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Political Money Gone Wild

— April 22, 2015

As the 2016 election season kicks off, the issue of money’s pervasiveness in the political process is gaining some steam. Democratic frontrunner, Hilary Clinton, recently announced that fixing a “dysfunctional” campaign finance system to be among her top priorities, and several prominent Republicans, including presidential hopeful, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), have thrown their support toward a popular uprising against the massive increase in political funding. The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision dramatically changed the level of spending that corporations and non-profit groups were allowed to put into the political process. This led to the creation of “super-PACs,” large political action committees with an unlimited cap on spending for political speech. Several of these groups spend in the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars per election cycle. One opponent of super-PACs, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) said last month at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, “What I worry about is that we are turning campaigns over to about 100 people in this country, and they are going to be able to advocate their cause at the expense of your cause.”

In addition to the creation of super-PACs since Citizens United, a recent article in The Atlantic examines the evolution of lobbying and its exponential growth. The article estimates that corporations spend about $2.6 billion dollars per year trying to influence Congress, with major companies routinely carrying over 100 active lobbyists. This amount has exceeded the combined House and Senate budgets most years since the early 2000s. Surprisingly, corporate lobbying is a relatively new phenomenon within the past 40-odd years. It is almost incomprehensible that in 1971, corporate lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice, Lewis F. Powell Jr. actually wrote, “As every business executive knows, few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American businessman, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders. If one doubts this, let him undertake the role of ‘lobbyist’ for the business point of view before Congressional committees.” Beginning with the 1972 creation of the Business Roundtable, the idea of corporate interests gaining a political foothold in the legislative process gradually permeated the system. By the 1990s, corporate strategists were beginning to see lobbying not only as a way to prevent unfavorable policy changes, but also to influence political leaders to create legislation in their favor. Of course, this has ballooned over the past 20 or so years into the situation that currently exists.

One especially noteworthy case of money in the political process gone completely out of control, according to a Yahoo News exclusive investigation, is the conduct of the National Rifle Association (NRA), both recently, and historically. According to the report, the organization has committed, and continues to commit at least 3 distinct and fairly clearly-written legal violations due to the methods in which they solicit donations. The first violation involves using misleading advertising to solicit public awareness donations on the organization’s web site,  and then transferring the money towards its elections super-PAC. They also violate a fundamental law that requires these types of donations only to be made by registered members. Additionally, the NRA did not disclose their election-related expenditures to the IRS from 2007-2013, the only group out of the 25 most politically active non-profits not to do so. Despite experts’ consensus that these are violations, and the NRA being fined in 1983 and 1991 for somewhat similar offenses, the dysfunctional nature of the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), has likely prevented the regulator from prosecuting the NRA. The organization is split 50/50 between Republicans and Democrats, and given the debate over gun control, as well as the extraordinary low rate of legal action by the FEC for non-profit entities, it is uncertain if the NRA will ever be called out for their violations. Additionally, the IRS has likely become hesitant to prosecute another group with Conservative ties following last year’s scandal regarding the IRS singling out Tea Party groups for audits.

Despite the rhetoric, 2016 election may not be a breaking point in the status-quo; it does appear to be a start. Even prominent Conservatives like Graham and Paul are advocating for the overturn of Citizens United to wrestle some degree of control from Super PACs. Conservatives have generally been less willing in the past to reel in political spending during the modern lobbying evolution. Another effort to make political money a major 2016 issue is The New Hampshire Rebellion, designed to be a popular outcry for reform located in one of the loci of the fledgling primary campaign. Executive Director for the project, Daniel Weeks says, “This is becoming an issue du jour, where people who are not part of any established group are really taking it into their own hands.” Weeks optimism may be somewhat tempered, however, as a recent Pew research poll found that campaign finance reform to rank 20th out of 23 possible items to be considered the top priority for the President and Congress. Still, the poll found the number of people who listed that topic to be up 28 percent from a similar 2012 poll. It would appear the issue of money in politics is gaining momentum both popularly and critically, but it hasn’t reached a level of concern to inspire action in Washington…yet.


The Atlantic –Lee Drutman

Washington Post – Matea Gold

Yahoo News – Alan Berlow

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