2014 is looking to be a bumper year for election spending. After the Citizens United ruling in 2010, that year’s midterms became a test case for how the newly-minted Super PACs and newly-empowered “dark money” groups would use their strength. They must have liked what their spending bought them, because this year they are back with a vengeance.
According to Open Secrets, spending by outside groups as of May 6th in this election cycle has approximately tripled from the amount outside groups spent in the same time period leading up to the 2010 midterms (leaping from $16.6 million in 2010 to $72.7 million in 2014). In 2006, this number was $2.5 million – that’s a twenty-nine-fold increase in just two midterm cycles. At this rate, outside spending on this year’s midterms is set to far outpace even outside spending in the 2008 presidential election cycle.
The influence of outside spending groups has increased so much that in some races they are spending far more than the candidates themselves. Forty-nine percent of all election spending on this year’s midterms so far has come from outside spending groups. In hotly contested races, the proportion is even higher. In the North Carolina U.S. Senate race – which is the most expensive so far this cycle – 90 percent of all spending has come from outside groups, 58 percent of which are “dark money” groups not required to disclose their donors like Super PACs do.
The new era of “big money” election spending disproportionately benefits conservative candidates. Seventy-two percent of donors who had maxed out their aggregate contribution limits before the Supreme Court struck down those limits in April had contributed only to Republicans. Forty-five percent of these donors were in the finance industry. In addition, Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-linked “dark money” group, accounts for nearly one third of all independent expenditures on television advertising so far in this election cycle.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, just as reformers predicted, the Republican Party is forming “super joint fundraising committees” that pool large checks from big donors and – now unrestrained by aggregate contribution limits – redirect that money to long lists of candidate campaigns.
The consequences of the influx of “big money” into our elections are clear for the vast majority of Americans who can’t afford to write large check to candidates: they’re being squeezed out of the process. According to the Brennan Center, in current “high-dollar” federal races, only nine percent of funds have come from donations of $200 or less.
Simply put, these trends are disturbing. Even before Citizens United, it was becoming clear that money played an outsized role in our politics. The continued ability of corporations, special interests and wealthy individuals to spend limitlessly on elections calls into question the health of our democracy. The concentration of power away from the voters and towards the donor class creates the specter – and very real threat – of a Congress wholly populated by those elected by dollars, not votes.
A new analysis by a campaign finance watchdog group has revealed that wealthy donors could have flooded Wisconsin with $6 million each to candidates in 2010 and 2012 elections if the state’s $10,000 aggregate annual limit had not existed.
The Money Out/Voters In Wisconsin Coalition, of which PFAW is a member organization, highlighted the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s findings at a press conference last week reacting to the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, which was announced early last month. In McCutcheon, the court struck down aggregate federal limits on the amount wealthy donors can give to candidates, political parties, and political action committees per election cycle.
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s analysis found that without Wisconsin’s state limit of $10,000, in 2012 millionaire and billionaire donors could have given an estimated 680 times more, at least $6.8 million each to candidates in about 4,700 state and local elections, 386 PACs and 157 political committees. In 2010, the comparable number is as high as $6.1 million.
Most notably, Money Out/Voters In Wisconsin and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign noted that only about 299 individuals gave $10,000 or more to state candidates in 2010 and 2012—about .005 of 1% of Wisconsin’s 2012 population. That number included 173 people who don’t even live in Wisconsin.
Check out the video of the press conference here:
While the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United overturned decades of precedent by granting corporations the right to spend money from their corporate treasuries to help elect or defeat candidates, many pro-corporate activists believe that the ruling didn’t go far enough and seek to eviscerate even more restrictions on corporate money in elections. Opponents of campaign finance reform are spearheading efforts to allow corporations to contribute directly to candidates for office, permit political groups to keep the identity of their donors a secret, and loosen restrictions on foreigners contributing to candidates. The Supreme Court is also set to consider a major case on the constitutionality of Arizona’s clean elections laws that provide public financing for qualifying candidates. Politico reports on the Right’s “sustained assault” on campaign laws:
Not satisfied by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates to corporate-sponsored election ads, conservative opponents of campaign finance regulations have opened up a series of new legal fronts in their effort to eliminate the remaining laws restricting the flow of money into politics.
They have taken to Congress, state legislatures and the lower courts to target almost every type of regulation on the books: disclosure requirements, bans on foreign and corporate contributions and – in a pair of cases the Supreme Court will consider this month – party spending limits and public financing of campaigns.
The sustained assault, combined with the Supreme Court’s rightward tilt on the issue, has some advocates for reducing the role of money in politics fretting about the possibility of an irreversible shift in the way campaigns are regulated and funded that would favor Republicans and corporate interests in the 2012 presidential race and beyond.
