Money in politics and corruption. They’re all connected are they not? To the casual observer, we see how big donors influence our politicians on a daily basis. It seems like common sense legislation is proposed, only to see it go down to defeat. We see poll after poll where the people in America voice their opinions on a variety of subjects, which in fact mirror legislation being proposed in Congress. Yet, once that legislation gets to the Senate … it dies. Or, it may never even get brought up for a vote in the House of Representatives. Either way, the people are left lurching in the wind. Congress dithers and argues. Nothing gets done.
What the hell is going on?
As with many issues, only when you look at it from a historical perspective can you begin to understand why things are the way they are. Money in politics is no different.
After the Watergate scandal, Congress embarked on a series of reforms aimed at regulating our campaign finance system. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 tried to place limits on campaign expenditures. But a landmark decision soon followed in 1976, which would pave the way for even more radical decisions such as Citizens United v. FEC in 2010, and McCutcheon v. FEC in 2014.
Buckley v. Valeo changed everything. In essence, the 1976 decision asserted that congressional limits on campaign spending represented an unconstitutional violation of free speech. Also, the decision eliminated spending limits on wealthy individuals who paid for their own campaigns. While the decision still left intact governments ability to require spending limits of presidential candidates who accepted federal funds, the floodgates were now officially opened.
So what immediate effect did Buckley have on Congress? First, according to the recent book, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin Kruse and Julian Zeilzer, it created a new political climate in which very wealthy candidates would have an outsized advantage over candidates without a personal fortune. Second, since the ruling allowed independent expenditures from groups unaffiliated with a candidates campaign, it encouraged business leaders to take an active and direct role in politics themselves.
And it’s that second point where the root of today’s problems lie. According to Fault Lines, Between 1971 and 1982, the number of individual businesses with full-time registered lobbyists in Washington soared from 175 to 2,445. Not only that, but the ruling also ushered in the explosion of companies forming political action committees, or PACs. At that time it was mainly labor unions who had used PACs to influence politicians. However, after Buckley, businesses pounced on the opportunity to expand their influence. In 1974, there were just 89 business PACs. By 1980, that number exploded to 1,204. And, those businesses contributed $19 million to pro-business politicians.
And where are we today? Well, according to OpenSecrets.org, in 2018, over $3.4 billion was spent, and there were 11,586 registered lobbyists. Ironically, up until Trump’s election in 2016, the number of registered lobbyists had been going down in recent years, and the amount of money spent has been relatively consistent since 2008. Recently, we’ve seen a slight uptick. But it really doesn’t matter.
The numbers are what they are, and it boggles the mind when you think about it.
Billions of dollars are spent each year now. And, when you look at the industries that are spending this money, we get a better sense of what and why our politicians act the way they do. In 2018 alone, here are just a few examples of the kind of money we’re talking about: Real Estate-$103 million … Telecom Services-$87 million … Pharmaceuticals-$277 million … Securities and Investment-$97 million … Oil and Gas- $126 million. And on and on it goes.
Of course, politicians tell us all the time that these contributions have nothing to do with how they vote in Congress. Frankly, it’s hard to look at them with a straight face when they say such things. The bottom line is that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that our politics are infected with big money. When you see it right in front of you in black and white, it’s not hard to figure out. The question then becomes: What are we the American people going to do about it?
There are no easy answers. If there were, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in right now. Some politicians are banging the drum for reform. Unfortunately, it seems to be coming from one side of the aisle, at least on a consistent basis. A case in point, recently Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell produced a bill that would eliminate the estate tax altogether. Mind you, the threshold for this tax was recently raised to $22 million in the Republican tax cut bill from 2017. In other words, only those couples who inherited estates over that amount would be subject to the tax. Only a select few families in the United States of America would be on the hook for this tax, yet Mitch McConnell decided that this is one of the first bills he would introduce.
Why? Who is he fighting for? What wealthy families are in his ear about this? Do we really think that Mitch McConnell will ever let a substantive campaign finance reform bill come to the floor?
We see it time after time. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to lower prescription drug prices by letting Medicare negotiate with the drug companies? Nope. Sorry. It couldn’t possibly be the millions those companies have showered upon candidates and political action committees could it?
And, how about a universal background check on guns? Yes that should be easy since over 80% of the public supports it. Once again … it never happens. It’s pretty simple why: the NRA doesn’t want it to.
It’s the money. It’s always about the money.