Antidotes to the Poison of Campaign Finance

By Timothy E. Wirth

Secret and corrupting funding will always try to find a way into politics, but as in the past, our democracy can survive and succeed if citizens and their leaders push back.

Thank you for inviting me – it is good to be back with the Conference on World Affairs, where I was privileged to participate for a decade or more.

I am delighted to share this platform with David Skaggs; through his work and example, David has done as much as anyone to restore civility and cooperation to our democracy.

I don’t know how many of you remember – or are old enough to remember — exactly what you were doing 30 years ago today. I bet David Skaggs can, because at that date we were both almost certainly raising money for our respective campaigns. David was in a hotly contested primary and happily went on to become our Congressman. I was in the midst of a bruising and ultimately successful Senate campaign that set records for campaign spending and saw some of the earliest independent expenditure groups; Senator Jesse Helms’ National Conservative Political Action Committee was then the most prominent – it had helped to defeat several Democratic Senators in 1984, and with its considerable budget and advertising buy, targeted me in 1986.

While that 1986 Senate campaign ended with my usual landslide victory (I received 49.7% of the votes) it also consumed more money than any previous statewide race.

In total, that campaign cost a little north of $5 million, and my office figured that I had spent about 75% of my campaign time raising money.

The Helms PAC, Bo Callaway and Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC, and other trade groups, probably spent twice as much on the other side, and surprised us in the last day of the race with major undisclosed expenditures for serious media buys across the state, and a blanket of direct mail.

Over the course of an 18-year political career, I had a front row seat to the slow erosion and pollution of our national political process. I expected to work hard and knew that campaign years were tough. Over time, however, I was staggered by the sheer scale of the hours, the endless flights and thousands of miles logged out of state chasing down the next fundraiser. Preparing for this evening, I’ve experienced something like post-traumatic stress, thinking about how much campaign finance and political partisanship has poisoned the process.

Doing my homework for this evening, I was truly horrified to learn so many facts about just how much worse the ugly side of American politics has become. Money now thoroughly saturates the political process – before, during and after elections.

What I went through was child’s play compared to politics today:

  • For example, in 2014 Mark Udall raised and spent more than $25 million – five times the cost of my race — just to stay competitive with the other side, which reported spending more than $50 million, and probably spent a good deal more. Mark will tell you he spent the vast majority of his time raising money to compete with a flood of outside money – much of it dark and unaccountable.
  • The situation was the same in North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and elsewhere – $50-75 million were spent per side.
  • Anyone contemplating running in today’s most expensive media markets – New York, California, Florida – has to anticipate raising well over $100 million.

Once elected, Members of the House and Senate can’t then escape the chase for money. The Congressional calendar is organized to accommodate relentless fundraising; in a typical week, Members show up late Tuesday, do business on Wednesday, including long hours of “dialing for dollars,” and leave again on Thursday. Seldom are votes called on Monday or Friday, as members fan out to tend to politics in their district and mobilize their campaign war chests. Anyone outside the safest seat will tell you that they spend significant more time raising money than they do addressing constituent needs or dealing with public policy. In fact, we now have a part-time Congress.

Directly to the point of tonight’s discussion, Members are surrounded by representatives of interest groups that have discovered just how enormously profitable investments in campaign contributions and aggressive lobbying can be.

  • That is why total reported lobbying expenditures in 2014 eclipsed $3.5 billion, more than 30 times greater than it had been in 1975;
  • That is why corporate lobbying has bloomed. For every dollar spent by unions and public interest groups, corporations and corporate trade groups spend $34; 34 to 1!
  • As Nick Penniman has written in his excellent new book, Nation on the Take, “influence” is now the third largest industry in Washington, after government and tourism.

And make no mistake – money and influence are a powerful, lucrative tool for the interests of specific industries. Lobbyists host receptions and other fundraising events, and Members operate in the shadow of PACs, these huge reservoirs of money ready to support – or punish – votes that reflect their interests.

