From a New York Times story this week:
Americans of both parties fundamentally reject the regime of untrammeled money in elections made possible by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and other court decisions and now favor a sweeping overhaul of how political campaigns are financed, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.
A ray of hope? A touch of sunshine? Can our long national nightmare of billionaire-bought elections be ending?
And by a significant margin, they reject the argument that underpins close to four decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence on campaign finance: that political money is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. Even self-identified Republicans are evenly split on the question. [See the poll questions.]
Several threads converge: corporations imbued with aspects of personhood, campaign finance limits eroded, and billionaires bankrolling campaigns, in effect becoming their own political party. Money wins; you and I lose. That’s been the narrative for years.
The Supreme Court, in its Citizens United decision five years ago, afforded personal rights to corporations. Nina Totenberg at NPR explains:
It ruled that corporations have the right to spend money in candidate elections, and that some for-profit corporations may, on religious grounds, refuse to comply with a federal mandate to cover birth control in their employee health plans.
After Citizens United, billionaires’ impact on campaigns has been far-reaching and substantial. Writes Jim Rutenberg in The Times Magazine:
With the advent of Citizens United, any players with the wherewithal, and there are surprisingly many of them, can start what are in essence their own political parties, built around pet causes or industries and backing politicians uniquely answerable to them. No longer do they have to buy into the system. Instead, they buy their own pieces of it outright, to use as they see fit. “Suddenly, we privatized politics,” says Trevor Potter, an election lawyer who helped draft the McCain-Feingold law.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, about 32,00 people, 1 percent of 1 percent (yes, you read that right) of the American population, gave $1.18 billion in disclosed contributions in the 2014 election cycle. That’s disclosed contributions. That’s 29 percent of all political giving reported to the Federal Election Commission in 2014.
Writes the CRP team of Peter Olsen-Phillips, Russ Choma, Sarah Bryner and Doug Weber:
They’re mostly male, tend to be city-dwellers and often work in finance. Slightly more of them skew Republican than Democratic. A small subset — barely five dozen — earned the (even more) rarefied distinction of giving more than $1 million each. And a minute cluster of three individuals contributed more than $10 million apiece.
(Here the top individual contributors and amounts.)
A year ago, arguing that “quid pro quo” corruption would be an unlikely consequence, the Supreme Court threw out limits on the total campaign contributions that an individual may donate across political candidates and committees in an election cycle.
What about undisclosed political giving? In perverted uses of the tax code, mostly in 501(C)(3) and 501(C)(4) organizations, donors and amounts are not disclosed.
So a confluence of factors has led to a political universe populated by massive amounts of money from very few people. Yes, money has always been influential in politics. But the teeter-totter has tilted so far to the monied mob that the teeter has toppled. Permanently?
I don’t know. Money has weight. Tens of millions of dollars in “political speech” by billionaires has massive weight on the electoral process. That speech is so loud that it drowns out any speech an individual, like you and me, would have.
Can sanity in political giving be restored? Again, I don’t know. The composition of the current Supreme Court is unlikely to lead to reversals of critical decisions. I cannot envision the House or the Senate passing new campaign finance legislation that demands disclosure of all political giving. To do so would surrender too much of their own power.
Then again, I did not foresee the Senate and the House passing the USA Freedom Act, “ending the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk collection of the phone data of millions of Americans who have no ties to terrorism.”
But here’s the math as I see it: Nearly 32,000 people gave close to a third of all disclosed political giving in 2014. But there are 206 million Americans registered to vote, 146 million who are registered, and 131 million who voted in the 2012 election. Generalizing the the poll, that means Americans know all this and are damned unhappy about it.
That’s the other side of the teeter-totter. In the NYT/CBS poll, 84 percent of respondents said money has too much influence in elections. And 85 percent of respondents said the way American political campaigns are funded needs to be fundamentally changed or completely rebuilt.
Will it? And will I see be alive to see it? I’m not holding my breath …
“Dollar symbol” by Svilen.milev – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons.