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Finance

The best politicians money can buy

Will Rogers once said, “Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to  be defeated.”

I am sure Meg Whitman would agree. Her unsuccessful run for governor in 2010 cost $178 million, of which she personally paid $144 million. She was able to spend her own money on her campaign because of a 1976 Supreme Court ruling in Buckley vs. Valeo that said money spent by an individual on his or her own campaign was political speech, protected by the constitution, and could not be limited. When looking at potential candidates, the parties’ campaign committees look not just at the candidates’ views and skills, but also at their ability to fund their own campaign. That may be the reason that there are 261 millionaires in Congress, including 55 with declared net worth greater than $10 million.

During the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin proposed that elected government officials not be paid for their service. Other founding fathers disagreed, and from 1789 to 1855, members of Congress were paid $6 per day only when Congress was in session.

By contrast, in the 2010 election for the House of Represent-atives, Michele Bachmann spent more than $11.5
million. As members of the House have to be re-elected every two years, it cost her $5.75 million per year. In the 2010 Senate elections, the average winning candidate spent nearly $10 million, and the average loser spent over $6.5 million.

In 1900, it was common for corporations to contribute to political campaigns. In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt signed the Tillman Act, which banned corporate contributions to political campaigns. That law lasted until 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. This ruling said that corporations, as associations of individuals, have free speech rights, and limiting a corporation’s ability to spend money on political campaigns unconstitutionally limits the ability of its members to associate effectively and to speak on political issues. The ruling made it legal for corporations to spend unlimited sums on independent political expenditures and enabled nonprofit corporations to spend money on independent political broadcasts without having to disclose the names of donors who fund the activities.

In a minority dissenting opinion (joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor), Justice Stevens wrote:

“The Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people … who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

The November 2010 elections were the first nationwide elections after the Citizens United ruling, and the effect was evident. Two organizations, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS – which were founded by two former George W. Bush aides, Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie – spent more than $38 million on attack ads and mailings. Under Citizens United, there was no obligation to disclose the source of those funds, but NBC News claimed to have been told that much of the money came from hedge funds and private equity companies. The donors were opposed to Democratic proposals that would not have allowed hedge fund managers to have their compensation taxed at the lower capital gains rate.

Nearly $300 million was spent on congressional campaign ads, of which 42 percent was funded by anonymous donors. Republican outside-advocacy groups outspent Democratic groups by over $50 million. After the election, Crossroads claimed much credit for achieving the largest swing in House seats since 1938.

Not all large donations are anonymous and not all are to Republican candidates. Many political action committees (PACs) contributing to federal candidates in 2010 spent over $3 million each. They included the National Association of Realtors, Honeywell, National Beer Wholesalers, and AT&T. Their contributions were fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. If you consider donations directly to the two political parties in addition to donations to individual candidates, the amounts get as high as $8 million and show the influence of trade unions such as Service Employees International Union, National Education Association, and American Federation of Teachers.

In addition to donations to campaigns, there is Washington’s second favorite profession: lobbying. The first favorite is also the oldest, but not suitable for discussion in a family newspaper.

On further thought, maybe there isn’t that much difference between the two.

In 2011, there were over 12,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, and they spent almost $3.5 billion in representing the interests of their clients. It may be technically legal, but there is something that does not smell right when a lobbyist visits a legislator to promote his client’s position concerning a piece of legislation coming before the legislator’s committee – and shows up that evening at a fundraiser for the legislator and writes a check for $10,000.
I was planning to close this sad story with another quote from Will Rogers: “It’s a good thing we don’t get all the government we pay for.”

But I decided a quote from the actual Supreme Court majority opinion in Citizens United was even more humorous:

“… this court now concludes that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

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