The rewards are enormous; take energy for example:

  • Relying on lobbying and a massive public disinformation campaign, the fossil fuel industry has consistently blocked meaningful legislative action designed to help transition the country toward the sustainable, renewable economy that is imperative as we battle climate change;
  • The finance industry, which the public recently bailed out from its own mortgage follies, has shown its gratitude by spending more than a billion dollars to undo and weaken recently enacted financial reforms.
  • Maybe the biggest ongoing payout has gone to the pharmaceutical industry. In return for helping to pass the Medicare Drug Bill in 2003, the industry received a huge gift: legislation prohibiting Medicare from buying drugs through a competitive bidding process. The gifts to Big Pharma continue to this day, as prescription drug and Medicare Part D costs escalate.

If you look closely enough at many of these deals and windfalls accruing to special interests, you will find a small army of former Members of Congress, cashing in on their contacts as rainmaking lobbyists. The data tell us that one of every two former Members will become a lobbyist. According to Penniman’s analysis, the six biggest banks and trade associations alone employed more than 240 former Members of Congress and staff, and 9 out of 10 Citigroup lobbyists were former government staffers. Capitol Hill is no longer just a noble foray into public service. Rather, for many staffers and former Members it is a mere stepping-stone on the road to lobbying, where a lucrative payday awaits.

If the impact of money on the candidates and Members themselves is not bad enough, the real casualty of course is the institution itself and the interests of the American people. The approval ratings for the Congress has now leveled off – at below 10%. The public is increasingly hostile to an institution that is polarized, paralyzed, and seemingly incapable of addressing the country’s challenges.

This is a tough reality to process, and it can be exceptionally dispiriting to do so. As New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote:

We are losing faith in the dream of democracy. Our collective power is increasingly eclipsed by a rigged system of politics and governance dominated by a handful of billionaires and a phalanx of well-financed special interests. We are growing skeptical that the promises of democracy will come true.”

In the face of all this excess it is easy to become angry or resigned to the status quo. But anger is not a strategy. Instead, we must understand how fully political money impacts fundamental aspects of our lives, and almost everything that our government does or tries to do. Armed with this understanding, we can rededicate ourselves to doing the hard and deliberate work of reclaiming our democracy, getting the poison out of our political process, and preparing our country and the world for the great challenges of the 21st century.

As a starting point, we can look to prior periods in the American experience in which political reform was initiated to check the disproportionate influence of special interests and money. We’ve been here before:

  • More than a hundred years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt spoke of “the classic conflict between those who possess more that they have earned, and those who have earned more than they possess.”

Reviewing this history, Trevor Potter, a Republican who was John McCain’s lawyer, and is now President of the Campaign Legal Center, recently wrote:

In the early 20th Century, waves of money from large economic interests swamped our elections, many of its sources hidden from the public. More and more citizens felt that government had becomes a tool of campaign contributors rather than responsive to average voters. State legislatures and Congress were seen as “in the pockets” of economic interests who perverted legislation to serve private purposes rather than the public good.” This was 100 years ago. Sound familiar?

In response, Roosevelt took on the railroads and the banks and created the Departments of Commerce and Labor. In 1907, Congress passed the Tillman Act and the Federal Corrupt Practices Act, banning corporate contributions to federal candidates, establishing disclosure rules and creating spending limits for political parties. Not a bad model for today.

Another wave of reform emerged in the aftermath of Watergate, when David and I first came into politics. After President Nixon resigned, Congress took many actions; it joined many existing statutes into the Federal Election Campaign Law; a system for funding Presidential campaigns was initiated; limits on individual contributions were again imposed; and when it became clear that reporting and enforcement were thin, the Federal Election Commission (the FEC) was established.

So we have something of a roller coaster history:

  • Abuses and corruption grow;
  • The public becomes alarmed;
  • And after a time, the Congress listens and reform measures become law.

We are on another of these roller coaster rides today.

Politics has once again become barnacled, and the appearance of corruption pervades the system, with outsized corporate political and fundraising influence; the lifting of caps on corporate donations and independent expenditures; and misguided decisions of the Supreme Court that have encouraged campaign finance to spiral to stratospheric levels of spending and public concern.

Court decisions have contributed to an historic increase of corporate and personal money, often anonymous flowing through political action committees that are theoretically separate from candidates.

  • The last mid-term election – in 2014 – was the most expensive in history: nearly $4 billion;
  • The 2012 presidential election was also the most expensive: more than $7 billion and there is little doubt that 2016 will set new records.

