There’s no separating money from politics. Or is there?
Money and its potentially corrupting influence is at the very heart of complaints about politics in the United States, and every two years, many candidates promise voters that they’ll try to reform a system that they say has been broken by congressional inaction and the Supreme Court.
Over the last year, Bernie Sanders has built his presidential campaign around the charge that the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations in elections has led to the passage of laws that have widened the chasm between the rich and the poor. Hillary Clinton has also called for significant campaign-finance reform, and even Donald Trump has joined in, calling out his Republican rivals for being beholden to their major donors. Most other Republicans have rejected calls for reform on the principle that political speech should not be restricted.
Here we take a look at the claims about the influence of money on politics and the various proposals to reduce it.
The problem of money in politics is so universally recognized that even Donald Trump, the ultimate capitalist, and Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, agree on it. Sanders has spent his career railing against the corrupting influence of wealthy and corporate donors, while Trump has unmasked the game by admitting that he gave money to politicians to curry favor with them. The success of both of these politicians suggests the degree to which Americans are fed up with the influence of money on politics. If we don't reduce that influence, our system risks losing its legitimacy.
Trump’s truth-telling aside (if that’s what it is), this premise is much shakier and polarizing than political rhetoric often makes it seem. Can money be separated from politics?
The answer to that is almost certainly no. At their core, democratic elections are a battle of personalities and ideas, and the only way to inform voters about their choices in an election is make sure that the messages of candidates reach them. And just about any way you cut it, that’s going to cost money—whether it’s to pay for advertising, to set up and run a website, to hire people as staffers, or to hold rallies or events that the media will cover. Campaigns for local office can often be run on the cheap. Candidates rely on volunteers to run their campaigns and on social media, rather than paid advertising, to spread their message. But they're never totally free.
The Holy Grail for many campaign-finance reformers is publicly-funded elections, but even in cities and states that have them currently, most are based on matching funds, which requires candidates to raise a minimum amount of money to demonstrate viability. And proposals for public funding of elections in Congress don’t totally eliminate private donations, either.
So that leads us to a second question: If we could separate money from politics, should we? This is really the fundamental divide over campaign financing in the United States. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was based on the principle—long shared by conservatives—that campaign contributions are a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment. And to the dismay of most Democrats, the Citizens United ruling extended those protections not just to individuals but to corporations (and labor unions), leading critics to charge that the Supreme Court had decreed that corporations were effectively the same as people.
Whatever the interpretation, the ruling inarguably allowed wealthy individuals, businesses, and other groups to use money to influence elections with more freedom than they had before.
If Citizens United was so pivotal in aggravating the problem, the Supreme Court should overturn it. The ruling misinterpreted the First Amendment as a protection of money in politics, and it conflated corporations with individuals in a way that opened the floodgates for companies to spend millions—or even billions—to influence elections.
What precedent is there for the Court to reverse itself so quickly and dramatically?
Right now there's a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and whoever replaces the late Justice Antonin Scalia could determine the fate of Citizens United. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have pledged to appoint someone who would overturn the 2010 ruling, and while that’s a litmus test that President Obama hasn’t explicitly endorsed, it’s unlikely that anyone he nominates will win confirmation by the Republican-led Senate. The GOP presidential candidates, by contrast, are pledging to appoint a justice in the mold of Scalia, who voted in support of Citizens United. Still, even if a Democratic president decides Scalia’s replacement, the decision is now a precedent of the high court, and there’s no guarantee the justices will revisit the case—or a similar challenge—in the immediate future.
Even if the Supreme Court did reverse itself, would that have the effect of significantly reducing money in politics? Overturning Citizens United could lead to restrictions on or the elimination of super PACs that have sprung up as a result of the ruling and subsequent decisions by lower courts. Super PACs cannot contribute to or coordinate directly with candidates, but they can raise and spending unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose them.
And the Supreme Court has loosened campaign-finance regulations in other ways, such as a 5-4 ruling in 2014 that scrapped the limits on the total amount of money that wealthy donors could contribute to candidates and committees. “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the decision. “We have made clear that Congress may not regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”
It’s also important to remember that prior to the ruling, wealthy corporate interests had plenty of latitude use their money to influence elections. Remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which tore into John Kerry's Vietnam record with the help of millions of dollars from conservative donors in 2004? Money played a big part in elections before the Citizens United decision, and it will play a big part even if it is overturned by the Supreme Court.
If overturning Citizens United won’t fix things, we should toughen up disclosure requirements so that at least people will know what individuals and organizations are paying for the ads they see on TV.
