Why Money in Politics Corrupts Our Government — And How We Can Stop It

What impact does money actually have in an election?

At the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman approached Dr. Benjamin Franklin and asked, “Well, Doctor, what do we have? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, if we can keep it.” Unfortunately, if Dr. Franklin could see the state of our democracy today, he would be disappointed in the country he helped to create. While Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have been discussing how they don’t need Super PACs or corporate donations (each for very different reasons), their rhetoric reveals a deeper issue that is affecting the American voter in a negative way. It’s crucial before taking any sides in this debate to look into the background of this issue and why campaign finance has become such a heated topic over the past few years.

Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, citizens and elected officials have brought up the concerns about the corrupting influence of money in politics. In the Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court ruled that campaign contributions and political spending are equivalent to free speech, and are protected under the First Amendment as such. These sentiments from the Supreme Court have opened the political floodgates for independent groups to donate millions of dollars into campaigns. The most common type of these groups to emerge since the ruling has been that of “Super PACs”. Super PACs are unregulated and independent political groups, which can spend and receive as much money as they please in any given election, so long as they don’t participate in direct communication with the candidate in question.

These groups have been granted unprecedented amounts of control over the electoral process since 2010, and the amount of money that they have been fueling into campaigning is extraordinary. In the top 10 most expensive Senate races in 2014 and 2012 combined, independent political groups spent over 1.3 billion dollars on those twenty races (701 million in 2014 and 697 million in 2012). In the combined years of 2006 and 2008 in all of the Senate races combined, a total of 284 million dollars was spent by outside groups. That’s right: independent groups spent 357% more from 2006 and 2008 to the years 2012 and 2014, in the top ten highest-expenditure Senate races alone.

In the combined years of 2006 and 2008 in all of the Senate races combined, a total of 284 million dollars was spent by outside groups.

Furthermore, this new status quo means that many Senators and Representatives have to spend enormous amounts of time fundraising just to keep up with the millions of large contributions by corporate interests. In a typical nine or ten hour day for a senator or representative, they spend approximately four of those hours fundraising and asking for money, either from local donors or interest groups. That is four hours that could be used to read legislation, debate, and actually act on behalf of the constituents that they are representing, rather than corporate interests.

In the world before 2010, whether I gave $35 to an independent group or whether the CEO of WalMart gave $5,200, both of us would have to reveal certain information regarding our finances, and that same information, as well as the contributions that myself and the CEO made, would be made available for public oversight. While the Supreme Court did rule in an 8–1 decision that current laws regarding the disclosure of funds spent by campaigns and PACs would remain, the rest of that decision severely limited the power of the FEC when it came to disclosure regulations. Since the Citizens United case opened the doors for more corporations to begin pumping millions of dollars into a singular campaign, it allowed for more independent expenditures where no donor was ever disclosed.

In the 2012 election, it was found that almost 320 million dollars had been spent, all without any disclosure of who contributed those funds. Compare that to the years 2000 through 2006, when the amount of outside spending with no donors being disclosed did not exceed 10 million dollars. The loopholes that were created by the ruling meant that in the rise of Super PACs, independent expenditures could drown out the political process, all without much regulation. From the years 1990 to 2006, the percentage of donations that were made with full disclosure as to who was giving what contribution averaged around 82%. However, in the 2012 election, that number dropped significantly to only 40%.

…the system that was expanded upon by the Supreme Court has created a government that is more reliant on corporations than the people they have been elected to represent.

Ever since the Citizens United case, the rise of independent expenditures in an election gave those groups a free pass to donate and funnel as much money into an election as they pleased without ever having to disclose its origin. Elected officials may be swayed in their opinions to be in favor of those funneling money to their campaigns instead of the ordinary citizen. Because of non-disclosure regulations, the citizens don’t have access to information about who exactly is influencing their candidates and so cannot hold them accountable for caving to corporate interests. As long as candidates use Super PACs, which were opened to in the 2010 ruling, citizens will never know a candidate’s true intentions, and they will never know if an unknown corporate entity or person is funneling money in order to sway that candidate’s views.

Many people who support the Citizens United ruling believe that money does not necessarily have an impact on voters or on the outcome of elections. However, such an assumption is objectively false, and the system that was expanded upon by the Supreme Court has created a government that is more reliant on corporations than the people they have been elected to represent. In 2014, Princeton University published a study in which they examined the effect of corporate donations in elections since 2010. The results were staggering, as the study described, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Their claim is reinforced by a study done by the National Institute of Health in 2013 showed that approximately 86% of Americans believe that large corporate influences control too much of the electoral process. The electorate believes that their elected officials will be bought and sold regardless of how they cast their vote.

Congress only has an 11% approval rating and only 36.4% of voters turned out in 2014. Why? The American people believe that due to stagnation in Congress their vote means little to nothing. Their fears are well-founded. For example, a senator would be hesitant to vote for gun control bills when his largest donor is the NRA. Individuals, companies, and interest groups donating unlimited funds anonymously is not our democracy at work. It is unacceptable that politicians who represent us focus more on the people who are funding their campaigns than the constituents who will be voting for them in November. By taking action such as overturning Citizens United, limits on political contributions can be instated. By doing so, we can restore the American people’s basic trust that their vote will be going to politicians who support their interests, rather than the interests of those bankrolling campaigns.

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