On money in US politics

Dollar over mouth

If you should ever find yourself in a room of randomly-selected American voters, faced with the daunting task of having to identify two political statements on which you can achieve a broad, cross-partisan consensus (don’t ask why, it’s a hypothetical), you could do worse than start with these: “There’s too much money in politics” and “Politicians are in the pocket of wealthy special interests”. These get trotted out with such frequency that they’ve almost become truisms, or at least that’s how I perceived them, until I thought to stop and ask: what, exactly, is the big deal about big money in politics?

As I alluded to in a previous post, there’s a vast difference between the US and the UK in terms of the sums spent on political campaigns. For example, total spend on the 2012 US presidential and congressional races from all sources was $7 billion, more than 130 times the $53.4 million spent on the 2010 UK general election campaign. Of course, there are some good reasons why US elections cost more: it’s a much larger country, for one thing, which implies a commensurate increase in the cost of advertising and other items in the campaign budget, and, unlike in Britain, TV and radio airtime has to be paid for (in Britain, parties are allocated no more than a handful of political broadcast slots, paid for from public funds). Still, even adjusting for such factors, the difference is stark to say the least, and it’s not just the UK: America dwarfs all other countries in the world when it comes to campaign spending.

In Britain, election spending is tightly restricted by law: no party can spend more than the equivalent of about $30 million (depending on the number of parliamentary seats contested), and all income and expenditure must be meticulously recorded for scrutiny by the electoral authorities. The picture in the US is more complex. Individual citizens are permitted to contribute directly to candidates’ campaigns within certain limits (e.g. currently $2,600 per person per election to a single candidate), although since 2014 there is no cap on the number of candidates to whom they can contribute. Corporations and labor unions are prohibited from making direct contributions at any level, and must instead contribute via Political Action Committees (PACs), which can be set up with limited funds from the treasuries of one or more organizations but must fundraise independently thereafter and can still only spend within tight limits (e.g. $5,000 per election to a single candidate).

This was pretty much the picture until 2010, when the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United vs. FEC case declared it unconstitutional (specifically, a violation of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech) to limit corporations or unions from making any level of independent expenditure for political purposes. This led directly to the spawning of the so-called ‘Super PACs’, which are free to raise and spend as much money as they like on electoral activities, so long as they do not co-ordinate directly with candidates’ campaigns. Citizens United also changed the landscape for non-profit 501(c)4 organizations, defined by the IRS as primarily concerned with the promotion of “social welfare”, Planned Parenthood and the National Rifle Association (NRA) being two high-profile examples. Since 2010, these bodies may spend only slightly less freely than Super PACs on independent election-related activities, provided their “primary purpose” is not political advocacy (in practice, this allows them to spend up to about half of their money on it). The key difference between Super PACs and 501(c)4s is that the latter are not required to disclose their donors, which is why spending from these sources is controversial and sometimes referred to as ‘dark money’. The increasing use of both Super PACs and 501(c)4s for funding political campaigns partly explains the sharp growth in expenditure on US elections over recent years, although direct donations from individuals and PACs have increased as well, across the political spectrum.

So, what difference does all this extra money make? The answer, it seems, is that no-one really knows. Analytical studies have produced conflicting results, and even where a correlation between spending and victory has been detected, it’s all but impossible to prove a causal connection because so many different factors can contribute to an election win. Maybe it wasn’t that the money swung the election, but rather that the candidate attracted more money because he or she was more persuasive and therefore on track to win anyway. Or maybe the losing candidate was exposed in a scandal, or made a gaffe in a debate, or maybe it rained on polling day so hardly anyone turned out – all manner of mysterious forces can move people’s votes. And, of course, campaigns make predictions about the way the vote is going and adjust their spending accordingly, which further muddies the waters for the analysts.

Those who feel that too much fuss is made over money in politics sometimes make the case that the amounts spent on elections are actually quite small when considered in the proper perspective: Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times, for example, pointed out that, in 2014, Americans spent more on almonds than on selecting their representatives in congress. Surely, the argument goes, if money really swung elections, people would spend much more?

There are examples that both support and challenge this view. In the 2012 presidential election, wealthy donors including the Koch brothers and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads Super PAC spent millions to no avail campaigning for Mitt Romney. But there are also examples of smaller races where a flood of Super PAC money clearly did influence the result. One such case is that of Ami Bera, a Democrat who ran against the Republican incumbent in his congressional district outside Sacramento, CA. Having successfully closed a 30-point deficit to single digits, he was summarily wiped off the map following a $680,000 spend by American Crossroads on one negative TV ad (of questionable accuracy). Bera’s campaign estimated that the average viewer in his district would, at the peak of the assault, have seen it 16 times in a week. The Super PAC didn’t ‘buy’ anyone’s vote as such, but it intervened heavily in a lively, increasingly competitive race, and effectively killed it.

