The Role of Money in American Politics
Written by Leslie Dorantes
February 13, 2020
The influence of money in politics has become a sizeable issue that many of the 2020 candidates are running on. However, money’s adverse effects in politics is no new concept; today, millions of dollars are donated by individual donors to political candidates. As a result, candidates pass legislation with their donors in mind rather than the American public. Money’s influence on political ethics in American politics is an issue that has slowly worsened, as ties with Political Action Committees (PACs) and corporate money surmount candidates’ concerns for the welfare of the American public.
After the Watergate scandal, the depletion of American confidence in the government led to the passing of new, stricter campaign finance laws. At this time, seven amendments were added to the Federal Election Campaign Act. Before Watergate, there was an institute on disclosure requirements for federal candidates, political parties, and PACs of donations over 100 dollars. There were also spending limits for candidates and their families, which applied to presidents, vice presidents, senate candidates, and house candidates. This was the creation of the Bipartisan Federal Election Commission, which oversees and enforces the law. For a while, these regulations were considerably effective in limiting the influence of money in politics.
In 1976, Senator James Buckley from New York, along with others, challenged a number of the 1974 amendments to the FECA, alleging that the spending limits violated their free speech. The challenge was taken to the Supreme Court in Buckley vs. Valeo, who upheld the limits on contributions from individuals, disclosure rules, and the public financing of campaigns, saying they maintain the integrity of elections and prevent corruption. However, the Court struck down spending limits imposed on candidates, as well as individuals or groups. To comply with Supreme Court ruling in Buckley vs. Valeo, Congress amended FECA. The amendments repealed spending limits on individual candidates, as well as the amount individuals are permitted to give to PACs. In 1979, additional amendments were added to the FECA, where they continued to weaken the law by creating a loophole that allowed individuals, unions, and corporations to give unlimited sums of money to parties and national party committees for “party building” purposes. This phenomenon would later become known as “soft money.” The idea that a corporation has the right to free speech creates a cycle of corrupt politicians who work not for the people, but for themselves and their profit margins.
Next, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission was taken to the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 rule, the court found that the government cannot restrict the spending of corporations, unions, and other groups for political campaigns, maintaining that it is the Constitutional right of the citizens to support candidates as they choose. This allowed for the proliferation of Super PACs, which opened the unlimited amounts of money that would later be poured into political campaigns, all while dismantling McCain and Feingold finance laws (Encyclopedia Britannica). This shift elucidates money’s increasingly detrimental influence on politics as, during this period, there was an unlimited amount of money that could have very well been donated to candidates running for office.
Thus, the balance of power has shifted more and more toward outside spending groups such as Super PACs, as well as dark money, as PACs quickly grow to surpass National Party Committees as the top outside spending groups (Brennan Center for Justice). In 2018, the top three outside spending groups were establishment-connected Super PACs. Since 2010, each election cycle has been breaking new records; the most expensive House and Senate races before Citizens United were 3 million for the house and 24 million for the Senate. In 2018, outside spending was at 34 million dollars for the house and almost 93 million dollars for the senate.
Evidently, American elections have been influenced by money in adventitious ways. Today, Citizens United is a central scapegoat for the influence of money on politics. Not only do Super PACS have no obligation to disclose their donors, but they can accept unlimited contributions from dark money nonprofits that are not required to disclose transaction information. In addition, there has been a rise in mega-donors. In 2010, the top individual donor gave out 7.6 million dollars to candidates and groups. In 2018, the Adlesons gave 123 million dollars, Michael Bloomberg gave 90 million dollars, and Tom Steyer gave 70 million dollars, two of which are now running for president (Covington).
A recent study shows that 81% of individuals support a constitutional amendment overturning the court’s decisions (The Atlantic). Today, many politicians see that this is an issue that Americans are invested in. Bernie Sanders has decided to avoid taking any money from fossil fuels, corporate PACs and Super PACs. Other candidates have also followed this ideology, with Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren having sworn off fossil fuel money, corporate PACs, Super PACs and federal lobbyists (OpenSecrets).
The issue of money in politics continues to grow in America, but there are some candidates who appear to be making conscious efforts toward fixing it. Today, our only option as non-wealthy individuals in America is to go out and vote. Volunteering and working on campaigns will boost voter turnout so real politicians, with far more than financial gain in mind, can take office and make substantial change. By doing our part, Americans can phase out corrupt politicians and free the nation from the stronghold of corporate influence, thus redirecting focus on real American issues.