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SPECIAL INTEREST VS NATIONAL INTEREST

Excessive political contributions from those expecting to get something in return for their contribution distorts the political landscape from those who give (often much smaller) contributions due to ideological beliefs. This reduces the influence that ordinary citizens have in our electoral systems and makes those in public office often more responsive to those who give money rather than the broad electorate.  At the same time, the ever-rising cost of campaigns puts more pressure on elected officials and candidates to spend most of their time talking to groups and individuals who can write large checks – regardless of if they are in the district – rather than constituents the Founding Fathers wanted them to represent.

Part of the problem comes from the proliferation of groups organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, who have the ability to pour vast sums of money into election-related activity without any connection to the actual candidate, without limits on spending, and without having to reveal their donors.  Again, this distorts the political process, often shifting the focus of the debate from the actual race run by the candidate to the negative attacks from special interests flooding the airwaves and mailboxes.  Voters become less well-informed and more cynical about politics and our electoral system by this recent feature of our political life.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Even after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United,[1] which permitted unlimited independent political expenditures by a non-profit corporation (while still banning direct contributions from corporations and unions to political campaigns), we can take steps to ensure that our elections become more competitive and that the voices of ordinary citizens are fully heard.

  • We’ve put forth ideas such as making certain small political contributions tax-deductible.  This will strengthen the voice of ordinary citizens.
  • We will be a voice for those who want to shift the terms of the debate on campaign finance reform, offering fresh ideas and new perspectives.  We will call on elected officials to think about this issue from the perspective of finding ways to strengthen the voices of ordinary citizens and restoring the public’s trust in our elections and elected officials.
  • We believe in strengthening the political parties.  The political parties are a mediating force for good which should regain some of the power they have lost through the rise of independent political expenditures.  We want stronger parties rather than stronger special interests.
  • The wrong way to strengthen the parties, however, is by encouraging excessive contributions to them.  The recently passed omnibus budget,[2] for instance, permits contributions to the political parties of up to $800,000 per cycle per individual ($1,600,000 per couple) for administrative costs.  This provision, enacted literally in the middle of the night with no debate, is simply the re-legalization of “soft money” through other means.  It will give disproportionate influence in the national parties to those who can afford to give the most.  It does not solve the problem of excessive money in politics simply to shift excessive money from independent Super PACs to the parties themselves.
  • We need to discuss better approaches.  The parties do need money for their administrative needs, and we support re-examining the question of whether to restore the 40-year tradition of Federal funding for the major national party conventions, as a way to reduce the influence of excessive political contributions.

We will be looking at other ideas as well.  If nothing is done, the influence of special interest money in politics will continue to grow, damaging our democracy and the public’s trust in our system and those who serve in public office.

 


[1] 558 U.S. 310 (2010)

[2] See also http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/12/09/spending-deal-would-allow-wealthy-donors-to-dramatically-increase-giving-to-national-parties/