There are many apologists for campaign spending, with many arguments that might seem valid to those not looking at the whole picture. The fact of the matter is that spending on American elections has skyrocketed since Citizens United, the ill-conceived and dangerous decision by the Supreme Court in early 2010 that declared our last attempt to regulate campaign finances to be unconstitutional by a narrow 5-4 margin, ironically supported by the very conservative judges who once claimed they supported judicial restraint. With one cavalier stroke, they did what they had so often accused liberal judges of doing, nullifying legislation (bipartisan legislation at that, remember when there was such a thing?) and expanding rights beyond those explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution.
Their justification was that political spending was a form of free speech and cannot be suppressed. They were dead wrong. And their decision is dangerous for our democracy. To accept that spending is protected political speech is to say that we are not all created equal when it comes to political rights, that those with more money have more rights. Denying someone the right to spend money on politics is not the same as denying them the right to speak. They can still say whatever they want. They just can’t use their money to amplify their voices over those of others who do not have the same resources. They can’t use it to drown out the voices of others, denying them their own equal rights.
Unfortunately, the inexcusable refusal of Senate leadership to give a vote to a moderate judge nominated by President Obama, and the inexplicable decision of a large percentage of the American people to make that cynical strategy pay off by electing Donald Trump means that the Supreme Court will not reverse this horrifically bad decision any time soon.
Nonetheless, we must find a way to reign in political spending before our democracy is irreparably damaged. The need is urgent, despite the many arguments of the apologists. In 2016, outside groups liberated by Citizens United spent more than a billion dollars to influence how Americans vote (and banked away more than $700 million more to use in future elections), almost double what they spent in 2012, which itself was far more than had been spent in any other election cycle.
Current law says it is all legal so long as the super PACs do not coordinate with the candidates or their parties. They all swear that they don’t, even though many are run by former campaign aides and close political allies.
Yeah. Right. And the Easter Bunny really does lay chocolate eggs.
How stupid do they think we are? Pretty darn stupid, because they keep getting away with it.
Even excluding this outside spending, which is actually grater than official campaign spending now, spending on politics is high and except for a downward blip in 2012, has risen fast. The average House of Representatives campaign now costs more than $1.5 million, and the average Senate campaign now costs nearly $10 million. This despite the fact that the vast majority of races are not competitive and 98% of incumbents were reelected in 2016. So what in the world do they need all this money for?
Turns out they can do a lot of things with money they don’t spend, but they can’t use it for personal expenses or just cash it in for themselves. They can donate it to other campaigns or to their national parties, increasing their own power and influence. They can also keep the money until after they retire, when they can either leave it sit against the possibility they run for office again someday, OR they can convert their campaign into a PAC. And it turns out a PAC does not have the same rules for how money can be spent as campaigns do. Pretty sweet loophole, huh? You’d think most politicians were lawyers or something.
Of course our lawmakers tell us that they would never be influenced by financial gifts to themselves or the PACs that support them. They are saint-like, otherworldly figures who cannot be tempted by such crass things as money, power and influence like everyone else in the world.
Yeah. Right. And Santa Claus really does employ a red-nosed reindeer to run his gift distribution network.
According to multiple sources, congressmen spend roughly half of their available time fundraising, both for their own reelection and for others in their party. Would they do this if the money were not important to them? Am I the only one who thinks there might be a few higher priorities for them to spend their time on than political fundraising? Healthcare? Tax Reform? Immigration Reform? Gun Control? The Budget?
Here is where the apologists will usually insert some factual, but misleading, data about how American political spending is not actually growing that fast as a percentage of GDP or in relation to population growth, and is actually dwarfed by the amount of money Americans spend on other trivial things like dog-grooming, or triple mocha lattes, or tattoos, to try and trivialize the problem. To which my answer is: So What? The important thing is that regardless of the relative amount of money spent, the absolute amount is more than enough to provide a corrupting temptation and influence. Money is corrupting our political system, in ways that spending on a new dragon tattoo for your left buttock never could.
However, even those who are well-intentioned (and frankly, I think most politicians would love to not have to spend this time fundraising) can’t stop. The system, including their party, demands it. The money is needed, in their view. Failing to raise it is seen as tantamount to unilateral disarmament in the political war.
Something must be done. New legislation is needed that can pass Constitutional muster and restore sanity to our political spending. It must address the rise of almost completely unregulated outside group spending, and improve transparency for PACs, so people know exactly who is trying to buy their politicians and hold them to account if their votes are influenced. Ultimately, it will be hard to get anything through this extremely conservative, wildly activist Supreme Court, but we must keep trying.