Money in Politics
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Money in Politics: Democracy in the Balance
There has been limited progress in Congress on key League positions such as voting rights, gun control, student debt, and many others. Is there a connection between the extraordinary sums of money candidates need to run for office today, growing polarization of the electorate, and lack of progress on these issues?
There is a long history of federal legislation to limit campaign funding, going back to an effort led by Teddy Roosevelt in 1907, and continuing up to the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002. While legislation has attempted to reduce undue influence, however, over the last forty years the Supreme Court has whittled away this legislation by ruling that (1) money is a form of free speech, (2) narrowing the definition of corruptions to direct bribery, and (3) declaring that corporations have the same protected political speech rights as humans. As a result, money spent in political campaigns has skyrocketed, along with negative advertising. 57 percent of all individual donations to Super PACs in the 2012 campaign came from just forty-seven people, each of whom gave over $1 million. Super PACs, though, have a serious disadvantage: disclosure requirements, but IRS guidelines for 502(c)4 organizations allow corporations to keep their donors’ names private, resulting in undue influence in elections at the national, state, and local levels.
LWVUS President Elizabeth MacNamara stated: “In this [McCutcheon] decision, the Court opens another loophole by allowing our political parties to be further corrupted by big-money contributions from special interests. The party and Political Action Committee systems now become a huge funnel for corrupting elected officials across the county.”
So how can change be made? The tools are legislation, regulation, constitutional change through amendment or reversals of Supreme Court decisions at the national level, and action at all levels of government: local and state, as well as national.
Legislation: There are multiple bills pending in Congress regarding disclosure, good government, constitutional amendments, and other campaign finance reforms, such as the American Anti-Corruption Act; the Empowering Citizens Act; or the most recent Government by the People Act [Sarbanes bill], which had 157 co-sponsors as of July 2014. Voting rights are at the top tier of advocacy priorities. The voter is the most powerful antidote to money in our political system, and ensuring voter access and rights is a critical advocacy area for the League at all levels. Low voter turnout is a serious issue across America. A modernized election system is also needed, with measures such as Election Day registration, weekend and evening voting periods, and on-line voter registration.
Regulations: Improvements in regulations can be made by the Federal Communications (for advertisements), by the IRS (for rules governing nonprofits), by the Federal Election Commission (which needs more enforcement power), and by the Securities and Exchange Commission (for corporate political expenditures disclosure).
Constitutional amendment: Seven of the twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution reversed previous Supreme Court decisions—including the Nineteenth Amendment granting women’s right to vote. The amendment proposals getting the most attention focus on two areas of concern: restoring the power of Congress and the states to regulate the raising and spending of money for elections, and limiting constitutional rights to human beings. The national League will complete a national study on constitutional amendments in 2015.
You can be informed and “follow the money” at websites like Open Secrets, MapLight, Sunlight Foundation, and Public Citizen, which provide fact-based information showing the money trail. Numerous other organizations—such as Common Cause, the Brennan Center for Justice, and others—are active in supporting fair elections and campaign reform and provide valuable information on their websites.
Thanks to the team who presented the “Money in Politics” program: Marge Nichols, Michelle White, Robbie Davis, and Janet Peterson.
Thanks to LWV Massachusetts for their outstanding study materials and PowerPoint presentation. This article is excerpted from that presentation. For a detailed study report, look for “Money in Politics: Developing a Common Understanding of the Issues” at the LWVUS website.
—Marge Nichols, Events