To add insult to the public, the Federal Election Commission, established in 1975 to enforce campaign finance laws, has become completely toothless and ineffective. 5

So much for the gloom and doom, and on to some ideas for solutions, for a new round of reforms which can help to repair our political process.

The agenda includes the disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures; new reporting and accountability mechanisms; fixing our broken redistricting process, facilitating greater voter participation; and providing incentives for small donor engagement.

The Supreme Court has left open the door for significant reforms and citizen actions:

  • The Court cloaked its recent opinions in the ideas that disclosure is an important firewall, and that independent spending should be totally separate from candidates and campaigns. In response, the Congress has not yet acted to implement these provisions, but the grounds for challenge are fertile. Many hope that a newly formed Court will follow its own provisions and will help to stem the flow of dark, undisclosed money from so-called independent expenditure groups.
  • It is encouraging to note that this Court also left untouched laws prohibiting corporate contributions to a candidate, left limits on the amount an individual can contribute, and left intact various voluntary campaign funding systems, including public funding.

Many reform agendas are still possible – though more difficult than 10 years ago. It is heartening that over the ten years since Citizens United, citizen action of all kinds has remobilized in pursuit of government reform:

  • Nearly 1000 anti-Citizens United resolutions have passed in cities and states, reflecting the enthusiasm for reform that runs through state legislatures, local governments, and citizen-driven ballot initiatives, led by California, Connecticut, New York and South Carolina.
  • Numerous initiatives for public financing of elections are being seriously discussed, including Democracy 21’s proposal for a 6 to 1 match, small donor tax credits and the voucher system being advocated by the Campaign Legal Center.

The country recently discovered that while big money means a lot, it isn’t everything – as Jeb Bush learned as he blew through more than $100 million, and as Chris Christie learned as his momentum dissipated. Bernie Sanders has revolutionized the legitimacy of small donor democracy, and put campaign finance squarely in the middle of this year’s election.

This certainly will not discourage huge general election funding this cycle from the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and George Soros, as hundreds of millions will be spent between now and November.

But by next year, the situation could be different; the President can make campaign reform a centerpiece of a new Administration:

  • For example, the President can issue an Executive Order requiring that all companies receiving federal contracts disclose their political spending; this would require disclosure from 70 of America’s biggest 100 companies;
  • A newly appointed Securities and Exchange Commission can draft a rule requiring publicly traded companies to disclose the political dollars they spend on behalf of investors, an idea advocated in many shareholder resolutions
  • Returning to the astonishing fact that 50% of former Members of Congress pass through the revolving door, regulations can be strengthened, while embarrassing abuses are publicized; voters loathe the idea that membership in the political class often guarantees a win-for-life ticket, and detest the use of public office as a pathway to lucrative influence-peddling.
  • The new President can press for a reformed and strengthened FEC, and can direct actions of many agencies with relevant jurisdiction, like the IRS and the FCC.

So the winds of reform are starting to blow, maybe not yet with the velocity of Boulder winds, but blowing nonetheless.

Can we eliminate all money from politics? Probably not, and we don’t want to – campaigns have to be run, staffs hired, debates scheduled and implemented, information distributed. And to be fair, some lobbying activity provides valuable information to incumbents and candidates, especially when legislative sessions are shorter and staffs are thinner.

We can constantly chip away at the most egregious and corrosive flows of money that are skewing too much of our political process. Through many initiatives, public campaigns, local experiments, State laboratories, we are learning how to fight back. As a candidate, I always thought that campaign finance was a real yawner – no issue was harder to mobilize people around – but that too is changing, as examples of abuse and the appearance of corruption are too obvious to ignore.

We can take heart in the knowledge that powerful, popular grassroots organizing have forced profound course corrections. In the lifetime of many in this room, organized citizen movements for civil rights, women’s rights, human rights, consumer protection and the environment changed America and even the world.

Secret and corrupting funding will always try to find a way into politics, but as in the past, our democracy can survive and succeed if citizens and their leaders push back.

Early in the American experience, John Adams wrote:

Government is initiated for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people, and not for the profit, honor or private interest of any one man, family or class of men.”

It is now time now for us to work together for the common good, to reform our politics, and to rebuild a functional governmental process that works for all of us.

June 9th, 2016|Commentary|