While the U.S. government shutdown occupied most of the news cycle these past few weeks, an extremely important case was argued in front of the Supreme Court. The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, is a challenge to the constitutionality of limiting federal campaign contributions, to both individual candidates and political parties. With the shutdown averted, at least temporarily, perhaps the focus can shift to solving the real problem in Washington: money in politics.
First, let’s look at the statistics: during the 2012 campaign cycle, House and Senate candidates combined to raise over $1.8 billion dollars, while presidential candidates raised more than $1.3 billion. This does not include spending by Political Action Committees (PAC’s), which, on behalf of various candidates and causes, spent more than a billion dollars during the cycle. While these numbers are shocking in and of themselves, what is more preposterous is how hard it is to beat an incumbent. House incumbents lose on average only when a challenger spends more than $2.4 million dollars. While small contributions from local community members are important, no one can seriously suggest the possibility of raising $2.4 million dollars without corporate or special interest help. And here lies the problem.
Candidates for public office almost always have the best intentions in mind, hoping to change their community, and the country, for the better. The problem is that no politician can be even remotely successful without the backing of mega-rich donors or special interest groups. A Congressman who received a large donation from a Wall Street firm is highly unlikely to vote for something against the interests of Wall Street, even if that person is vehemently opposed to the idea. Similarly, a politician can be coerced into voting for something against their interests if a large PAC or corporation threatens to run negative advertisements in their district or contribute to a challenger. These practices are entirely legal, and the only people who could change the law are the ones who benefit from the system. The only hope, then, lies in the courts.
In August of 2010, the Supreme Court made one of the worst decisions in its long history, stating in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations, like people, had a right to free speech, and that contributing infinite amounts of money to PAC’s was a legitimate part of that. The basis of their reasoning comes from the notion that the First Amendment not only protects individuals but groups of individuals, and that dissemination of money is an important part of the freedom of speech. Though its constitutionality is dubious, its practical implications are far more devastating. Rich mega-donors can donate millions (or potentially billions) of dollars to candidates, with the assurance that they can hold power over that candidate during the duration of their office. Now, with McCutcheon v. FEC, the potential for even more power going to the rich is growing.
If citizens want the government to end gridlock and start to compromise like rational individuals, then immediate action is needed. Firstly, a constitutional amendment reversing Citizens United (and potentially McCutcheon, depending on the final ruling) should be brought before Congress and the individual states. Representative Theodore Deutch and Senator Bernie Sanders have introduced legislation to amend the constitution, but the bill died in conference. The DISCLOSE Act introduced by Charles Schumer sought to make corporations release more information and make sure foreign owned corporations could not contribute, but after passing in the House the bill “lost” in the Senate, despite receiving 59 votes. Sixteen states have called for Congress to send them an amendment to ratify, and hundreds of local communities around the country have passed resolutions against corporate personhood. As great as this is, Congress needs to take the initiative and citizens need to use their power to urge them to do so.
This is not an easy issue to tackle. The people who need to change the broken system are the ones who revel in its ineptitude. But no issue currently facing the United States is as important. Every single issue that comes before Congress is influenced by money, and the highest bidder is often the winner. The Supreme Court, and, through their inaction, Congress, have established an uneven playing field where one billionaire can hold the same power as thousands of regular citizens. Our democracy is under attack, and the lack of overwhelming outrage from citizens is just as frightening as the future of politics in this country.