Campaign Finance & the Value of Money in Politics

What do the IRS, cockroaches, and Kim Kardashian all have in common?

by Abhi Gupta

May 15, 2014

They all have higher approval ratings than Congress. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the US Government's consistent gridlock, lack of action on pressing issues, and frequent last minute deals to increase the budget instead of truly attempting to solve our spending problems. It is almost as if Congress has been intentionally ignoring its citizens’ concerns, counter intuitive to how one would think our democracy works. Could our government be following the orders of someone other than the American public?


Money plays an influential, if not definitive role in American policymaking. In a study done by Princeton University’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page in 2014, 1,779 US policy decisions were analyzed from the last 20 years. This study found that when the majority of the public supported a specific policy change, Congress passed a bill only 30% of the time. However, when top political donors supported a policy change, Congress was 50% more likely to pass legislation. Through this analysis, they concluded America functions more as an oligarchy than a democracy.


The economic elites in the US, considered the "oligarchs" in Gilens' paper, have a significant hold on politicians making policy decisions. With money heavily influencing the legislative process, the public ought to know who is funding their representatives. Yet, the ultra-wealthy have hidden behind the curtain of anonymous donations and Super PACS, making it difficult for donors to be identified.


This problem isn’t restricted to policy making, as it also impacts congressional races. In marquee Senate elections taking place across America in 2014, the majority of money in candidates' pockets come from out of state. As highlighted by the Wall Street Journal in April 2014, the state of Kentucky was experiencing the most expensive Senate race in history between incumbent Mitch McConnell and challenger Allison Grimes. This race was not being funded primarily by voters in Kentucky, as 70% of Grimes’ funding and 80% of McConnell’s funding were from out of state. With donations coming at scale from everyone besides those whom they represent, politicians are having difficulty choosing between representing their constituents and those who will win them a seat in DC. Moreover, hiding behind the anonymity of Super PACS, the wealthy elite and corporations influence regional races while the public is fooled into thinking they elected a representative who truly has their constituents as their top priority.


Spending, not votes, is the new measurement for success. The Center for Responsive Politics found that in 2010, nearly $3.51 Billion were spent on lobbying. Furthermore, Congress saw 93% of House races and 94% of Senate races won by the candidate who spent the most, resulting in 397 victories out of the 426 seats. Influence is bought with money, a luxury most Americans don’t have. With the top 1% of America holding 40% of its total wealth (link), its clear that only the rich can truly speak for their interests in government. Campaign finance transparency is necessary for citizens to see who is funding their voice in Congress, and will most certainly force representatives to be more connected with their home districts.


Thankfully, it is possible to reach for transparency within the limits of the law by understanding what “freedom of speech” means under the Supreme Court decision on the FEC vs. Citizens United case from 2010. The general takeaway from the decision was corporations were now considered people and therefore entitled to the "freedom of speech" rights awarded by the 1st Amendment, the most important being donating to political candidates. This, however, does not absolve them of accountability, as explicitly stated in the decision. New York University’s School of Law in 2011 finds that in this decision, the court upheld BCRA §201 and §311, requiring the disclosure of funders. While the Supreme Court values the right to anonymous free speech, “elections are special circumstances where a right to anonymous speech must generally give way to governmental interests in the overall integrity of the democratic process.” The court recognizes the right to anonymous donation does not exist if it hurts democracy, and as proven in study after study, our democracy is becoming tarnished because of the power of money and the inequality it brings. To fight for democracy and to change the current system, the legal decision needs to be brought to light.


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