There is too much money flowing through the American electoral system. And it is corrupting the legislative process. According to OpenSecrets.org, candidates for the Senate and House had raised more than $550 million for their campaigns through June 3 – more than a million dollars per House and Senate seat. And this does not take into account the millions in independent expenditures being made both by individuals and committees.
In theory, the contributions come without strings. Congressional and Senate candidates aren’t trading favors with the men and women who fund their campaigns, right? I mean, we don’t have candidates – including Democrats – taking large amounts of Wall Street money and then looking for ways to gut financial regulations. And the money donated hedge-fund crew – who has a lot of money invested in for-profit charter schools around the country – has no influence over school reform legislation.
Things were made worse in April when the US Supreme Court doubled down on its 2010 money-is-speech ruling and eviscerated what was left of federal campaign finance rules. The McCutcheon ruling, like the 2010 Citizen United ruling, assumes that money and speech are the same things and that efforts to place limits on the amount spent or the manner in which is spent violates the First Amendment. Senate Democrats say they want to clean up the system by amending the Constitution to overturn recent Supreme Court rulings and return to Congress the power to regulate campaign money. The amendment – Senate Joint Resolution 19 — is pretty straightforward: It would grant Congress and the states the “power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents.”
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who introduced the amendment, said in April that it would “restore integrity in our election system.”
“Our government should be of, by and for the people — not bought and paid for by secret donors and special interests,” he said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) agreed. During a committee hearing in June, according to the New York Times, Leahy said the courts opened the flood gates and that an amendment was necessary to keep the voices of “hard-working Americans” from being “drowned in a series of corporate special interests and a flood of campaign ads on television.”
I am sympathetic to the arguments, but I am concerned that the instrument they have chosen leaves the essential contradiction – that money and speech are the same thing – in place. The amendment – which is unlikely to pass – will create the appearance of having addressed the problem while enshrining failed approaches in the Constitution.
The problem is that money and speech are not the same. Money is a currency. It is used to purchase goods and services, including not only campaign or issue ads, but influence and power – especially in an electoral system dependent on the raising of massive amounts of cash. This brings me back to the question of corruption, which the court said in McCutcheon is the lone excuse for regulating campaign money. Chief Justice John Roberts, as Dahlia Lithwick said at Slate.com April 2 after the ruling came down, defined corruption purely as a quid pro quo relationship – as the buying of specific action on the part of the elected official.
But that misconstrues the relationship. Some hedge-fund managers may expect – and often get — very specific legislation in return for their contributions. Under the Roberts definition, however, this would qualify as corruption only if there was a promise, if the contribution was given as a bribe.
What Roberts ignores is the larger corruption at play – the corruption of access. Money may or may not buy specific legislation, but it certainly buys access. If you give a candidate oodles of cash, the candidate is likely to remember you when he is comfortably nestled into his new office. He’ll take your call, while allowing some low-level staffer to handle the requests from the 500,000 or so other residents of his district, the ones without the money.
Call it the amplification principle – you have money, so your voice echoes more loudly through the halls of power, which in turn gives you more power to influence decisions than most of the rest of us. My rights, therefore, have been tied to the size of my bank account, which ultimately leaves me with less of a voice in our democracy. The answer? Regulating the flow of money and requiring a higher level of transparency are not bad things, but they are imperfect tools and have failed over the years to ensure that everyone has a chance to have their voices heard. I remain committed to the notion that our elections should not be funded by private individuals and businesses, but instead be publicly funded. Take away the need to raise massive amounts of money and you cut the cord that connects money and influence.
This is imperfect, as well, but it gets at the heart of the problem, though the chances of this passing nationally are miniscule without grassroots muscle. To that end, I would encourage anyone concerned with the influence money has over out politics to consider working with Move to Amend (movetoamend.org) or Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday PAC (mayday.us), which are taking different approaches to reaching the same goal.
Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. He writes for NJ Spotlight and teaches journalism and writing at Rutgers University and Middlesex County College. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org; blog, www.kaletblog.com; Twitter, @newspoet41; Facebook, facebook.com/hank.kalet.
From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2014
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