“Depending on its scope, an adverse ruling from the high court could undermine public financing systems across the country and increase still further the grossly disproportionate voice given to corporations and unions in our elections,” warns a memo by Gerry Hebert and Tara Malloy, lawyers at the pro-regulation Campaign Legal Center, which filed a brief defending the Arizona law.
“Just a year after the controversial decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the Court is once again poised to issue a ruling that could make it harder for ordinary citizens to compete with big money in our democracy,” their memo predicted.
Opponents of campaign rules argue that removing restrictions allows more voices to compete in the political marketplace. And they have a slew of other suits pending that could dramatically alter the political money landscape, including one challenging a rule that limited how much the Republican National Committee could spend supporting the unsuccessful 2010 reelection campaign of former Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.).
The Supreme Court is set to decide on Friday whether to hear the case which is being handled by Jim Bopp, a Republican lawyer and leading opponent of campaign restrictions. The impact of the Cao case “could be real big,” if the court overturns the so-called coordination limits at issue, predicted Bopp, who has dozens of cases pending in courts around the country.
One seeks to advance the Citizens United ruling by challenging an Iowa law banning direct corporate contributions to state candidates, while a pair of others dispute whether non-profit groups called the Committee for Truth in Politics and The Real Truth About Obama that aired ads critical of then-candidate Barack Obama had to disclose their donors or activity.
After taking power in the House, the new Republican majority is preparing to eliminate one of the most significant efforts to ensure fair elections: the public finance system in presidential races. Instead of making the public finance system stronger, the GOP wants to do away with it altogether with little if any debate. Already, many House Republicans are pushing legislation that would allow corporations to make direct donations to candidates for public office even though “85% of voters say that corporations have too much influence over the political system today.” By eliminating the ability of campaigns to opt to receive public finances, candidates will become more, not less, dependent on the shadowy corporate dollars flowing into our elections.
Andy Kroll of Mother Jones reports on the GOP’s plan to scrap public financing of presidential campaigns:
On Wednesday, House Republicans plan to rush to the floor a bill that would eliminate the federal government's presidential financing system—in the process, violating recent pledges by the GOP's leadership of increased transparency and debate in Congress. Not one hearing has been held on the legislation, nor has a single committee debated its merits. If it passes, it will roll back more than 30 years of law born out of the Watergate scandal, eviscerating one of the few remaining protections stopping corporations from heavily influencing, if not outright buying, American elections, reform experts say.
Democratic lawmakers and campaign finance reformers blasted the bill, not only for seeking to kill public financing but for breaking the GOP's campaign promises on transparency and accountability. "This is a sneak attack on the system," says Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "It's a total break from their public pledge for transparency and openness." Fred Wertheimer, a longtime campaign finance reform advocate at Democracy 21, called the bill "a gross abuse of the legislative process."
Public financing of presidential campaigns provides matching tax dollars to the small donations received by candidates who agree to publicly finance their campaigns, instead of relying on private donations. The intent is to encourage small donations, and the burden on taxpayers isn't much: Americans can voluntarily contribute $3 to the fund on their federal tax filings. The public finance system was created in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s. After President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign was found to have illegally accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from big corporations, Congress created a public financing system so that candidates wouldn't have to rely on corporations and deep-pocketed donors to finance their campaigns.
The way reformers see it, the presidential public financing system needs repair, not repeal. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, says the amount of public funds currently available to candidates is too small to be competitive in modern presidential races. She says lawmakers need to update the system to better emphasize small donations to candidates and raise the total amount of public funding available. "Imagine if you didn't make any changes to the tax code since 1976. Of course public financing is outdated. The issue, then, is not to get rid of, but how to fix."
Update: The House of Representatives voted 239-160 to end the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, although it's chances to pass the Senate are low.
A new New York Times/CBS News survey confirms the findings of other polls taken after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United: Americans want greater transparency and stronger reforms in the political system. According to the poll, “nearly 8 in 10 Americans say it is important (including 6 in 10 who say “very important”) to limit the amount of money campaigns can spend.” This includes majorities of Democrats, independents, and even Republicans. In addition, “more than 7 in 10 of the public said spending by groups not affiliated with a candidate should be limited by law, and just 2 in 10 said it shouldn’t.”
Support for campaign transparency is so high that one must wonder if the only Americans who oppose disclosure rules are Republicans in Congress and pro-corporate lobbyists. The Times/CBS poll found that a staggering 92% of Americans believe “it is important for campaigns to be required by law to disclose how much money they have raised, where the money came from and how it was used.” Such findings corroborate the results of a Hart Research poll taken on behalf of People For the American Way, which found that 89% of voters favor “legislation that would require greater disclosure by corporations of their spending to influence elections,” and that a majority of Democrats, independents, and Republicans wants not only disclosure laws but also “limits on how much corporations can spend to influence the outcome of elections.”
