HOW MONEY IS CORRUPTING OUR POLITICS

ABSTRACT: Huge contributions and expenditures from wealthy special interests were front and center in the 2012 campaigns because of the unlimited spending allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The 32 biggest donors to Super PACs spent as much money as the total of all the donations by the 3.7 million Americans who made small donations to the Obama or Romney campaigns.

The Open Secrets project of the Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/) investigates and reports on money in campaigns. It has now documented a web of over a dozen organizations that transferred money among themselves to hide the true sources of campaign spending, so-called “dark money.” Dark money has been used in state, local, and national campaigns. Adding an international element to the dark money issue, federal prosecutors say a Mexican businessman illegally funneled more than $500,000 into U.S. political races through Super PACs and various shell corporations.

The amounts of money that candidates for Congress have to raise for their campaigns is staggering. A member of the US House needs to raise, on average, $15,000 each and every week; a Senator needs to raise $33,000 every week. Time spent fundraising is time that doesn’t get spent working on legislation or listening to and representing average constituents.

The dominance of money in campaigns, and of wealthy special interests in providing this money, skews the priorities and policy positions of elected officials. It corrupts the making of public policy. Reforms of our campaign finance system are needed and can be done now (within the context of the Supreme Court’s rulings) that:

  • Amplify the voices of average citizens and their small contributions to campaigns,
  • Require timely reporting of all campaign spending and contributions, and
  • Severely limit political activity by tax exempt organizations.

FULL POST: Huge contributions and expenditures from wealthy special interests were front and center in the 2012 campaigns because of the unlimited spending allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Private watchdog groups are continuing to trace and expose the sources and convoluted paths of money going from wealthy donors to campaign spending. This both exposes the donors (who often wish to remain secret) and illustrates the need for reform. Here are a few examples of their extensive findings.

The 32 biggest donors to Super PACs spent as much money as the total of all the donations by the 3.7 million Americans who made small donations to the Obama or Romney campaigns. [1] The two Koch brothers, billionaires due to their oil and industrial corporations, spent at least $400 million on campaigns in 2012, which is more than John McCain’s entire presidential campaign spent in 2008. [2] And fewer than 300,000 individuals (one-tenth of one percent of the 300 million Americans) provided the majority, roughly 60%, of the money raised by Congressional candidates from individuals. [3]

The Open Secrets project of the Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/) investigates and reports on money in campaigns. It has been digging into the money spent in the 2012 campaigns by Super PACs and social welfare groups (tax exempt 501(c)(4) organizations). It has now documented a web of over a dozen organizations that transferred money among themselves to hide the true sources of campaign spending, delay any reporting of it, and circumvent IRS limits on political activity by non-profit, tax exempt organizations. It has also documented that at least one quarter of the so-called “dark money” – money where the source was hidden – was linked to the two Koch brothers. [4]

Dark money was used in state as well as national campaigns. In California, an $11 million campaign contribution of dark money by a non-profit, tax exempt organization opposing a tax increase sparked an inquiry by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission and a grand jury investigation into violations of campaign finance laws and money laundering. A judge forced the Americans for Responsible Leadership, the apparent source of the contribution, to reveal the original source of the money. The money had come from the Center to Protect Patient Rights, another Arizona non-profit, which received the money from Americans for Job Security, a Virginia non-profit. Both of these organizations are connected to the Koch brothers’ political money network. The organizations have agreed to disgorge the $11 million contribution and pay a record $1 million fine. The investigation also uncovered a separate $4.1 million illegal contribution that now will also be disgorged. California is working to improve disclosure of campaign contributions and strengthen laws and regulations to stop dark money activity. [5]

Dark money has arrived at the local level as well. In the recent Boston mayoral election, organizations independent of the candidates’ campaigns spent over $3.8 million, much of it dark money. This spending had a significant impact as it was more than two-thirds as much as the campaigns of the two finalists spent on their own ($5.4 million). As a result, Massachusetts elected officials are working on laws that would tighten regulation of campaign spending, and, in particular, require disclosure of all donors promptly, before the election, so voters would know who was responsible for the spending. [6][7]

Adding an international element to the dark money issue, federal prosecutors say a Mexican businessman illegally funneled more than $500,000 into U.S. political races through Super PACs and various shell corporations. This is the first known instance of a foreign national exploiting the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to spend money on U.S. elections. The allegations surrounding Jose Susumo Azano Matsura, the owner of multiple construction companies in Mexico, include bankrolling a handful of southern California candidates. The scandal involves a U.S. congressman, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign firm, and the consequences of the Citizens United decision. That decision, which gives corporations the right to funnel donations to US candidates, allowed Matsura to obscure the true source of the donations and, therefore, the citizenship of the donor. [8]

The amounts of money that candidates for Congress have to raise for their campaigns is staggering. In 2012, the average cost of a wining campaign for the House was over $1.6 million and over $10.4 million for the Senate. That means that a member of the House, who runs for re-election every two years, needs to raise, on average, $15,000 each and every week. And a Senator needs to raise, on average, $33,000 every week. Newly elected members of Congress are typically told to spend four hours each day raising money. Time spent fundraising is time that doesn’t get spent working on legislation or listening to and representing average constituents. [9]

The dominance of money in campaigns, and of wealthy special interests in providing this money, skews the priorities and policy positions of members of Congress, and other elected officials, to favor the wealthy and special interests over the common good. In other words, it corrupts the making of public policy. Democracy – government of, by, and for the people – is perverted by the current role of money in our political system, where big money drowns out the voices and overwhelms the interests of average citizens.

Reforms of our campaign finance system are needed and can be done now (within the context of the Supreme Court’s rulings) that:

  • Amplify the voices of average citizens and their small contributions to campaigns;
  • Require timely reporting of all campaign spending and contributions (including bundling), so that voters know before they vote where the money is coming from;
  • Limit contributions that elected officials can receive from interests they oversee, from political committees, and from lobbyists;
  • Prohibit fundraising by elected officials during normal working hours;
  • Severely limit political activity by tax exempt organizations and require them to report donors; and
  • Improve enforcement of existing campaign finance laws.

[1]       U.S. PIRG, 2/5/14, “US PIRG applauds the introduction of the Government by the People Act,” U.S. PIRG

[2]       Hight, C., 2/6/14, “Government by the people, not the polluters,” The Huffington Post

[3]       Lioz, A., Feb. 2014, “The Government by the People Act,” Demos (http://www.demos.org/publication/government-people-act)

[4]       Maguire, R., 12/3/13, “At least 1 in 4 dark money dollars in 2012 had Koch links,” OpenSecretsblog (http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2013/12/1-in-4-dark-money-dollars-in-2012-c.html)

[5]       Blumenthal, P., 10/24/13, “California settles ‘dark money’ case,” The Huffington Post

[6]       McMorrow, P., 11/12/13, “Citizens United comes to local races,” The Boston Globe

[7]       Levenson, M., 11/12/13, “Bill would order fast disclosure of donors,” The Boston Globe

[8]       ManfromMiddletown, 2/13/14, “This is how Citizens United dies,” Daily Kos (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/02/13/1277252/-This-is-How-Citizens-United-Dies#)

[9]       Jan, T., 5/12/13, “They go to lead, but courting cash is now job 1,” The Boston Globe

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