Posted: March 16th, 2022
Read pg. 182- “Can money buy elections?”
•Choose one of the opinions from the reading that you agree with and write a response. Do you think money can or can not buy elections?
Can Money Buy Elections?
The 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC allowed corporations, unions, and individuals to donate unlimited sums to entities that are “independent” of the candidates. So was born the super PAC. A super PAC can raise sums without limit. Some very rich people donated millions of dollars to various super PACs in the years following that decision. During the 2015–2016 election cycle, outside groups spent about $1.5 billion. Of course, the candidates’ own campaign organizations themselves also raise large sums, which typically exceed what super PACs take in. Does all this money corrupt the political process?
Just Another Way for Big Money to Rule America
Those who are critical of the role of money in our elections argue that no one would give such large sums unless they expect to benefit in return. Candidates are perfectly well aware of who their largest contributors are. Often enough, they have spent time pleading with these people for donations. Super PACs are supposed to be independent, but in reality, most are run by candidates’ former staff members. Hillary Clinton’s super PAC, Priorities USA Action, was led by Guy Cecil, who was political director of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Candidates are just as aware of who has donated to their super PACs as they are of donors to their actual campaigns.
Almost all the advertising purchased by super PACs is negative—the candidates can remain upbeat while their super PACs do the dirty work. These attack ads are themselves a corruption of the political process. Finally, due to the rise of 501(c)4 organizations, some super PACs manage to hide the identity of many of their donors. A number of public-interest groups have called for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. We need some such action to keep the United States from becoming a republic of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.
Money Alone Can’t Buy Elections
Those who support the current system argue that people should have the right to say whatever they want. Corporations and unions are made up of individuals, and so organizations as well as individuals should be able to express their views by donating to campaign organizations.
Does money buy elections? The dollars did not seem to have made that much difference in 2012. Casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife spent almost $100 million, including $20 million on Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (he lost), and $20 million in the general election to support Mitt Romney (he lost, too).
Consider also Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. In many key primary states, Trump ran no television ads at all, relying instead on social media and nonstop cable news coverage. In contrast, former Florida governor Jeb Bush raised about $130 million for his primary effort with almost nothing to show for it. (In the end, he gave much of this back to his donors.) Trump also spent relatively little on his general election campaign. The 2016 elections, therefore, were a test of how important campaign money really is. As it turned out, its impact was surprisingly small.
For Critical Analysis
Some have argued that limits on campaign spending violate First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech. How strong is this argument?
THE 527 ORGANIZATION. Well before Citizens United, interest groups realized that they could set up new organizations outside the parties to encourage voter registration and to run issue ads aimed at energizing supporters. So long as these committees did not endorse candidates, they faced no limits on fund-raising. These tax-exempt groups, called 527 organizations after the section of the tax code that provides for them, first had a major impact during the 2003–2004 election cycle. Since then, they have largely been replaced by super PACs, but a number continue to be active to the present day.
THE 501 (C) 4 ORGANIZATION. In the 2007–2008 election cycle, campaign-finance lawyers began recommending a new type of independent group—the 501(c) 4 organization, which, like the 527 organization, is named after the relevant provision of the tax code. A 501(c) 4 is ostensibly a “social welfare” group and, unlike a 527, is not required to disclose the identity of its donors or to report spending to the FEC.
Lawyers then began suggesting that 501(c) 4 organizations claim a special exemption that would allow the organization to ask people to vote for or against specific candidates as long as a majority of the group’s effort was devoted to issues. Only those funds spent directly to support candidates had to be reported to the FEC, and the 501(c) 4 could continue to conceal its donors. One result, beginning with the 2008 elections, was to make it all but impossible to determine exactly how much was spent by independent groups. Critics claimed that 501(c) 4s were being used illegally. The FEC has never ruled on their validity, however.
CANDIDATE COMMITTEES. Despite the limits on contributions to candidate committees, these organizations continue to collect large sums. The committees of the 2012 major-party presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, were able to amass more than $1 billion each, often from relatively small contributions. Major-party candidates were more frugal in 2016, however. Clinton collected about $500 million and Trump gathered only about $250 million.
Candidate committees at all levels received a boost in April 2014 as a result of the Supreme Court’s latest ruling on campaign finance. The Court continued to hold that limits on the amount that any one individual could contribute to any one candidate were permissible. An overall cap on the total amount that an individual could contribute, however, was unconstitutional. In other words, there can be no limit on the number of different candidates a wealthy individual can support. A billionaire could, for example, give the $2,600 maximum contribution to every single candidate of a particular party running for the U.S. Congress. The ruling also freed up the amounts that individuals could give to the political parties.* The likely consequence will be to divert some funds away from super PACs and to candidate and party committees.
THE DECLINE AND FALL OF PUBLIC FINANCING. From 1976 through 2004, most presidential candidates relied on a system of public funding financed by a checkoff on federal income tax forms. This system provided funds to match what a candidate could raise during the primary season. During the general election campaign, the system would pay for a candidate’s entire campaign. Publicly funded candidates, however, could not raise funds independently for the general election or exceed the program’s overall spending limits.
The system began to break down after 2000, when many candidates rejected public support during the primaries in the belief that they could raise larger sums privately. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first candidate since the program was founded to opt out of federal funding for the general elections as well. By 2012, the public financing system was essentially out of business. None of the major candidates in either party was willing to use it.
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