It doesn’t seem too long ago that former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Al Gore were battling for Florida and the United States presidency. At the time, citizens all over the country were amazed by the amount of money that had been raised — more than $300 million. I don’t think most people realized how much campaign finance could change over the span of 10 years.
During the 2012 presidential election, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney raised record amounts of money for their campaign war chests: $1.072 billion and $992.5 million, respectively. These numbers don’t include the amount of money that so-called super political action committees spent to campaign for and against each candidate. Today, this spending is out of control and must be reined in.
After the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court case, election finance changed tremendously. The Justices in a 5-4 decision decided that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not prevent corporations or unions from spending money to support or oppose individual candidates. This has allowed super PACs and qualified non-profit corporations to fund campaigns. Meanwhile, according to Harvard Law Prof. Lawrence Lessig, as of 2012, “.26 percent of Americans give more than $200 in a congressional campaign; .05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate; and .01 percent — the 1 percent of the 1 percent — give more than $10,000 in an election cycle.”
One major problem with current campaign finance reform is that candidates have become more focused on fundraising that legislating. Now more so than ever, instead of trying to gain the support of the American people, political candidates have to focus on appealing to the donors who will provide the largest contributions. As a result, Americans have a government that is, according to Lessig, “not dependent upon the People alone, but that is also dependent upon the Funders.” This dependency on donors also prevents strong third-party candidates from having their voices heard on a national stage.
Additionally, candidates don’t have to disclose their donors or their expenses. Peter Schweizer, president of the Government Accountability Institute, said in an article in USA Today candidates don’t have to disclose the names of their ‘bundlers,’ or those who collect donations from multiple donors. Currently, lobbying groups and organizations can obtain money without having to worry about revealing their donors, which makes it easier for these groups to gain government contracts, loans and jobs.
Despite these glaring problems, Congress has been slow to pass any significant legislation. Last summer, Washington tried to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which would have “required groups making more than $10,000 in campaign-related expenditures to disclose contributors who had donated more than $10,000.” However, Congress failed to pass the bill, after a Republican filibuster. While this bill would have been an important step in the right direction, it wouldn’t completely solve the problem at hand, since groups wouldn’t be forced to disclose all of their donors. After the DISCLOSE Act, there has not been a significant push to pass legislation related to this important issue.
Even though Congress has been slow, there are potential solutions that could level the playing field for candidates. Overturning Citizens United would be an obvious solution but is unlikely given the current composition of the Court. Beyond that, if Congress can come to an agreement, full disclosure should be employed along with harsher restrictions on the amount super PACs can spend. Candidates would have to be more careful about their fundraising sources. At the same time, they would be able to focus on the important issues and appeal to their constituents more. Furthermore, since candidates are running for public office, Americans have the right to know the donors.
Another alternative would require that ordinary Americans insist their members of Congress legislation that requires disclosure and spending limits. This would help set up a possible challenge to Citizens United once the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court changes. Adding public pressure to the equation may force Congress to get this done. Clearly, there’s interest in getting legislation passed, but there needs to be a push and the public could be just that.
Campaign finance has been one of many issues that Congress has continued to put on the back burner. The longer we put off reform, the more it will hurt our government. In the near future, I hope we can get back to allowing candidates to focus on the important issues of the day as opposed to fundraising all over the country for several years.
Paul Sherman can be reached at email@example.com.