Campaign Finance Reform going nowhere fast

7.2k 32 66 11 4 Colorado Springs, CO

Mon Mar 10, 2014 13:52:11PM

". . . corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their 'personhood' often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of “We the People” by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."

--- Supreme Court Justice Stevens, January 2010

Move to Amend borrowed this quote from then Justice Stevens in his dissent against the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. Many of us share Justice Steven's indignation directed at his fellow conservative justices, but we are often at a loss as to what to do about it outside of maybe signing petitions. Move to Amend has a proposed amendment to the Constitution stating that "money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights." Senator Bernie Sanders and others also have proposed slightly different versions of the amendment. And in any case, while I commend these efforts, realistically we may wait a long time for a Constitutional amendment to be approved, if at all, and that would only fix part of the problem.

Right now, partially as a result of Citizens United, I am receiving lots of requests for small donations, some as little as $3.00. As an active Democrat, I have supported candidates with donations in the past; however, by doing so I ended up on their mailing lists. Here is just a sample of e-mail requests for campaign donations that I found in my inbox just in the last two days.

And today, thanks to your grassroots efforts, we’re just about $1,500 away from our $10,000 day of action goal. And if everyone pitches in just a few dollars, I know we’ll get to our goal before midnight tonight.

It’s only March, but the Koch brothers and their special interest allies are already pouring money into attacks and smear campaigns on races just like ours.

If we can raise this last $67,000, we can hand Boehner a painful loss in Tuesday’s special election -- and fight Republican attacks nationwide. Can you put us over the top?

URGENT Rush $8 or more right now to fight Republican attacks in toss-up races like this.

Already, because of your grassroots support, we’ve raised about $4,000 towards our $10,000 day of action goal -- but we’re not there yet.

Can I count on you to give $5 or $10 right now to help us reach our goal before our deadline at midnight tonight?

We need $167,000 immediately to keep pace in toss-up races like these.

Contribute just $3 before midnight to be automatically entered for a chance to win.

Yes , I reluctantly contribute; however, I have to say that I hate that election campaigns have come down to this...a money race. It not only further cheapens the political office, but it also takes valuable legislating time away from our elected officials while they engage in a state of virtual fund raising. This is only March, and every day now I hear my e-mail "ding" alerting me to another incoming message asking me for yet another donation to a candidate or an organization. Not only that, the phone is also ringing. There are eight more months of this fund raising before the November election, and once we get deeper into the election campaign season, we'll start getting non-stop ads on TV, most of them negative, repeated over and over again until I finally shout some obscenity at the TV.

The cable news channels and networks play that game as well, regularly giving reports on who has raised the most money, often correlating the amount of money collected with who's up and who's down in the polls. The media promote the money game because they are big beneficiaries of that largess as candidates and advocacy groups spend big time on TV ads. Candidates that lose, often express the view, "We got outspent by outside interests." That also plays well in the media. Voters are being conditioned that they must give money to win...and not just once, but again and again. It's not good enough to just donate once. Some ask if you want to make your donation an automatic monthly contribution.

Total campaign spending has gone up every year, but the rate of spending has increased dramatically since that infamous Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. In 2012, total campaign spending according to the Federal Election Commission was over $7 billion, with $3.2 billion spent by candidate committees, $2 billion by party committees and another $2 billion or more from outside groups. That's 80 percent more than the $4 billion spent in 2010. How did all this happen? And are our donations really buying us better elected officials?

On January 21, 2010 the Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote in Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission held that the government cannot restrict political independent expenditures by corporations, unions or other associations. An "independent expenditure" is defined as a campaign expenditure that is "not made in cooperation, consultation or concert with or at the request or suggestion of a candidate, candidate’s authorized committee or a political party."

I won't go into all the details, but the impact of the court's Citizens United ruling and the subsequent SpeechNow versus the FEC ruling two months later was to immediately set in motion a wave of both public and large dark money donations funneled through SuperPACs and tax exempt 501(c) 3 organizations "involved in charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering amateur sports competition, or preventing cruelty to children or animals" and 501(c)4 organizations or "civic leagues and other corporations operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare." The speed to which it happened in the November 2010 election was swift. As reported by Kim Barker and Theorderic Meyer in their ProPublica article of February 14, 2014: The Dark Money Man: How Noble Moved the Kochs' Cash into Politics and Made Millions, a little known Koch brothers political operative named Sean Noble blogged at the time:

“This is a total game-changer for federal politics...Some will claim that this makes politics more dirty. I don’t. Politics has always been pretty messy...Seriously, this will change campaigns in a big, big way.”

