, we’ve learned how to follow the money. Well, so what? Has vastly increased public visibility of political money changed the way politics operates?
The $24.2 billion spent on campaign contributions is only part of the story. Over the past decade, $23 billion has been spent by corporations, labor unions, and other special-interest entities to lobby Congress and federal agencies, according to records aggregated by the center.
More than $45 billion has been spent in the decade now ending to influence legislation and regulation at state and federal levels of government. It’s only conjecture, of course, but it’s hardly likely that the bulk of those billions of dollars was intended to improve the lot of the 99 percent of adult Americans who did not make campaign contributions or made gifts of less than $200.
Where did the $24.2 billion in campaign donations come from? Only a tiny fraction, generally in the tenths of 1 percent, of Americans over age 18 make campaign contributions of more than $200. Those who give more than $1,000 are even fewer — but the amounts given by those latter donors total significantly higher.
The bulk of the decade’s nearly $10 billion in donations to federal candidates came from special interests and individuals associated with specific special interests who gave $200 or more. According to the center, the top special-interest givers in the election cycles in this decade, generally in this order, were
the finance, insurance and real-estate industries; lawyers and lobbyists; miscellaneous business; ideological and single-issue donors; the health industries; communications and electronics; labor; agribusiness; energy and natural-resource interests; transportation; and the defense industry.
Corporations and individuals associated with these special interests donated more than $8 billion this decade to federal candidates. And the leader in campaign largesse for the decade and in each election cycle, at $1.62 billion, or more than 16 percent of all campaign contributions to federal candidates? The winner, by a wide margin, are the finance, insurance and real-estate industries.
The number of lobbyists has increased from 10,641 in 2000 to 13,426 this year. Now, that’s the number of people who have legally registered as lobbyists. There are plenty of revolving-door people (those who have left the Hill or the executive branch to become lobbyists and vice versa) who are not registered as lobbyists but are as influential. Consider the example of former Sen. Tom Daschle, who claims he’s a “resource” for his health-care industry clients and not a lobbyist.
Those interested in studying campaign finance and lobbing — who’s giving the money and who’s getting it — have two non-profit and non-partisan organizations to thank for ready, intelligible access to FEC and state election commissions data. They are the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which provides “free online access to public records in all 50 states, to document political donor and lobbyist contributions to policymakers.” Also helpful is Earmark Watch, a project of Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Sunlight Foundation, which helps expose what these billions of dollars can buy from legislators.
These groups have become technologically more savvy. Tracking campaign contributions and lobbying dollars can be narrowly focused on such data more easily than using the FEC’s website or state election data websites. The center and the institute now have talented staffers who frequently write analyses of donor data, especially when a particularly topic is in the news.
Congress irritated by the college football Bowl Championship Series? There’s the center’s Dave Levinthal on the Capital Eye Blog, detailing how much money the BCS, News Corp., the NCAA and major football universities are giving to whom for what purpose.
Wondering whether Congress will include legal importation of drugs from abroad (i.e., Canada) in health-care reform? There’s Levinthal again, pointing out that the pharmaceutical and health-products industries have spent nearly $200 million in 2009 to oppose it.
Want to know how much money the health-care industry has spent trying to influence state legislation and regulation? There’s the institute’s Anne Bauer, telling you “[i]n the last six years, major players in the health care industry gave $394 million to officeholders, party committees and ballot measure committees in the 50 states.”
When the short-term, high-vig payday loan industry sought to reinvigorate itself (i.e., screw the borrowers) through the ballot box, there was the institute’s Tyler Evilsizer to explain that in Arizona and Ohio, “donors from the industry gave more than $35 million to support ballot measures that would allow them to continue operating.”
Computerization of records and sophisticated staff allow an organization such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, aka CREW, to track robocall ethics complaints against Sen. John McCain, develop a list of the most corrupt members of Congress, and keep track of the revolving door moves of White House staffers and cabinet members.
