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2014 Election

Election 2014: Following the Green


All data for this article was taken from the Center for Responsive Politics. I have not found any source on money in US politics more complete or better presented than this one. If you are interested in the topic and have not yet visited them, I highly recommend that you do so. And bookmark the site.

Election 2014: Following the Green

One of the crucial issues of this and future elections will be the influence of ever increasing sums of money on our political system in general, and our electoral system in particular.  In the wake of two key Supreme Court decisions: Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), the imperfectly and never wholly closed floodgates to campaign contributions, independent electoral spending and influence peddling have been thrown open. It is too early to tell whether this increase in spending will “invigorate our democratic dialogue” to paraphrase Chief Justice Robert in his Citizens United opinion; or whether it will prove wholly corrosive, as anyone with a passing knowledge of Third World politics or big-time collegiate sports can tell you.

For more information on Citizens United v. FEC, read my articles:  “Supreme Court Activism” and “Building Support for a 28th Amendment”

For more information on McCutcheon v. FEC, read my article: “The Last Days of the American Republic”

Even before the Supreme Court’s unfortunate decision, contributions to and spending on political campaigns were already on the rise:


The total direct spending on campaigns for Federal office has been increasing steadily since at least 1998, even when adjusted for inflation. Money is not being donated in ever greater quantities because citizens suddenly love their congressional representatives more; it is being invested, because the political and economic gains that accrue to the “winners” is becoming greater and greater. The influence exerted on economic policy, tax policy, fiscal policy, regulations, appointments, and all that goes with the immense power wielded by the Federal government is being ever more directly and blatantly transferred to the contributors.

There is a reason that Congress has today its lowest approval ratings in history: simply put, this body no longer represents the American people. It represents only those people, those happy few, who have the money to put the Senators and Representatives into office and keep them there.

Current spending and contributions on the 2013-2014 electoral cycle seem to be set to follow the upwards trend:


Republicans have a slight advantage in both House and Senate races so far, but expect Democratic efforts to increase as Election Day nears.

A cursory look at the above charts would seem to give to the lie to my statement that the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions have opened the floodgates: overall spending has increased, but not dramatically so since 2010. This is true, but deceptive for two reasons: first, McCutcheon does eliminate the aggregate limits on campaign contributions imposed by our tattered campaign finance laws; but it is really too early to tell the impact of this decision, which was only taken in April of this year. Secondly, Citizens United was not about contributions to political candidates or campaigns at all, it was about individual and corporate spending outside of these traditional party channels. And that has exploded, as the following charts show:


Rather than the modest 300% increase in direct party spending since 1998, outside political spending by individuals, corporations, super PACs and associations has increased by almost 2000% for midterm elections in the same period, with by far the greatest increase being in the wake of Citizens United. This year’s midterms look set to leave even the 2012 Presidential elections in the dust, with outside spending already at 62% of 2012 levels and seven months left until the election.

The Supreme Court decision now allows corporations make political expenditures directly from their treasuries through other organizations, as long as the spending is done independently of any candidate. Much of this takes the form of TV advertisements: they can say “Such and such is bad” or “the (Democrats/Republicans) are ruining the country”, but they can’t say “Vote for John/Jane Doe”. This is protected speech, as if corporations were citizens themselves with the same constitutional rights as natural persons – or so the Supreme Court argues.

What is worse, the activity takes place without complete and immediate – or even eventual – disclosure about who is funding it, preventing voters from understanding who is behind the political messages. Some kinds of ads are not even required to be reported to the FEC. Talk about opacity in government and purchasing influence.


Besides the obvious reasons of avoiding quid pro quo entanglements for our public officials, the way money is raised and spent greatly reduces competition in political races. Incumbents enjoy such an immense advantage over their potential rivals that many worthy candidates never bother to run. This has the effect of reducing the number of good men and women who could worthily serve their country in office, as well as reducing the level of debate and the breadth of discourse. Those challengers that do run are often independently wealthy and can afford to indulge their “public spiritedness”, which has the also detrimental effect of restricting office to a wealthy elite.


The advantage is large: House incumbents enjoy 5 to 6 times the amount of funding as their lesser known challengers, while sitting Senators have a 10 to 12 times advantage in money. Level playing field? Mr. Smith goes to Washington? Not in this Congress.

If money = speech and therefore enjoys First Amendment protections – and 5 of the 9 Justices of the Supreme Court says that it does – then what are we to make of the concept of equal access and participation in our political system? Most people are not wealthy enough to throw money at candidates and my nickel-and-dime contributions cannot compete with the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars that the richest Americans can and now do contribute. Does this not mean that the “speech” of a tiny minority drowns out the “speech” of millions of Americans? Are they not being indirectly disenfranchised?


In fact, 75% of all contributions are made by 0.18% of the American population. The number of donors giving more than $200, the minimum amount that must be reported to the FEC, is about equal to the population of Anaheim. But that’s not the big money. The 45,000 Americans who contributed more than $10,000 in 2012 are equal to the population of Olympia, WA, yet they accounted for roughly 30% of ALL contributions in the 2012 elections.

As for the people most directly impacted by the McCutcheon decision, those that have given more than $95,000 in the 2012 election cycle, you could fit them all into the guest rooms of the Hilton Mid-town Hotel in Manhattan: all 1,800 of them.

If you think that this is an oligarchy composed entirely of rabid GOP supporters, think again. Democrats have their own oligarchs, who are quite open-handed with their money as well. True, Republicans have an advantage here, but it is not a decisive one. And there are always oligarchs that like to hedge their bets and contribute to both parties:


Another myth, one used to good effect by the GOP to defend the vast sums spent by corporations and business interests, is that somehow this is equivalent to the power wielded by labor and unions. They might be similar in principle, in the sense that neither type of association should be spending money on political campaigns or political advertisements, but that is where the comparison ends. Contributions by corporations vastly exceeds the amounts those nefarious unions are able to raise, by a factor of 20.

Crony capitalism is alive and well in the USA. At least, the cronies are.


 I will be updating the various charts on a monthly basis in addition to my other 2014 Election coverage, so make sure to check back frequently to see how the horse-trading is going.


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