Corporate Accountability

Democracy in the balance

by John Diaz

Campaign finance law is often dismissed by people in politics as the obsession of a narrow class: law professors, good-government groups, a few overly earnest elected officials and, yes, editorial writers. I’ve seen more than a few candidates and consultants shrug at stories about special-interest dominance of campaigns, whether from corporate sources on the right or labor unions on the left.


Here is why all Americans should care: The post-Watergate principles that contributions to political campaigns should be both limited and transparent to voters are in grave danger of becoming obsolete.


So what does it mean for our everyday lives when money dominates policy decisions?


It means that the frustration you feel with Sacramento and Washington is no accident. A California Legislature with a Democratic supermajority beholden to organized labor is going to resist meaningful education or pension reform no matter how many phone calls you make. A Republican-controlled House of Representatives is going to defer to the financial institutions and oil companies that underpin their power no matter how angry you get about precarious lending practices or the perils of fracking and offshore drilling.


You may worry about your loss of privacy, but guess who has the ear of state and federal legislators of both parties? The people who exploit your personal information for profit. They contribute – and they usually prevail.


Do you care yet?


If you haven’t before, you should now. The integrity of our democratic process is facing an unprecedented challenge.


The 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case blew an enormous hole in the ability of our elected representatives to constrain campaign spending. It upheld the right of a corporation or labor union to spend an unlimited amount on an independent effort on behalf of a candidate. That ruling gave rise to the 2012 phenomenon of the “super PACs” that essentially ran parallel campaigns for the major parties. If casino magnate Sheldon Adelson wanted to spend $60 million helping Mitt Romney – as he did – there was no law stopping him.


Left intact, however flimsily, were laws that put limits on direct contributions to candidates.


Now even those limits are under challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court.


A case to watch in the coming term is McCutcheon vs. FEC, which challenges the $123,200 overall limit on federal-level contributions to political parties and candidates in an election cycle.


Shaun McCutcheon, an energy entrepreneur from Alabama, has argued that it’s unfair to limit the number of races to which he can contribute. If the current $2,600-per-race limit is sufficient to guard against corruption against any given candidate, his attorneys contend, then it hardly matters whether he participates in one or all 435 congressional campaigns.


“This is simply naive,” Tara Malloy of the Campaign Legal Center said in a conference call last week.


The reality is that federal laws are quite loose about transferring funds after they are sent to a candidate or political party. This process is so common that it hardly merits a news story when contributions are shifted from someone in a leadership post or safe district into one of a party’s priority races.


If the aggregate limits were lifted, McCutcheon or any other wealthy contributor could donate more than $3.5 million to federal candidates and party committees in 50 states during a single election cycle.


“It’s just simply counter to common sense to think this amount of money could be given without winning the benefactor enormous influence and perhaps government largesse and congressional action,” Malloy said.


It’s also counter to what the framers of the U.S. Constitution had in mind when they warned against the corruption of the government by and for the people they were creating. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have tended to frame corruption, as a justification for campaign-finance restraints, in a narrow way: a direct quid pro quo between donor and candidate.


Yet Elizabeth Wydra of the Constitutional Accountability Center said her group’s scrutiny of the framers’ references to corruption show that the founding fathers had a more expansive interpretation: Their concern was elected officials’ “improper dependence” on influences other than the people they were elected to serve.


“It’s important to note that the American people intuitively know what the founders themselves believed: that big money in politics is a problem not just because it could lead to bribery or money-for-votes types scandals, but also because of the way it corrodes the people’s faith in our elections and our government,” Wydra said.


It’s impossible to predict how the Roberts court might rule in McCutcheon. The outcome of Citizens United does not inspire confidence. But it’s not too early to contemplate a constitutional amendment that would reassert the right of the people, through their elected representatives in Congress, to impose restraints on campaign contributions and spending that undermine the independence and accountability that the framers envisioned for our government.