There’s an old saying that goes “money can’t buy you love.” I disagree, because money can definitely buy you the love of a political candidate. Lobbying, political action committees, dark money- the list goes on and on. Our modern campaign finance laws have essentially allowed legalized bribery. If you don’t believe me, just check out the facts.
One of the biggest problems facing campaign finance reform is the Citizens United decision. In 2008, conservative non-profit Citizens United wanted to advertise a film that was highly critical of Hillary Clinton. However, they were legally barred because of Section 203 of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Section 203 made it illegal for any political organization to show a broadcast mentioning a candidate for federal office within 60 days of a general election.
They believed that Section 203 violated their first amendment right to freedom of speech. In addition, they challenged any content that discussed financial disclosures and mandatory identification of financial sponsors. The U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the FEC, but eventually Citizens United took the case to the Supreme Court. In an extremely close 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United. This effectively gave corporations and U.S. citizens equal rights to freedom of speech. It seems ridiculous when you say it out loud.
This decision led to the creation of SuperPACs. SuperPACs allow corporations and unions to donate or accept unlimited funds. However, SuperPACs are barred from directly giving these funds to candidates. They can only use the money to campaign for or against a political candidate. Think about the attack ads and commercials you see online or on television. These are most likely the work of SuperPACs.
On the other side of the spectrum are Political Action Committees (PACs). PACs are allowed to give money to candidates, but only $5,000 per election. They can also give a maximum of $15,000 to any national party committee, but only once per year.
One major problem with SuperPACs is the fact that there’s almost no real transparency. Although they are legally obligated to report the identity of their donors, there are legal loopholes around this law.
One example is the use of “shell corporations.” So technically, anyone can be donating to these SuperPACs and we’d never know. Crime syndicates, foreign governments and foreign corporations can put money into our elections. We saw this during the 2016 election, where Russian businesses were buying political ads on social media. Or in 2012, when Restore Our Future (a pro-Romney SuperPAC) received millions of dollars from a Canadian company. Or in 2016, when the Chinese company APIC gave $1.3 million to the Right to Rise SuperPAC.
Even the 1996 Clinton re-election campaign received donations from the Chinese military! It’s even scarier if you remember that this happened before the invention of SuperPACs.
SuperPACs also led to an influx of “dark money.” Dark money is defined as “political spending meant to influence the decision of a voter, where the donor is not disclosed and the source of the money is unknown.” Many political nonprofits use dark money; this is because nonprofits are not legally obligated to report the identities of their financial donors. As I mentioned above, many SuperPACs accept dark money through the use of shell corporations and political nonprofits. We saw the dangers of dark money ads during the 2016 election. We’ve also seen dark money at play in local and state elections. Dark money ads led to the defeat of Montana House of Representatives candidate John Ward.
Another problem with current campaign finance legislation is the act of lobbying. Lobbyists represent clients (corporations, religious groups, non-profits) and recommend government lawmakers to support their clients. While this isn’t inherently bad, the fact that lobbyists can directly fund federal candidates and PACs is. In 2016, lobbyists contributed $47,692,660 to both Republicans and Democrats. in 2018, they’ve already contributed $35,932,475.
At this point I think we can all agree that money talks, and corporations speak the loudest. We are living in a country where the interests of corporations and foreign governments outweigh those of its own citizens. People believe we are making progress in the fight for campaign finance reform, but I beg to differ. Although a recent Supreme Court decision made it federal law for political nonprofits to disclose the names of their donors, this ultimately means nothing. SuperPACs still don’t have to disclose the identities of nonprofit donors if the nonprofit is apolitical.
With Citizens United still in effect, this decision can easily get overturned. The future of American democracy is darker than the money that influences our elections. And it will only get darker if the American people don’t take a stand against the blatant corruption that is going on in our nation’s capital.