The Best Government Money Can Buy
When it comes to modern politics, money talks.
The 2020 election was the most expensive in history, with candidates spending $14.4 billion on their campaigns. Likewise, they invest up to four hours per day soliciting contributions. And for good reason—in the last 20 years, Congressional candidates who spent the most money on their campaigns won 86 percent of the time.
While wealth has dominated politics since the beginning, what was once a means of supporting grassroots election efforts has morphed into a multi-billion dollar bribery system where Super-PACS and non-profit “dark money” buys votes.
The creep of money into politics has been so slow and insidious, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where we went wrong or how we can find the way out.
The Golden Age
Money and politics have always always been bedfellows. After the country’s formation, wealthy, well-connected candidates financed their own campaigns, often giving voters gifts to ply them. George Washington, for example, offered free whiskey to encourage votes—something that would be illegal today.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that candidates began soliciting donations from their supporters. They did so with clear motives, often brazenly exchanging money and votes for the promise of jobs and government appointments. In 1896, William McKinley received $16 million in donations—over $300 million today—and was widely criticized for his promises of corporate-friendly decisions in exchange for cash. McKinley’s chief fundraiser, Mark Hanna, is quoted as saying “There are two things important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”
As a result of big business openly lining political pockets with exorbitant campaign donations, Congress passed several measures to block corporations from directly contributing to political campaigns, including the 1907 Tillman Act and the 1935 Public Utilities Holding Act.
The period between World War 2 and Vietnam is what I call “the golden age” of campaigning, because it struck a balance between participation and regulation. While candidates were still raising money, they spent significantly less time doing so.
But subsequent court decisions such as Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 opened various loopholes in the finance process, including removing spending limits and mandatory requirements to participate in the heavily-regulated presidential election program.1
Soft Money & Super PACs
One of the big reasons fundraising has taken such a prominent place in campaigns is a shift in where the money comes from.
In the mid 20th century, the majority of money raised came from individuals or small organizations that advocated for local issues. Now, the primary funding comes from large corporations and conglomerates.
But weren’t corporate campaign contributions outlawed in the 1930s? Enter the PAC.
PACs, or Political Action Committees, began cropping up in the 1940s as a way to circumvent campaign finance laws. The first PAC was the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a non-profit organization formed by union workers to raise money for the re-election of Franklin Roosevelt. Since it was illegal to donate directly from the union coffers, the CIO solicited contributions from union members instead. Larger companies followed suit and still contribute to campaigns today, including AT&T, American Crystal Sugar, and Comcast.
The Federal Election Commission quickly closed PAC loopholes, placing caps on the amount each could contribute to individual campaigns, which caused yet another shift in strategy.
Election laws stated companies couldn’t contribute directly to candidates, but they could donate to a political party for “party building activities.” This “soft money” had no limit and little oversight, meaning corporations and unions could donate as much as they wished, and that money could be used by the party on behalf of the candidate. The use of soft money in campaigns ballooned in the 1990s, when big donors received favors like overnight stays in the White House’s Lincoln bedroom in exchange for contributions to the Democratic party during Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign.
When Congress passed a series of reforms regulating the use of soft money to run campaigns in the early 2000s, fundraisers once again had to adjust their tactics. They realized if a PAC didn’t contribute to an individual OR political party, it could operate outside FEC regulations. These organizations became known as super PACs.
A super PAC is an independent group that collects funds and uses them to run ads specifically advocating for the election or defeat of a specific candidate. Since no money gets transferred to the candidate themselves, super PACS are not limited to how much they can collect or where the money comes from. Despite seeming like a significant violation of campaign finance laws, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 2010’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that super PACs were legal as long as there was no communication or employee overlap between the PAC and the candidate’s campaign. The New York Times wrote in an editorial: “The Supreme Court has handed lobbyists a new weapon. A lobbyist can now tell any elected official: if you vote wrong, my company will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election.”
According to OpenSecrets.org, a non-profit that tracks campaign finance data, nearly 2,300 super PACs raised $3.4 billion during the 2020 election cycle.
More Money, More Problems
Why is this such a big deal? Who cares where the money comes from?
Because candidates have to raise so much money in order to be competitive—most begin their re-election campaigns the day after they’re elected—it means a significant chunk of their time must be devoted to schmoozing large donors. Many leave town Thursday afternoon and spend the long-weekend campaigning, which means less time for legislating and developing relationships across the aisle. And since FEC regulations bar members of Congress from campaigning on Capitol property, many prominent candidates have offices across the street from the Capitol so they can pop across the street and dial for dollars on their lunch break.
A more serious issue is the influx of large, unregulated sums of money from corporate entities and super PAC support. These organizations are smarter than trying to outright bribe a candidate to support their cause; they simply back the candidate whose platform and voting record already support it. This practice isn’t illegal, but it’s an ethical gray area that distorts the political process.
In a similar manner, super PACs have also begun throwing money behind the federal judge appointment process in an attempt to impact the judicial branch. During confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., made a presentation suggesting conservatives bought their 6-3 majority by spending $250 million of what he called “dark money.” Whitehouse makes the case that conservatives have targeted and groomed young right-wing judges in the federal court system and support their nominations, as well as sponsor cases in conservative appellate courts on cases where they want the Supreme Court to make a decision.
Why is this dangerous? It exacerbates the trend of using the Supreme Court—a body designed to check the power of the legislative and executive branches—as a political football. From 1937 to 1990, only one nominee2 received fewer than 62 votes, and 15 were unanimously confirmed. Since then, only Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993) and Stephen Breyer (1994) were confirmed by an overwhelming majority. The last three nominees were confirmed by razor-thin margins: Neil Gorsuch 54-45; Brett Kavanaugh 50-48; Amy Coney Barrett 52-48. With recent nominees becoming more outwardly partisan—and significantly younger—politicians can now influence the courts to uphold legislation that might be otherwise deemed unconstitutional by a more objective panel.
Money’s Middle Ground
There are a few ways we can quell the exponential spending we’ve seen in the last few years. Offering a higher level of public funding would make opting for the presidential election program more appealing. Likewise, a “matching program,” where the government would match private donations, would encourage candidates to pursue smaller private donations instead of corporate gifts that may come with favors attached. Both options give the candidate the opportunity to campaign on a “clean money” platform, which should carry its own weight.
Yet another proposal would be to give voters “democracy dollars”—a series of vouchers funded from public money that can be anonymously pledged to the voters’ chosen candidates. Such a program was recently implemented in Seattle for municipal elections and part of presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s platform in 2020.
Transparency about the origins of super PAC and “dark money” would go a long way. Many have joked that politicians should emblazon their donors’ names on their clothes. “Maybe we should be like NASCAR with the little patches on the back,” Robin Williams quipped in his 2006 political comedy “Man of the Year.”
A more drastic option would be passing a Constitutional amendment reforming many of the practices candidates use today. Several have been proposed in the last decade that would eliminate corporate contributions and shut down super PACS, but none have gained Congressional traction.
Ultimately, waiting for politicians to self-police their own campaign finance strategies is futile. Candidates know in order for them to win, they must lap at the corporate trough. The impetus for change must come from the voters. They must apply pressure to their representatives, demanding officials spend less time raising money and more time governing.
What’s Your Take?
I’ve shared my perspective on campaign finance, and I want to hear yours. What steps can we take to make campaign finances more fair?
This post is the second of a three-part series on the current state of our elections. The final post will address the election process itself.
The presidential election program is a fund financed by public tax dollars that eligible candidates can use for campaign expenses. For more information on how candidates can use the funding, visit this site.