Viewpoint: Reform campaign finance rules now. Begin by overturning Citizens United

Viewpoint: Reform campaign finance rules now. Begin by overturning Citizens United
Karen Rubin, Columnist

‘Tis the season of giving, and politicians and people in positions of power do a heck of a lot of getting.

Just running for office – not even winning – has become the biggest racket in America, as George Santos has demonstrated so obscenely.

Politics has become a mega-billion-dollar industry.

Political spending in the 2020 federal election totaled $14.4 billion, more than doubling the total cost of the record-breaking 2016 presidential election cycle, according to OpenSecrets’ analysis of Federal Election Commission filings and that doesn’t count all the ancillary spending, state and local election campaigns, which I can imagine makes the politics a $1 trillion industry.

AdImpact is already predicting spending on TV political advertising for the 2024 presidential campaign will reach a record $10.2 billion, reported.

More than 170 “independent expenditure committees” spent $200 million on New York political campaigns over the past eight years to oppose or support candidates and public referendums, Newsday reported in January 2023. “These groups, mostly backed by wealthy donors, often pay for some of the most provocative TV and mailer ads.distorting political discourse and further polarizing voters, while supporters say it  prompts greater turnout and voter attention.”

Jennifer DeSena’s campaign for re-election to town supervisor cost upwards of $3.2 million (about three times what Jon Kaiman had to spend), with most, if not all of that coming from the state Republican Party.

It’s gotten that who can run for office, who does run for office, who wins office, depends on how much money they can raise, or if they have managed to amass a fortune, probably from manipulating tax codes and getting favorable regulation and laws that tilt the playing field in their favor.

“Incoming lawmakers are instructed to spend upwards of four hours per day raising money, which is time taken away from the legislative responsibilities of being an elected official,” according to the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

It’s not just elected office – it is also the appointments, especially to judgeships, cabinet posts, ambassadorships and other hires (who will do the bidding of the boss because they really like their salary and perks).

U.S. Sen Sheldon Whitehouse has for years now exposed how dark money operatives, working from the shadows, have installed Supreme Court Justices handpicked by far-right donors, and how Leonard Leo, from his dark money-funded Federalist Society, is at the center of the dark money web, pulling the strings.

“The key to his craft is an armada of phony front groups that shuffle dark money back and forth, around and amongst each other, to deploy as spin, as propaganda, as political ads, or as hidden campaign funding,” Whitehouse said. (

The latest estimate is that these big donors put $580 million into Leo’s network of court-capture front groups. What is more, Leo recently received $1.6 billion from billionaire Barre Seid (in such a way that Seid avoided $400 million in taxes from the sale of his electronics company) – the largest political donation in history.

This explosion of money in politics was made possible by the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and political action committees have a First Amendment right to raise and spend unlimited money on elections. Individuals don’t have that right; individuals are limited (now) to donate $3,300 to an election.

Still can’t afford life-saving drugs while Big Pharma racks up record profits, health insurance premiums and doctor bills way too high?

In 2020, U.S. healthcare lobbying expenditures totaled $713.6 million vs $358.2 million in 2000: pharmaceutical and health product manufacturers spent the most ($308.4 million), followed by providers ($286.9 million), payers ($80.6 million), and other firms ($37.7 million).

Carbon emissions still destroying the planet, causing billions of dollars of destruction from wildfires, floods and droughts? In 2022 alone, the oil and gas industry spent $124.4 million to lobby the federal government (and spent billions over the past decades to promote climate denialism even though Exxon and others recognized 40 years ago that burning fossil fuels hastens global warming.)

And just 6 months into 2023, financial firms representing multinational corporations spent more than $1 million lobbying against the Inflation Reduction Act’s corporate minimum tax.

Money doesn’t just buy a politician, it is paying for their time and monopolizing (owning) their attention so they hear one side, assimilate that perspective. Money talks, and these big donors just buy the ticket to the dance, they monopolize the dance card.

Indeed, entities like American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heritage Foundation actually write out the language for laws like Stand Your Ground and abortion bans that state lawmakers simply rubber stamp into law.

“Money in politics is the root of our dysfunction,” the former Labor Secretary Robert Reich declared.

“A tiny sliver of Americans now wield more power than at any time since Watergate, too often at the expense of ordinary citizens whose needs are not prioritized,” writes the Brennan Center for Justice. “Few Supreme Court decisions have had more impact on our democracy than Citizens United, which freed super PACs and other entities to pour unlimited amounts of money into our campaigns. That has had a profound impact on who influences policies and, ultimately, who benefits from government action. Over the long term, Citizens United and the Supreme Court’s other harmful campaign finance rulings must be overturned.”

But because of Citizens United, those who would want to reinstate the semblance of democracy by removing the uneven playing field money creates can only play defense – basically just doing more to make those donors and recipients more transparent.

Reform campaign finance now:

Pass the DISCLOSE Act, which would mandate stronger, more meaningful disclosure laws to eliminate “dark money” and empower the FEC to actually enforce rules.

Pass the Honest Ads Act, making online ads subject to the same disclosure rules as TV ads, which would make it much harder for dark-money groups and foreign adversaries to manipulate our elections through false, misleading, or inflammatory ads on social media (as Russia did during the 2016 election).

Expand public spending, and, if at all possible, limit the proportion of campaign funding that could be allowed from interests “outside”  constituents.

Root out foreign spending, ostensibly illegal, but which manages to work through shell companies and straw donors.

Pass the For the People Act, which would make our democracy fairer, stronger, and more inclusive by, expanding voting rights, ending extreme partisan gerrymandering, and overhauling the campaign finance system.

Yes, elections and so much more are rigged. Time to unrig them.


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