Yes, the governed can quickly track donations to those who govern or seek to govern. Yes, the governed can track the money spent by individuals, corporations, PACs and unions to legally influence those who govern. Yes, the governed can easily see how easy and legal it is for big spenders to influence legislators and regulators.
So what have we gained because we can do this? Not much.
Over the decade, corrupt politicians have been imprisoned for a variety of crimes. Convicted of crimes such as fraud and bribery, they were selfish and for sale. What they did was illegal.
But what remains unabated in the American political system is legalized corruption. The heightened ability to track political money does nothing to prevent the dramatic increase in legal campaign giving and the host of ethical and moral conflicts that so much money places in front of incumbents, challengers, and regulators.
We’ve seen the amounts of money spent to legally attain and maintain political power grow to such amounts that billionaires now spend tens of millions of dollars to finance their own campaigns. Modern elections trivialize issues and maximize dependence on name recognition. That costs money, which forecloses the possibility that better-qualified candidates who are not as wealthy can prosper at the ballot box.
We’ve seen how those with money to spend and an agenda to enact gain access to the levers of power, as did players in the health-care reform debate behind closed doors in the Obama White House.
Consider the consolidation of media, its threat to competitiveness, its anti-trust implications, and its potential to maintain unreasonably high consumer prices for news and entertainment. When Comcast announced its intended $30 billion purchase of NBC Universal from General Electric, its lobbyists flooded the Hill. Through September of this year, Comcast has spent $9.1 million on lobbying. The Federal Communications Commission must approve the sale.
Comcast’s 20-member D.C. lobbying team, reports Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel, includes “former aides to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), former Senate Majority Leader and Obama confidant Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Democratic Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps.” (Oh, look: There’s “confidant” Daschle acting as a “resource” again, “aides” notwithstanding …)
Continual increases in media consolidation by conglomerates reduce the likelihood that Americans’ monthly bills for cable, Internet, satellite, and telephone services will decrease.
Earlier this month, the House faced an impending vote on what Paul Krugman of The New York Times called “a quite modest effort to rein in Wall Street excesses.” Three days earlier, wrote Krugman, “Republican leaders met with more than 100 financial-industry lobbyists to coordinate strategies” to sidestep banking reform. All Republicans and 27 Democrats voted against the measure. (Gosh, what wonderfully independent thinking from our members of Congress.)
That means it’s less likely that credit will flow readily and credibly to America’s small businesses and consumers, and that more Americans may lose their homes unfairly.
And the drug-industry lobbyists? We’ve seen how lobbyists for pharmaceutical giant Genentech have written statements that 42 members of Congress from both parties have “revised and extended” into the Congressional Record.
That means it’s likely the out-of-pocket cost (and that inherent in premiums) for prescription medications is likely to grow as a percentage of Americans’ expenditures even as their wages have remained stagnant through the past decade.
We continue to see the fruits of lobbying in which special interests reap financial reward at little cost, such as the American Jobs Recovery Act that provided no jobs but $100 billion in tax breaks for corporations.
Are Americans better off because of the ease with which they can track who gives how much money to the people who would represent them and propose and pass laws that may help or hinder Americans’ lives, liberties and pursuit of happiness? No. That’s because incumbents and challengers don’t care a whit that this system is so blatantly and transparently stacked toward the influence wrought by so much money.
We point fingers at the financially oiled, undue influence of special interests. Our legislators and regulators just shrug: “So what?”
No legislative intent lies on the horizon of the next decade that would stem the shameful influence of money on the conduct of legislators and regulators and what they do, or fail to do, in the public’s interest. There will be no sufficient, substantial changes in campaign finance laws or congressional ethics policies to end this system of legalized corruption.
No reform candidates exist on the horizon immune to the blandishments the crassly monied political system can promise or proffer.
From 2010 to 2019, expect more of the same. Another $45 billion will speak louder than you or me to those who govern us.