When people learn that I’ve studied American politics more than forty years, one question they often ask is what I would change to begin improving the state of American politics, and the answer is actually quite simple; remove money from the equation. Stop allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to have so much control over who wins party nominations and, ultimately, elections. Last year $1,312,110,914 was raised for the presidential races alone (yes, that is over a billion dollars). Another $1,035,693,928 was raised for the 435 House of Representatives seats (again, over a billion dollars) and $787,814,300 for the 33 vacant Senate seats. The grand total raised last year was…a whole bunch of money.
Here are a few interesting facts. In 2016, a little more than 70% of all donations of more than $200 came from .5% of the population, .08% gave all donations greater than $2,700, and 100 individuals or organizations contributed at least $2,272,500 or more EACH. Interestingly, 30,677 individuals or organizations donated to both parties, apparently hoping to gain influence regardless of the winning party.
What are the consequences of these huge campaign donations? There is honestly no way to be absolutely certain, but it is reasonable to assume that large donors expect to gain access and influence. And even if the connection between money and influence cannot be conclusively proven (I doubt many elected officials will actually admit that their decisions are based on donations), it certainly seems obvious that it could be a corrupting influence. If those capable of contributing huge sums are in fact receiving favors that you and I don’t enjoy, I would argue that this contradicts the notion that everyone’s vote should count equally, enunciated in a number of Supreme Court decisions.
A related problem is campaign money’s chilling influence on the notion of fair and competitive elections. Members of Congress and other elected officials can raise huge sums of money, even in non-election years, and keep that money in their “war chest” (bank account) to use in future elections. In 2016 fifty members of Congress had at least $1,313,688 in the bank (Paul Ryan had $9,098,873). Let’s say that Professor Dave decided to run against Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) in last year’s election (he actually represents a different district and I’m offering no critique of his effectiveness; just go along with me here). Then I learn that Representative Luetkemeyer has $1,858,861 in the bank (which he did), and I know he can begin spending it when a serious challenger appears. Professor Dave looks at his bank account (which has MUCH less than $1,858,861) and decides that he will pass on the opportunity to run for this office. It happens. I know it does because I know very intelligent and capable people who chose to not pursue an office because of the amount of money required.
How did we get to the point that money is so important that the two 2016 candidates for District 19 of the Missouri Senate, for example, raised $3.6 million to win a seat that pays the winner about $36,000 per year? In 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court decided that money equals speech, and speech is protected by the 1st Amendment. The Court thus ruled that limits on the amount people can contribute to an election are an unconstitutional denial of their speech. In a 2010 case the Court struck down limits on campaign spending by corporations and unions, ruling in essence that these groups could spend an unlimited amount of money promoting candidates as long as the money wasn’t given directly to the candidate’s campaign. Money, money, and more money.
To change this requires ether 1) The Supreme Court to have a change of heart and reverse it’s interpretation of the Constitution, or 2) a Constitutional amendment reversing the Court. I’m not optimistic. My ultimate solution would likely be unpopular with many (most?) folks, but I’d like to find a way to follow the British model that limits the amount spent by providing public and equal funding for Congressional and presidential campaigns. I am a dreamer, but until we remove money as the motivating factor in American politics we will not be able to effectively address all the other issues facing our political system such a gerrymandering, healthcare reform, protecting the environment, or improving our infrastructure.