By Georgia Steinheimer
Campaign finance is the funding of candidates in electoral campaigns at local, state, and national levels. Because of the five to four majority 2010 US Supreme Court landmark decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, current campaign finance regulations allow for rampant influence on legislators. So much so in fact, that at this point, it has evoked substantial mockery from political satire programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Corporations are now allowed to donate money as they wish to candidate elections, with few restrictions, which many believe gives them an immoderate amount of power and persuasion over legislators.
Before the Citizens United decision, corporate involvement had not been so controversial, because until 1976, Congress had heavily limited corporate involvement in federal election campaigns. However, once the Supreme Court ruled that contribution limits were constitutional, and expenditure limits were not, in the case Buckley v. Valeo, it only progressed from there over the next several decades. Many arguments spurred on whether the First and Fourteenth Amendments, which give citizens the right to vote and speak, applied to corporations, this continued on for years. Citizens United v. FEC was a case in 2010 that stated that, “Corporations and unions can spend unlimited sums of money on ads and other communications designed to support or oppose a candidate. Corporations are still prohibited from contributing directly to federal candidates, but can contribute unlimited sums to organizations, such as Super PACs and 501(c)4s, that support or oppose a candidate.” This explanation shows that while there are limitations, they are overshot by loopholes, which is the problem many people have with it.
Campaign finance reform groups (such as the Committee for Economic Development), who oppose the current system believe that it has led to issues surrounding the “obligations” Congressmen may have (to corporate interests) because of the generous amounts of money donated. Congressmen and corporations dismiss the correlation, but a research journal from the Campaign Finance Institute has evidence that disagrees with this and shows that corporations that give a substantial amount of campaign donations to specific legislators swing the motives of said congressmen. The journal includes details on how although the weight may not directly impact votes, they can affect “opportunities to shape legislation that occur earlier in the legislative process.” It also recounts the studies that affect connection between PAC donations and roll call votes, where “some found influence, but many others did not.” It states, “While methodologically it is difficult to estimate the causal influence of donations, the larger problem is that much of the influence of donations is likely to occur earlier in the legislative process, when decisions are made about earmarks and other details of legislation that matter greatly to donors.” These studies have focused on five main research strategies: donor motives, benefits to donors from legislative actions, process variables such as donations buying time and effort of legislators, perceptual surveys, and hybrid approaches. The Committee for Economic Development believes that this more holistic approach allows them to come to a single conclusion after looking at the issue from all angles.
It does require a certain amount of research to recognize this correlation between congressional decisions and campaign donations, so the average American citizen is likely unaware of this corruption. A paper from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University explains this more clearly- “Critics of the current system of campaign financing argue that the high cost of office-seeking and current ways of meeting those costs not only distract elected officials from their primary task of lawmaking, but leave the door open to the influence of special interests. When a politician is influenced by either the need to solicit contributions from special interests to finance a costly election campaign, or by a sense of obligation to benefactors, the politician may no longer represent the interests of his or her entire constituency.” Deeper introspection gave them the idea that it could imbalance the whole system of democracy. “Furthermore, the ability to influence electoral outcomes with infusions of cash poses a significant challenge to the idea of equality expressed in the principle of “one man, one vote” upon which democratic government is based.” The center details how the balance of power is thrown off; because if elections can be controlled by money, then the more money you have, the more influence you have. They believe this is a violation the equality that is needed in a democracy.
On the other hand, people in concurrence with the current campaign finance system argue that corporations are just another vessel to express support for certain candidates. Inherent in this belief is the idea that people with money should have the right to use the influence that money can wield. Money buys speech and they believe that is okay because if you want to have that kind of power you should work harder to get the money. Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, says “Nobody is saying that corporations are living, breathing entities, or that they have souls or anything like that. This is about protecting the rights of the individuals that associate in this way.” The Supreme Court has also brought up an idea in agreement that “because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, the First Amendment forbids discrimination against any class of speaker.”
The Supreme Court’s decision opinion, however, is seen as a conflict of interest. A series by Salon and the Center for Investigative Reporting has revealed a trend of donations (to presidential campaigns) from at least two dozen federal judges appointed by President Bush. Although this is legal, it is seen as an issue of ethics and the article that mentions the series suggests that since presidents appoint Supreme Court Judges, they look for those with their best interests at hand. Namely that could include agreement with campaign finance regulations. Overall, this has become a very controversial issue that questions who holds the true power and the democratic rights of the United States.
