Bad Court Ruling Opened Floodgates
For much of the last century, legislators both state and federal have wrestled with campaign reform.
Born of repeated political corruption scandals, many laws were passed to ensure the fairness of elections and to prevent moneyed interests from undue influence over the people's representatives.
In 1907, Congress prohibited corporations from using money from their treasuries to directly campaign.
Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out that law (and much more). Based on a nonbinding headnote (added by a court reporter to the decision in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company), the court ruled that corporations are people and enjoy the free speech rights of actual humans.
The result has been a dramatic increase in money flowing into political campaigns at all levels.
Out of this decision has come the super PAC, a political action committee on steroids. This new entity is allowed to collect and spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and individuals as long as they don't coordinate with candidates. While contributors are supposed to be identified eventually, the rules have some interesting loopholes that may keep those names secret until after an election and in some cases forever.
Super PACs are a true game-changer, as the recent Iowa caucuses showed. The candidates themselves were able to make mostly positive, friendly TV ads, while super PACs funded ugly, negative, often distorted messages to savage their opponents.
When challenged to explain the negative advertising, candidates were able to say that they weren't responsible for what those independent groups did. And everyone said it with a straight face.
One would be extremely naive to think that there's no link between the candidate and the super PAC supporting him. Those millions of dollars are not being spent at random, and the idea that the candidates' hands are clean is a convenient fiction.
While Newt Gingrich is reviled by those on this side of the aisle as the man who destroyed Congress' ability to legislate in the public interest, he is no fool when it comes to campaign tactics. Last week, Gingrich said of Mitt Romney's position that he's not responsible for what PACs do said, "This is a man whose staff created the PAC, his millionaire friends fund the PAC, he pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC -it's baloney. He's not telling the American people the truth."
You can safely bet that with the stakes so high and the money so readily available, office-seekers will find ways to communicate their needs to the PACs.
Iowa was the opening salvo of presidential and congressional campaigns that promise to be uglier and more divisive than any in the nation's history. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent to support (or attack) candidates without the financial disclosures that we've come to expect. Scurrilous charges and outright lies that no candidate could get away with will become common. It's difficult to see the benefit to the country from this new system.
Those of an age remember when political campaigns involved a lot of volunteers going door to door, and neighborhood lawn signs were the main advertising. Those days are long past. Television became the primary means of reaching voters, and that profoundly changed campaigning.
TV advertising requires a lot of money, even with the huge discounts Congress has forced on the media. (It is worthwhile to note that neither party has shown interest in eliminating those job-killing, bargain-basement rates.) With the need for mountains of cash came the need for endless fundraising.
Your representatives in Congress spend most of their working hours asking contributors for money. From the day they take office, they know that their re-election depends on being able to fund an expensive campaign. The need for money has largely replaced public service in the political mind. If representative government is to succeed, we must change that.
There are efforts under way in Congress to undo the damage caused by Citizens United. Whether by legislation or constitutional amendment, some in Congress are working to restore the limits on corporate influence to return elections to the people. They deserve our support.
At the moment, the Occupy movement is considering ways to reform our election system. The ideas being discussed range from familiar calls for open primaries and easier access for candidates regardless of party affiliation to more daring and innovative approaches, such as removing electoral reform from government control and instant runoff voting. The latter would likely benefit third-party candidates.
Important too is guaranteeing our citizens' right to vote. Republican efforts at voter suppression using such tactics as mandatory photo ID at the polls, reducing the number of polling places and shortening early voting periods serve to disenfranchise minorities, the elderly and college students. Voter discouragement is bad policy.
In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama called out the Supreme Court for its reckless decision, saying that it would "open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign companies - to spend without limit in our elections." Justice Alito was seen mouthing the words, "Not true."
It should have been, "We're sorry."
Jim Heim is chairman of the Moore County Democratic Party. Contact him at email@example.com.
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