As reported by the ProPublica authors, Noble was hired by the Koch brothers to "distribute a torrent of political money raised by the Koch network, a complex web of nonprofits nicknamed the "Kochtopus", into conservative causes in the 2010 and 2012 elections."

The liberal media and indeed Senator Harry Reid in his recent statement on the Senate floor have primarily focused on the Koch brothers role in financing (or is it buying?) candidates. However, other corporate and billionaire donors have also been spending money in a big way, enjoying the anonymity that was afforded by the non-disclosure of donor option of "charitable giving". Nevertheless, some billionaires like casino mogul Sheldon Adelson enjoy the notoriety of publicly flaunting their donations. Adelson alone spent nearly $150 million supporting Republican candidates for various offices in 2012, and in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, has vowed to double that amount for the 2014 election cycle...that would be a huge $300 million for his contributions alone, but just chunk change for someone whose personal net worth is estimated at $20.5 billion. Adelson is 80 years old and is on a one man crusade against what he calls Obama's "socialist-style economy" as well as unions working in his Las Vegas casinos. I guess at his age he's on a spending spree...he can't take it with him when he dies.

But does all this money necessarily assure election success? It depends...

The Follow the Money website has compiled campaign spending numbers for the 2009-2010 election. In 2010 Meg Whitman, Republican candidate for governor of California, spent $176.7 million, of which she contributed $144 of her own money. Her opponent Jerry Brown beat her in a landslide victory, 53.8% to 40.9%, by only spending $40.6 million, less than a quarter of what she spent. Also in 2010, New Jersey Republican Chris Christie beat incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, despite raising only $5.8 million compared to Corzine’s $30.6 million. On the other hand, in Florida, Rick Scott spent $67.4 million, of which $60 million was his own money, to eke out a one percentage point win over Democrat Alex Sink, who spent just $17.5 million. The website also shows, that contrary to media hype, the Democrats were indeed competitive monetarily in 2010 so other factors came into play.

Furthermore, in 2012, Karl Rove's SuperPAC, American Crossroads, spent $103 million on TV ads in the 2012 election and none of their supported candidates won. Sheldon Adelson backed several candidates and issues in 2012, and only won 40 percent of his $150 million in bets, with the biggest losers being Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Wrestling magnate, Linda McMahon, running for Connecticut Senator in 2010 and 2012 spent $100 million of her own money to lose both times.

That's not saying that political contributions don't matter. They do matter, and especially for little known "rookie" candidates that have a tough time raising any money and need to get more exposure. However, I also believe that once a certain threshold of contributions and spending is reached, further spending has diminishing returns. I think Meg Whitman reached that threshold early and probably wasted over a $100 million. On the other hand, a little known school teacher wanting to run for public office for the first time needs all the help we can provide, both financially and physically.

We certainly need comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform, not only an amendment to the Constitution, but also other initiatives like the Grassroots Democracy Act, and the Empowering Citizens Act and the Fair Elections Now Act all of which would, if approved, provide for some public financing of campaign through various ratios of public matching of private donations. States like New York are also pursuing more limited measures for Campaign Finance Reform, but the prospects of getting any of the Congressional or state legislation in place for the 2014 election seem rather remote. Republicans continue to obstruct. Not only have they twice filibustered the DISCLOSE Act in the Senate, their party platform now calls for the repeal of the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act passed in 2002.

“We oppose any restrictions or conditions that would discourage Americans from exercising their constitutional right to enter the political fray or limit their commitment to their ideals,” the Republican Party Platform now states. Wow times sure have changed.

While we desperately need to have Campaign Finance Reform initiatives passed into law, the reality is that the Republicans will not allow anything to pass, and are even seeking to undo what limited campaign financing laws that still exist. They want the "free market" to rule without any government interference on spending of any kind. To me it is insane, but to all the middle class and rich surrogates blindly following the super rich agenda, it seems to make perfect sense. That's a topic for another article.

Money can't buy everything, however, and as shown by the 2010 and 2012 election results, a good candidate that appeals to their constituents can win despite a monetary disadvantage in spending. The point I make is that if we really believe the media hype that the more contributions you receive and spend, the more likely you will win, then it can be a self fulfilling prophecy...a feeling of defeatism. On the other hand "can-do" candidates with high energy, enthusiasm, sincerity, honesty and knowledge of the facts can be elected because they really are listening to their constituents instead of their sugar daddies.

Also of immense importance for electing good people to government is the need to get out the vote. Voter apathy amongst Democratic Party voters and liberal leaning Independents is a bigger factor working in Republicans favor, especially in mid-term elections like 2010 and 2014, than the amount of money raised.

"The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy." -- Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu
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