How would you get Congress to act on this, given their inability to muster the votes to boost disclosure in the past? Even in Citizens United, the Supreme Court made clear that it was not restricting Congress’s ability to require organizations to disclose their donors. But Congress isn't likely to budge anytime soon.
The Republicans in charge of the House and Senate—and in particular Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—oppose campaign-finance restrictions on principle. Even when Democrats had the majority, they fell a single vote short in the Senate of passing the Disclose Act, which would have toughened transparency requirements in response to Citizens United.
One of the big fears among good-government groups after Citizens United was that wealthy donors, corporations, and unions would not only be able to spend unlimited sums of money, but that they would try to do so secretly because of the loose disclosure requirements that allow donors to funnel money to super PACs through committees that don’t have to disclose the source of their contributions.
On the presidential level, that hasn’t played out quite so dramatically—if only because so many of the wealthiest donors in both parties have made donations directly to super PACs supporting candidates, allowing their names to be attached to them. But according to one analysis cited by Bloomberg News, secret money accounted for two-thirds of the political-ad spending in the 2016 campaign through the end of January.
Forget the wealthy and corporations. They’re always going to have influence in elections, one way or another. We need to focus on empowering average people by reinvigorating and expanding the public-financing system for campaigns, both on the federal and local levels.
How could the government get enough money to finance elections at a level that would be an effective counterweight to the oodles of private money out there? Ironically, it may have been Barack Obama who killed the federal public-financing system for presidential elections when he opted not to participate in 2008, despite his support for public financing in principle.
Since then, neither Obama nor any of the Republican nominees has accepted federal matching funds in exchange for strict limits on campaign spending, and neither of the nominees this year is expected to, either. The presidential race has simply become too expensive for Democrats to “unilaterally disarm” and agree to restrict their spending, the argument goes, and Congress has not updated the program in more than 40 years.
The odds may be long, but Democrats and advocates for campaign-finance reform have been pushing to modernize and expand the system. One proposal, known as the Government by the People Act, would have the government match small-dollar donations at a 6-to-1 rate (or higher under certain conditions) while also giving people a $25 refundable tax credit to encourage political donations.
The Fair Elections Now Act has similar provisions but would also allow candidates to raise unlimited donations so long as they did not individually exceed $150. The idea is to level the playing field for candidates who can demonstrate a minimum level of support while also helping to free up incumbent members of Congress from the burden of spending hours each day dialing for dollars rather than working on legislation or helping their constituents. Neither of these bills have any chance of passing, however, under a Republican-controlled Congress.
As with many election reforms, the action is now mostly at the local level. Last November, Seattle voters approved a system whereby citizens could contribute to candidates in local races without spending a dime of their own money. The city government will instead send registered voters four $25 vouchers that they can give to the candidate of their choice. “The promise of vouchers is turning every single voter in the city into a donor,” Alan Durning, the executive director of the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, told me in the fall.
Yet even if public financing empowers ordinary citizens, it is not a panacea for political corruption. Just look at New York City, which has had both a popular public-financing system for decades and no shortage of crooked local legislators in recent years.
To play devil’s advocate for a second, maybe money really isn’t as big of an influence in politics as it’s cracked up to be. After all, Jeb Bush and the super PAC supporting him spent $130 million and won nothing in 2016. Michael Bloomberg is one of the richest men in the country and although that bought him three elections as mayor of New York, he determined that not even $1 billion could buy him the presidency. And Donald Trump is winning without spending a ton of money, in relative terms.
You’re right—Jeb Bush didn’t do well even with all the money spent on his behalf, but you could also argue that if he didn’t have the cash he did, he would have dropped out long before Republicans even started voting.
The same is true of Ben Carson, who stuck around long after his poll numbers cratered. And, yes, it’s true that Trump has succeeded not because of how much money he’s spent but how successful he has been at getting the media to cover him—allowing him to get his message out nearly for free. There are so many factors that figure into a presidential race that money is not always paramount.
But what about congressional, state, and local elections that don’t get as much media attention? In those contests, money can play a much bigger role. It can be the difference in whether a candidate gets noticed or an issue gets raised, and which side spends the most is more often a determining factor in the outcome of an election.
These are some of the intriguing questions left to consider:
What is the role of the Federal Election Commission, and how can it better enforce the campaign-finance laws that are already on the books?
How much would it cost to implement a public financing system that candidates would actually participate in?
After Citizens United, what is the remaining legacy of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Act of 2002?
Besides various forms of public financing, what other proposals could reduce the influence of money in politics?
Maybe there’s an answer we haven’t considered yet. Drop your thoughts into an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.