The business community is increasingly calling for substantial campaign finance reform as well, as seen in a survey of business leaders conducted by the Committee for Economic Development. The poll found that 77% of business leaders “believe that corporations should disclose all of their direct and indirect political expenditures, including money provided to third party organizations to be spent on campaign ads.”
Despite the vast support of Americans and even business leaders for more openness and transparency in the political process, Republicans and corporate lobbyists continue to oppose commonsense proposals like the DISCLOSE Act. The obstructionist Republican minority in the Senate voted in lockstep to keep the DISCLOSE Act from passing, and recently the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, deceptively denied the very-existence of active political groups that do not disclose their donors.
Steele later said that “if people are that bothered by” the lack of transparency in Congress, “then the Congress needs to change it.” As People For the American Way’s President Michael B. Keegan pointed out:
The glaring problem with Steele's supposed embrace of transparent elections is that just a couple of months ago, people were "bothered by" hidden corporate spending in elections, the majority in Congress did draft a law to make that spending transparent...but Steele's party united to stop the law in its tracks just before the midterm elections.
Steele's bumbling and disingenuous response was infuriating, but it served as a perfect illustration of why Republicans have done everything they can to allow unfettered, undisclosed corporate influence in our elections. With the system as it is, Steele can watch corporate interest groups spend millions of dollars to help elect Republican candidates, and nobody is held accountable to voters.
The post-Citizens United landscape -- where corporations are allowed to spend unlimited amounts from their treasuries to run ads for and against candidates, but aren't required to disclose that spending -- has been a boon to candidates who push a pro-corporate agenda. Michael Steele knows it. And so does every candidate who is benefiting from the influx of secretive spending. They know it, but they don't have to own up to it.
The Republicans in Congress continue to reject the beliefs of nine-in-ten Americans that support disclosure and campaign finance reform, and want to tie the hands of Congress from making even basic changes to increase transparency in the system.
As the US Chamber of Commerce becomes less of a trade association and more of a pro-GOP political outfit, local chambers have become increasingly disillusioned with the national branch’s partisan turn. According to the Washington Post, the US Chamber of Commerce leads among non-party groups in campaign spending in the election: of the over $31 million so far spent by the Chamber, 93% of that money has benefited Republicans.
Many local chambers seek to distance themselves from the national Chamber and its fervent partisanship and controversial lobbying practices. People For the American Way has documented how Chamber President Thomas Donohue uses hefty contributions from big corporations to fund their massive lobby campaign and political spending. While local chambers tend to work with small businesses, the US Chamber of Commerce concentrates on promoting the interests of large corporations, including foreign-owned businesses. Daniel Denvir of AlterNet reports that local chambers are upset about how the US Chamber of Commerce’s aggressive pro-corporate and pro-GOP political work is damaging their own interests:
According to the Times, though the Chamber claims to represent 3 million businesses and 300,000 members, “nearly half of its $140 million in contributions in 2008 came from just 45 donors.” (According to an article in Mother Jones, the real number of business members is more like 200,000.)
For many local affiliates, the U.S. Chamber trades on their good name, and then besmirches it. Aggressive U.S. Chamber attack ads in Connecticut, Washington and New Hampshire have upset local chambers that rely on working relationships with members of both parties.
“I now have a standard e-mail saying we’re not a chapter of the U.S. Chamber that I have to send out a couple of times a week,” Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce president Timothy Hulbert told Washington Monthly.
Earlier this month, the Greater Hudson Chamber of Commerce in New Hampshire disaffiliated from the U.S. Chamber. Executive vice-president Jerry Mayotte told the Nashua Telegraph, “We didn’t like the fact that the U.S. Chamber was supporting particular candidates. We don’t think it’s good business practice to do so.”
The U.S. Chamber does not seem to mind alienating local chambers of commerce. A major opponent of campaign finance reform, the U.S. Chamber operates much like the post-Citizen’s United political system: one dollar, one vote.
“The truth be told is that the American political system is a pay-to-play system,” says Jaffe. “The only thing we require is disclosure: who’s behind the issues advocated by the U.S. Chamber? Who’s influencing their voice? Is it good for planet earth, good for small business? Or is it only good for one company that’s paying a lot of money to influence it?”
A classic claim of pro-corporate shills regarding Citizens United is that campaign finance reform is the equivalent to banning books and government censorship. As Chief Justice Roberts said, “we don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats.”
But what Americans are experiencing this election year is the emergence of political organizations with secret sources of funding, an increase in corporate “Astroturfing” through front groups, and an avalanche of money to run misleading advertisements across the country.
