With more than a billion dollars spent by each of the major candidates for president in 2012, it must be asked if donors of such large amounts see their contributions as an investment rather than a donation.
In the 2012 general elections, $57,898,751.39 in “dark money” — money from groups that do not disclose their donors or are forced to disclose their race spending until 60 days of an election — went to fund a dozen high-profile House races, as calculated through Nov. 1, 2012. This is a small part of the more than $213 million in “dark money” that made it into the 2012 House, Senate and presidential elections.
While the 2010 Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission weakened campaign donation rules by allowing unlimited donations to political action committees, the truth is that campaign financing was flawed prior to Citizens United. The campaign financing laws of the 1970s and 80s — created after allegations of gross violations of donation limits during the candidacy of Richard Nixon — were undid by a number of “workarounds” — including the introduction of PACs and “soft money” contributions to political parties.
In 2008, Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to opt-out of public campaign financing. With a glut of corporate and private donors, Obama took a path that was duplicated by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 and a number of congressional candidates, in which a limited number of donors contribute large sums of money indirectly into a candidate’s coffers. With more than a billion dollars spent by each of the major candidates for president in 2012, one must ask if the donors of such large amounts actually see their contributions as an investment, rather than a donation.
In the House, a coalition of representatives would like to see the influence of mega-donors and “dark money” disappear in House races. On Wednesday, the House Democrats announced a public financing bill that would introduce a voluntary small-donation matching-fund system in place for House elections, similar to the successful public financing system in place in New York City.
“Government by the people”
Introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes and supported by the House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the bill would set up a system that would match donations up to $150 at a rate of six-to-one — meaning that a $100 donation will net $600 in matching funds. If a candidate agrees to only accept small donations, the matching fund rate grows to nine-to-one.
If a candidate were to raise $50,000 or more within the last 60 days of his or her candidacy using only small donations — suggesting that he or she is in a high-cost race — additional resources would become available. Finally, a $25 tax credit would be made available for small donors.
“If you create a system that makes the small donors the linchpin of the system in terms of how members of Congress directly raise the funds for their campaigns, then it gives everyday citizens much more of a role — a leveraging role — in the funding of those campaigns,” Sarbanes said in an interview with Politico.
Democrats have more to gain from controlling the role of “dark money” in elections. Per an analysis of the 2012 elections by the Sunlight Foundation, 81 percent of all “dark money” contributed went to Republican candidates. While both parties have availed themselves of the use of PACs and “soft-money” donations, the Republicans have overwhelming made the most use of lobbyist funds and corporate contributions. The tea party, overwhelmingly, has been benefited most by “mega-donors” contributions and hidden funding.
As such, the “Government by the People Act of 2014” is unlikely to make it to the House’s floor. Congressional Republicans have made no indication that it would consider campaign finance reform this year, and — in an election year — support of such a bill is likely to antagonize the tea party. The Republicans have opposed every significant campaign finance reform since 2002.
In addition, this bill will expand the size and power of the FEC and create an expensive new expenditure in the federal budget — two points that sequestration-minded Republicans will balk at. However, many feel that simply bringing attention to the issue is important — even if legislative change is currently impossible.
“The energy you gather from just organizing transfers into the next session,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, a co-sponsor of the “Government by the People Act.” “If we get a majority then, then the moment might be right, but if we don’t organize on the front end, it would be one of those great ideas that should have passed but never does because we just didn’t have enough forces to do it.”
Begging and concessions
In 2012, $720,383,765 was donated to congressional races from individual donors. Of this, $538,409,646 was donated from donors who gave more than $200; $396,963,972 was given by donors donating more than $1,000, and $233,321,096 was offered by donors giving more than $2,500, as reported by Demos.
This creates a situation in which — in order to finance their campaigns — candidates must “sell” themselves to a small group of high-value donors, who likely have different opinions and perspectives to the rest of the candidate’s constituency.
“Every night I would lock myself in a room with a bag of chips and some strong coffee and make my calls, homing in on people who could ideally give me at least $500 or $1,000 or more,” wrote Demos president Miles Rapoport, in reflection on his time as a Connecticut state legislator. “And, when I was talking with these potential donors I found that their problems and concerns weren’t the same as the majority of folks I was looking to represent in Congress. I heard a lot about how excessive regulations were strangling their business or health care costs for their workers were a real burden. I was running as a progressive candidate and so my first instinct was to say, ‘now wait a minute, that’s not exactly right.’ But, my goal on the phone was to get the contribution.
“So, by the end of the night, I found myself saying things like “well, that’s an interesting point you make and when I’m in Washington you should come by and we can talk more about that.” I wasn’t changing my positions, exactly, but there was definitely a shift in emphasis, and I could feel myself shifting as I spent more and more time talking to a very narrow set of wealthy donors. My sense of what was pressing and important may have been affected, and my sense of what types of positions I needed to be open to in order to win my race and get into Congress was certainly affected.”
With a politician spending as much as three to four hours a day while campaigning actively fundraising, this creates a situation in which a candidate can become susceptible to agreeing to favors and policy shifts — especially, in money-intensive races or in campaigns that have ran low on available cash. This creates the perception that “the fix is in” — politicians pursue policies that will make donors happy and more willing to contribute in subsequent re-elections — even if the policies being pushed are roundly rejected by the politician’s constituency.
“Most people who run for public office do so out of a sincere desire to help others and make a difference in their community and in our country,” wrote Pelosi and Sarbanes in a Feb. 4 op-ed in the Washington Post. “Many of us are deeply frustrated at the huge amounts of money it takes to run for office and the distorting effect money has on the functioning of government.
“We know that if the role of money in our elections were reduced and the level of civility in our politics increased, the result would be the election of more women, more minorities, more young people and more people dedicated to serving the public interest, not special interests,” Pelosi and Sarbanes continued. “Most members of Congress would leap at the chance to fund their campaigns without having to turn to a familiar cast of big donors and entrenched interests. Today, that’s virtually impossible.”