Perhaps the biggest issue hanging over the American political system has been the role of money.
Reformers fear wealthy individuals and corporations dominate decisions made in Washington and in some state capitols. They believe such dominance renders powerless average citizens whose only political assets are their votes.
These concerns overlook the long history of money’s major role in American politics. In George Washington’s time, political opponents created partisan newspapers for the sole purpose of attacking him.
Throughout U.S. history, money has been spent on issues ranging from banking to agriculture, from taxes to trade. Recent developments may have given the impression the rich have become more even powerful.
Money in politics appears in two ways. It can boost the campaign chances of candidates who are likely to support the donors’ interests. And it can influence how legislators vote.
It is bipartisan. Republicans may be associated with higher income people and big corporations, but Democrats increasingly have access to wealthy donors and continue to look to labor union support. Both parties seek and accept big money.
With greater wealth concentrated in the hands of people with personal political agendas, contributions have reached enormous, possibly counterproductive, levels. The largest single gift record may be held by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich whose unsuccessful 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination received $10 million from a one-issue contributor.
For a brief period, change seemed possible. The 1972 re-election campaign of President Richard M. Nixon backed a break-in at the Democratic National headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex and followed it with an elaborate cover-up. An outraged public demanded reforms.
The central change was legislation to control federal campaign spending. It contained two elements: limits on the amount an eligible entity could contribute and public disclosure of contributors, recipients, and amounts contributed.
The passage of these laws, including the well-known, bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act, created a false sense of comfort that finally the influence on money in politics could be controlled and reduced.
Just as with tax laws, moneyed interests found or created loopholes in the campaign finance laws. Committees independent of parties and candidates were organized to spend money on campaigns.
To enforce the limits on what parties, candidates and independent committees could do, Congress created a regulatory body, the Federal Election Commission. But, by establishing a six-member body with three members from each party, Congress produced a deadlocked and completely powerless regulator unable to make decisions.
Most significantly, the Supreme Court has gradually been whittling down campaign spending reforms. It defines money as speech, meaning that free speech equals free spending. That means the gradual end of limits on campaign spending.
Two recent decisions by the Supreme Court, where a majority is opposed to spending limits, have killed campaign finance laws. In 2010, in the Citizens United case, the Court ruled there could be no limits on independent political spending and the identity of donors to huge independent political organizations need not be disclosed.
A few weeks ago, the Court removed limits on the total amount a contributor could give to all campaigns combined. Though the size of individual campaign contributions is still capped, an individual can give to an unlimited number of campaigns and then contribute an unlimited amount to independent campaign organizations.
Taking all these developments together, the country is just about where it was before Watergate. Campaign finance reform is dead. Money is once again free to rule politics.
But money doesn’t vote. People do. Money gives candidates power to influence voters. Lavishly financed television campaigns strongly influence many voters. Sophisticated and costly vote analysis enables candidates to identify their supporters and get them to the polls.
Campaigns relying on big money tend to pursue easily understood issues, often social concerns, and devote most attention to negative attacks on candidates. When the ads come from independent groups, the candidates they support can claim to be completely removed from the message.
The Constitution could be amended to say that money is not the same as speech. This week, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens proposed a targeted amendment allowing Congress to control campaign spending.
Neither amendment is likely to be adopted, so the only way to counteract money’s influence is to educate voters.
Lawsuits aren’t enough, and they probably won’t work. Good government advocates, opposed to money’s influence in politics, could do more.
Civic groups like the League of Women Voters could run their own nonpartisan television ads simply revealing the contributors, the recipients, and the cash flows. That might help people make more informed voting decisions.