In the New York Times, Timothy Egan points out how the astronomical amount of money poured into this election is actually drowning-out the voices of citizens and distorting the democratic process. Egan writes that the Court’s decision in Citizens United “will go down in infamy” for giving corporations the right to easily and secretly fund political groups “to bludgeon the electorate” by flooding the airways with deceptive ads:
Here’s what’s happened: Spending by interest groups in this fall’s senate races has gone up 91 percent from the same period in 2008, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. At the same time, spending by political parties has fallen 61 percent.
So corporations, whose sole purpose is to return money to shareholders, were given the legal right to be “natural persons” in our elections and are now overwhelming them. But political parties, which exist to promote ideas and governing principles, have seen their voices sharply diminished.
If the hell of Colorado’s current election season is what those isolated, black-robed kingmakers on the high court had in mind, you certainly didn’t see it in the nonsense of their decision.
“We should celebrate rather than condemn the addition of this speech to the public debate,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in his concurrence of Citizens.
I can’t find any celebrating in Colorado, except by broadcasters cashing the checks of big special interest groups. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, by a large majority in the polls, agree on this: outside groups should not be allowed to dominate election spending.
The court missed the reality of what would happen once the floodgates were opened to the deepest pockets of the biggest players. They turned back a century of fine-tuning the democracy, dating to Teddy Roosevelt’s 1907 curbs, through the Tillman Act, against Gilded Age dominance of elections. They focused on a fantasy.
“The First Amendment protects more than just the individual on a soapbox or the lonely pamphleteer,” wrote Justice Roberts.
Come to Colorado, your honor. You will see that those iconic individuals don’t have a prayer in the post-Citizens-United world, let alone some broadcast time for the soapbox.
Here was the court’s prediction: “The appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.” Really? Perhaps the top complaint this year about the barrage of outside attack ads is that nobody knows who is behind them, which promotes the exact opposite of what the Roberts court predicted.
Celebrating yet? Get used to it. Though Republican-leaning special interests are currently outspending the other side by a 9-to-1 ratio, Democrats will soon follow Karl Rove’s lead and learn to bundle and hide wealthy contributors.
As ugly as 2010 has been, the next election cycle, for president in 2012, will bring us a John Roberts’s America that will make this year look like a town hall meeting from a Rockwell painting.
Citizens United empowered corporate and special interest lobbyists to spend unlimited amounts influencing elections. Not surprisingly, lobbyists hired by powerful interests are now the most vocal opponents of campaign finance reform. Roll Call reports that these lobbyists outdid themselves fighting the DISCLOSE Act:
Lobbying records make it difficult to determine exactly how much corporate interests and watchdog groups have spent trying the influence the bill since it was introduced this spring.
Still, the public disclosures clearly show that since April 1, more than 100 lobbying firms, corporations, unions, watchdog groups and trade associations have registered to influence facets of the DISCLOSE Act, which would bulk up disclosure requirements for companies, trade associations and unions that run televised political ads with unregulated money.
Since the Supreme Court decided earlier this year that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend however much they like to influence elections, groups have been attempting to use that decision to hack away at the core of federal and state campaign finance laws.
Last month, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the federal ban on soft money (unlimited contributions to political parties), a centerpiece of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill. Though that case was cut short, at least one other challenge to the law is in the works.
Now, groups at the state level are trying to use the Citizens United decision as leverage to do away with bans not only on independent expenditures by corporations, but also on corporate contributions directly to candidates’ bank accounts. 22 states, like the federal government, prohibit corporations from contributing directly to campaign committees. After Citizens United, business groups in Montana were the first out of the gates, filing suit to get rid of Montana’s 98-year old ban on both independent campaign expenditures by corporations (the spending that Citizens United allowed on the federal level) and direct corporate contributions to campaigns (which Citizens United didn’t touch).
In May, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce convinced a federal court to strike down that state’s independent expenditures ban. Now, Minnesota business interests are following the Montanans’ lead and broadening their challenge to include the state’s ban on direct contributions:
State law now allows corporations to spend money independently of campaigns on ads supporting or opposing candidates, an arrangement that the U.S. Supreme Court approved early this year.
But the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and Coastal Travel Enterprises seek to go beyond that ruling and allow direct contributions to candidates by corporations.
"Our clients believe ... that the First Amendment gives corporations ... the right to contribute to candidates and political parties through their general treasury funds," said Joe La Rue, an attorney for the plaintiffs, who sued this week in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.
In Citizens United, the Supreme Court clearly created a slippery slope of corporate money in politics. State-level bans on independent spending by corporations have been the first to go. Will guards against corporate-to-candidate contributions—and the very clear appearance of corruption that they create—be next