It seems, therefore, that while additional expenditure may not make a difference in very high-money contexts like a presidential race, it can do so in smaller, tightly-contested races, especially where campaign funds are unequal and/or one or more of the candidates is relatively unknown. Advocates of campaign finance reform argue that this is still a serious problem, as it has the potential to deter individuals who might make great candidates for office from entering the race, either because they feel they would struggle to raise the high sums necessary for a decent run (higher since Citizens United because of the need for an anti-Super PAC war chest), or because they find the implied intensive fundraising commitment unappealing, or both. Moreover, it follows that, in a high-money, high-stakes environment, it’s not only election results that can be influenced by Super PACs and the like, but also politicians’ behavior, which in turn affects the choices available to voters. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even the threat of a Super PAC intervention can push a candidate to alter his or her position, for example in cases where Republican candidates appear to have moved to the political right in order to appease a Super PAC threatening to lend support to a more purist conservative candidate in the party primary. There’s even a bespoke term for this: it’s called “getting primaried”. Legal activist Lawrence Lessig has coined another term, “dependence corruption”, to describe the way in which the broader political discourse gets shifted to reflect the interests of wealthy donors, a phenomenon that he considers a fundamental threat to American democracy.

A further argument put forward by advocates of campaign finance reform is that unlimited spending on elections, whether by candidates’ own campaigns or (supposedly) independent groups, threatens democracy because the great majority of the money comes from a small number of wealthy individual donors, who consequently, the argument goes, exert a much greater influence on the political process than their fellow citizens. Research by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation found that more than 28 per cent of the disclosed money spent on the 2012 election was donated by just 31,385 individuals, a group that would fill less than half the seats in a professional football stadium. And, again, while there is no solid evidence that wealthy donors are literally ‘buying’ congressional votes from politicians, it is clear that their support gives them significant sway. At the very least, it affords them privileged access, often facilitated by professional lobbyists, to put across their point of view. And, more than that: it is almost impossible to dispute seriously the assertion that there are areas of legislation that have been shaped by the long-term disproportionate influence of wealthy special interests, such as the oil and gas industries, pharmaceuticals, or the most powerful unions. Much of the wheeling and dealing takes place behind closed doors in Washington and concerns the nitty gritty of specific clauses in certain bills, far too specialist and detailed for the average citizen to understand, which can make it all feel rather distant from our everyday lives. And yet it should matter to all of us, because the resulting laws affect us all. They affect everything from our healthcare and education to the food we can buy in the grocery store. Surely, if watching The Wire taught us anything, it’s that there’s a dead straight line from even the lowliest street corner to the halls of power.

A 2012 episode of the radio show This American Life entitled ‘Take the Money and Run for Office’ conveys the degree to which fundraising dominates the day-to-day lives of politicians in Washington with comical clarity. It opens with a voicemail message left by a congresswoman for a lobbyist, selling herself as deserving of a donation from his client, sounding for all the world like a professional (if not especially effective) telemarketer. Apparently it’s not uncommon for members of the House and Senate to spend 2-3 hours a day, all around the election cycle, bashing the phones in cramped call centers close to the Capitol. Then there are the fundraisers – breakfasts, lunches, cocktails, dinners, golf games, duck hunts, you name it – which the Sunlight Foundation estimates as numbering more than 20 per day in peak fundraising season. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Party’s top fundraiser, estimates that she attended 400 fundraisers in 2011. Based on a six-day working week and 10 vacation days (including public holidays), that works out as 1.3 per day.

Now, clearly, there’s a serious question about whether this is how we want our lawmakers and political candidates to be spending their time. Without these extremely burdensome fundraising commitments, they would presumably have a good deal more time available for, let’s say, representing citizens’ interests, connecting with voters, reading legislation or learning more about policy issues (rather than relying, as they often do, on specialist lobbyists to teach them, from their less-than-neutral point of view). But the most intriguing thing about this state-of-affairs is why the politicians themselves aren’t pushing back on it. Not one of the former or current lawmakers interviewed for This American Life made any effort to pretend that it wasn’t an exhausting, unpleasant chore that they would much rather be without. And yet, to date there has been no significant challenge from within congress to the status quo. It seems as though, however much they hate it, our representatives simply can’t bring themselves to challenge the system that got them hired. In an interview on the radio show Marketplace, Freakonomics author Stephen Dubner summed the situation up: “Campaign fundraising has become an arms race and, as in any arms race, the first casualty is logic”.

And while there are groups outside congress pushing for the reform of political campaign finance, they have so far struggled to gain widespread support; those two sentences I began this piece with are more typically delivered in tones of weary resignation than energized outrage. And as much as I hesitate to deploy the first-choice lazy get-out of the modern politician and blame the media, they do have a role to play in this, insofar as they’re largely silent on the subject. This is easily explained, of course, because highlighting the issue would work directly against their interests: the majority of political campaign funds are spent on advertising, so even reporting on a drive for reform would, for the media companies, be biting the hand that feeds them. But without media support, it’s hard to see how any grassroots campaign could build up a sufficient head of steam to inspire meaningful change. Ultimately, therefore, change may depend on the will of the politicians themselves. It may require them to reach a tipping point and finally move to reclaim their time to spend on better causes. And, who knows, then, maybe, if campaign spending were to be reined in, some donors might decide to spend some of their spare cash on better causes too.

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