WASHINGTON — The numbers are astounding. According to the Federal Election Commission, nearly $7 billion was spent on the 2012 U.S. presidential election, and that includes spending by candidates, parties and outside groups. During this year’s congressional campaign cycle, monitoring groups estimate about $2.6 billion will be spent on television advertising alone.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have also helped to open the money spigots even more. The 2010 case known as Citizens United loosened restrictions on donations from corporations, labor unions and outside groups. This year’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC struck down many of the overall limits on campaign donations from individuals, opening up fresh avenues of contributions to even more members of Congress, challengers and political committees.
Both Supreme Court rulings came on five to four decisions, so the court remains sharply divided on issues of money and politics. But for now, the more conservative view of Chief Justice John Roberts is carrying the day on the high court, suggesting that more stringent campaign finance laws are not likely to pass muster with the five-member conservative majority on the high court. Of course, before that could happen, Congress would have to act to retighten campaign finance laws and there is no sign of that happening anytime soon.
Fears of corruption
Political watchdog groups are watching the expansion of campaign donations with growing concern. Sheila Krumholz is the executive director of The Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, a nonpartisan research group that tracks campaign spending and the influence of money in politics. “The central tension is between freedom of speech and fear of corruption, or the appearance of corruption”, she says. “We don’t want to censor anyone from being able to speak their mind and use their money in some ways. On the other hand, if you use a lot of money and depending on its source, it could have a corrupting influence.”
Krumholz says it is clear that the current Supreme Court values “speech” in the form of campaign contributions more than concerns about corruption. She says the court decisions in recent years have strengthened the hand of wealthy political contributors and outside groups that wish to donate money, feeding the notion that those with the most money “speak loudest.”
Money equals speech
Supporters of the recent Supreme Court rulings expanding the rights of political contributors have a far different take. Conservatives have long equated the right to freely give campaign contributions with free speech. They chafed for years as a steady stream of campaign finance laws went on the books, which in their view restricted the right of individuals to make themselves heard in the political market place.
“Basically money helps people speak. So yes, money isn’t speech, but money helps buy speech,” says David Keating, president of The Center for Competitive Politics, a group that seeks to expand First Amendment rights to free expression. “People ought to be able to spend whatever they want saying what they want to other people in the United States and then let the voters decide.” Keating believes the government should get out of the business of trying to regulate campaign contributions altogether. “The bigger danger is letting the people who are in the government decide what people are allowed to say about the government.”
The debate has played out at times in the halls of Congress. Not long ago in an exchange on the Senate floor, Senator Democratic leader Harry Reid went toe-to-toe with his Republican counterpart, Senator Mitch McConnell. Reid has spent a lot of time thundering against conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, major players in funding of conservative candidates and causes. “The founders believed in a democracy where every American had a voice and a vote,” Reid argued recently, trying to get voters to focus on campaign finance as an issue in this year’s elections.
But Senator McConnell fired back that all Americans regardless of their economic status should have the right to express themselves in election spending, no matter which side of the political aisle they happen to sit on. “There are many wealthy Americans who feel deeply about the country, who are committed to one side or the other, who are trying to have an impact on the country, as many on the left as on the right.” Republicans often counter attacks aimed at the Koch brothers by citing wealthy liberal activists like George Soros and Tom Steyer.
Fears of another scandal
Reform advocates acknowledge that the exploding money chase is bipartisan in nature. “Money ultimately speaks and in many cases money speaks loudest and it doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you are on both parties are complicit in this process,” says Sheila Krumholz. But she argues that doesn’t make it any less of a threat in terms of the potential for abuse and corruption. She fears a return to the kinds of campaign abuses that came to light during the Watergate scandal of the 1970’s when bags of money were secretly handed over to political campaigns with an understanding that the contributors would be taken care of down the line.
Krumholz also worries that with Congress deadlocked on the issue and the Supreme Court not open to further reform, voters will be left with the impression that government is simply unwilling or unable to address the problem. “I think until we have that kind of open, honest dialogue it is going to take a scandal to make us confront this problem.” She also says the voters are ultimately responsible for pushing the issue. “We own them. They work for us. So we need to be better managers of our government. It’s our government and if it’s broken, who’s responsible? We are.”