Many voters recognize that only about 10 percent of the 435 congressional seats are actually competitive. Gerrymandering and the “business of politics” seem to be the major culprit. The same dynamic holds true for the 7,400 state legislative seats across the country. What voters may not realize is that there is also a money — or funding — primary that precedes the party primary to select the candidates who will represent us.
The Money Primary
The money primary is happening now for all the candidates running in 2020 at the municipal, state and federal levels. This three-stage system has evolved to meet the needs of the Republican and Democratic National Committees and the major funders that support them. From this perspective, the “business of politics” is working just fine. But what about the “will of the people”? Research at Princeton University concluded that public opinion has virtually no impact the likelihood of Congress any specific piece of legislation. Watch the Video
The Princeton study showed that the opinion of the top 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans affects the likelihood of Congress to pass any specific piece of legislation. Money talks.
Should we be surprised that in 2016 and 2018, 95 percent of congressional incumbents were reelected in spite of a 17 percent overall approval rating? With some notable exceptions, the top spending candidates win nearly 90 percent of the races.
Wealthy Individual Donors Dominate U.S. Elections
The Washington Post reports that just 11 donors have injected $1 billion into U.S. political races in the past eight years through super political action committees (PACs). These big-money entities give wealthy contributors a powerful way to influence elections.
The donors — a bipartisan collection of hedge-fund billionaires, entrepreneurs, media magnates and a casino mogul — contributed more than one-fifth of the $4.5 billion collected by these types of PACs since their inception in 2010, according to the Post’s analysis of data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The Post observes, “The intense concentration of money shows how a tiny group of super-rich individuals has embraced these political groups, which have emerged as indispensable allies of candidates and political parties since the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision in 2010. That ruling helped give rise to super PACs, which are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on political activity.”
“The massive sums coming from just a handful of donors illustrate how candidates and parties are now dependent on billionaires to support their efforts — and demonstrate the successful circumvention of efforts to curtail big money in politics that followed the Watergate and 1996 Democratic National Committee fundraising scandals.”
The Post concludes: “The big donor is not just a donor who gives to politicians and parties. The big donor has become a political actor in his own right.”
“Fewer than 400 families account for half of all campaign contributions.”
Additional Influential Donors
If the “top tier” is 11 individual donors, the next tier is a group of several hundred families that contribute half of all campaign contributions. A New York Times analysis of the FEC and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) records in 2016 shows that about 130 families and their businesses provided more than half the money raised through June by the Republican candidates and their super PACs. The Democrats also have some big-money, fat-cats, but they also have a wider base of smaller donors.
A second vehicle, groups that claim to be social welfare organizations, is also worrying because the donations don’t have to be disclosed to the public.
Business Interests Hedge their Bets by Contributing to Both Major Parties
An analysis of 2018 campaign spending shows that business interests spread their influence across both major parties. For example, the oil and gas industry tends to bet heavily on the Republican side. Whereas trial lawyers, environmental advocates, non-profit organizations and educational institutions tend to invest heavily on the Democratic side.
Major spending is in finance, real estate, health care and gambling. This group spreads their bets 51/49 across the two major parties. Business interests spread their bets because they want to influence the legislative process no matter which party holds the majority. As Larry Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, has observed, “Too many on the right make the same mistake as many on the left. They assume the change happens when you win enough votes in Congress.”
He continues, “elect a strong Republican majority, and you will elect a government that will deliver the promise of smaller government and simpler taxes. Just as activists on the Left thought that they could elect a strong Democratic majority and deliver on the promise of meaningful health care reform, or global warming legislation, or whatever other reform the Left thought it would get.” (Source: Republic Lost, 2012)
Congress Operates as a Money Machine
Lessig also said, “So long as wealth can be used to leverage political power, wealth will be used to leverage political power to protect itself. And as long as private [and undisclosed] money drives public elections, public officials will work hard to protect that private money.”
In the business of politics, members of Congress buy top spots on the most powerful committees. To raise the money, they often collect from the interests their committees are supposed to oversee.
Dark money floods the system through super PACs. Pollsters, strategists, fundraisers, consultants, media experts, direct mail services, digital services and many other professions have a huge financial stake in the system. Up to this point, we have highlighted how money corrupts the political process.
What is the price of power? Watch this Full Measure video with Sharyl Attkisson
The Exodus of Lawmakers from Washington
Recent reporting addresses how fundraising also takes a toll on the lawmakers themselves. In all, 52 House members chose not to run for re-election in 2018. This was well above the historic average. Their frustrations were described in a recent report, Why We Left Congress. Brief excerpts include:
- “The incentive structure is set up to get you to sell out to lobbyists because they are the only ones who have the currency you need… to buy your committee assignments.” Rep Thomas Massie (R-KY)
- “I don’t know of a single member that is leaving that does not include the pressures of raising money to advance and maintain your committee position as one of the contributing factors.” Rep Zach Wamp (R-TN)
- “My mom had taught me not to talk a lot about myself and never ask strangers for money, and then, that’s all I have done for the last 10 years.” Rep Lynn Jenkins (R-KS)
- “Campaign professionals generally recommend that lawmakers spend 20 to 30 hours a week raising money. I have been criticized and reprimanded by my democratic colleagues and party leaders for not spending enough time raising money.” Rep Rick Nolan (D-MN)
- “The seriousness of your candidacy is often measured by your ability to raise funds.” Rep Niki Tsongas (D-MA)
The demands outlined above can be even more extreme in the Senate. According to Represent US, The average U.S. Senator must raise more than $14,000 a day every day for six years to run for re-election.
Are There Signs of Hope?
The following are reasons why some speculate that change is in the air:
- Nearly 100 Anti-Corruption Acts have passed since 2014
- Promising movement toward financial transparency
- By introducing HR 1, Democrats have concluded that political reform may be a viable issue for 2020
- Constitutional repeal of Citizens United is further along than many realize
Do these steps represent signs that we are at a tipping point? Or is it merely a pipe dream? Read Part 2 of our Money in Politics series to find out.