The Who & The Why
The Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the United States. The court’s nine justices come together when a party petitions to be heard because they are unsatisfied with the decision of a lower court. The members are appointed by the President and hold office for life, while maintaining good behavior. To make a decision there has to be a five to four majority at the least. They are ideally unbiased and adhere to the constitution, although this is not always necessarily true. Justices are very influential in the area of federal law, and have made decisions that have massive effect on the country, such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Iyla Shapiro is a the editor-in-chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review and senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute. The Cato Institute is a public policy research organization founded in 1977. He associates with the Federalist Society and appears to be more on the conservative side. He is also one of the seemingly few in agreement with Citizens United v. FEC.
The Campaign Finance Institute wrote The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics, which includes extensive research on the corruption of current campaign finance. Founded in 1999, they call themselves “nonpartisan, policy-relevant and timely,” and “meeting peer-reviewed standards and serving public needs” as “the nation’s leading think tank on money in politics in federal and state elections.” They appear to just be out to provide a source for the public of accurate research and analysis of the current campaign finance situation.
Santa Clara University is a respected college located around the Peninsula and Silicon Valley Area of California. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics is a “forum for research and discussion in all areas of applied ethics.” They call themselves objective, as the center does “not advocate particular positions but seeks to encourage dialogue on the ethical dimensions of current issues.” They don’t have any specific power, but contribute to the movement leaning towards campaign finance reform.
Campaign finance corruption can be seen in several specific situations related to Congress, although one main scandal around the dietary supplement industry and two senators seemed very apparent. It began in the 1993 when the FDA tried to expand authority. Their control at that point only extended to being able to investigate supplements when people were already getting sick. This was an issue because there had been a substantial amount of sickness and health issues, and more severely, death, from an array of different supplements. For example, by 1990, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that 38 people had died from L-Tryptophan (an amino acid used for a variety of issues), yet it was not taken off the market for several years. PSAs were put out by the supplement industry making the effort appear as a way to take away citizens’ rights to take vitamins and more basic supplements. The public got so worked up over this that more people wrote to their congressmen than during the Vietnam War. At this time, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) were the two top recipients of funds from the supplement industry. They co-sponsored a bill to deregulate the FDA’s effort, although there was already almost no regulation. If you were a supplement company at that point, you could market a product and make health claims without FDA approval and there was not a need to provide evidence to substantiate safety or effectiveness of your product. Because of the lack of regulation, many medical issues arose from these dangerous supplements; including severe bleeding, liver failure, and death in extreme cases. For example, Ephedra caused 155 deaths and 16,000 adverse events in the time that it was on the market.
In May 2012, this issue around lack of regulation reemerged as a bill proposed that supplements should have warning labels including potentially dangerous side effects. Hatch and Harkin came back to fight it (while still retaining the title as the top two recipients of campaign funds from the supplemental industry). Hatch detailed that “the FDA already has a tremendous amount of regulatory oversight and enforcement tools when it comes to dietary supplements,” while Harkin had a similar opinion. He said, “Every supplement has a label, has the ingredients, and the potency by law on every single item sold as a supplement.” His words were not only repetitive, but also inaccurate. A group of researchers DNA tested supplements from twelve North American companies and found that not even one third contained a trace whatsoever of the plant advertised on the bottle.
It is clear that corporate interests have effect on at least a handful of politicians, including congressmen, when money is involved. Although the entire issue and industry have put the public at risk, this just goes to show how much money can affect people, and not all of our legislators have the population’s best interests at hand- in fact they may put their own first. Receiving campaign donations from the industry likely helped keep these two senators in office, and they continued to receive support because they held the corporate interest as a high priority. The only way to fix this type of corruption would be campaign finance reform.
At this point, many organizations are fighting for campaign finance reform. However, corporations will work hard to fight against this arguing that it would be unconstitutional to obstruct their freedom of speech and corporate personhood by limiting their donation potential. The Supreme Court has made their decision, so there is no going back from where we are, but the possibility of changes in the future is very viable. The majority of finance reform efforts have been unsuccessful thus far, but because this is becoming such an eminent issue, it is more hopeful that progress will be made.
The main issue within reform is that the people who have the ability to make the changes are the same people who are participating in the problem. Congress members who look out for the corporate interests are carelessly letting these corporations have all the power- even over themselves. And for what? To be funded into re-election so the cycle can continue? The public is who really needs to initiate the change. A mass of people when unified have the chance to make a difference possibly even more than just the few with all of the money. Change begins with knowledge.