Weissman is president of Public Citizen and an expert on economic, healthcare, trade and globalization, intellectual property and regulatory policy, and issues related to financial accountability and corporate responsibility. His top priorities include climate change, healthcare reform, financial regulation and campaign finance reform.
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It matters a great deal who wins the 2014 elections. On the other hand, we know that whatever the eventual outcome, the corporate class has already won.
Enabled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, billionaires and corporations have grabbed control of our elections. More money than ever is being spent—an estimated $4 billion in reported federal expenditures for this election, a record for a mid-term, though the actual amount is surely higher. But more significant than the actual amounts are the rising expenditures by outside organizations—Super PACs, social welfare organizations and trade associations—not connected to the candidates. These organizations concentrate their spending on the close races—often spending far more than the candidates themselves—so their influence is concentrated where it matters most.
These outside groups will report spending approximately $1 billion, though we’ll never know how much they truly throw at the election, because much of it is not required to be reported. A third or more of that spending is coming from Dark Money organizations, which don’t have to reveal their donors. The biggest centers of Dark Money are the organizations affiliated with the anti-government extremist Koch Brothers, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the leading trade association for big business.
For the Super PACs that do report their donors, we know that a very tiny number of people are overwhelming voters with their dollars. Just 42 people are responsible for a third of the $600 million raised by Super PACs. 42 people!
What do donors get for their extraordinary contributions? At the individual level, they get special access and special favors. But much more important is the systemic effect of their spending: With their heavy advertising, they define election races, often taking control of election narratives from candidates. They have a huge influence over who is elected; and even over who will consider running. Once the election is over, they help shape what Congress does—and does not do.
The vast majority of Americans want to raise the minimum wage. They want policies to advance income and wealth equality. Americans want Wall Street criminals put behind bars. By a more than two-to-one margin, Americans oppose more NAFTA-style trade agreements. Americans want investment in our schools, on sustainable transportation and infrastructure. They want policies to prevent catastrophic climate change. They want to protect—and improve—Social Security and Medicare.
So, why isn’t Congress raising the minimum wage and addressing income inequality? Why aren’t prosecutors going after Wall Street wrongdoers? Why is the president trying to negotiate NAFTA-style deals with Asia and Europe? Why aren’t we investing in our future? Why is Congress threatening the modest climate change policies of the Obama administration? Why do we face the prospect of Social Security and Medicare cuts again appearing on the Congressional agenda?
The giant campaign donations by the billionaires and corporations aren’t the only answer to those questions, but they are a big part of it. If we want America to deliver on its promise—if we want to advance justice and democracy, fairness and ecological sustainability; if we want everyone to get a fair shot—then we have to deal with the campaign finance system. A first step would be to require disclosure of all campaign-related spending by large corporations, so we at least know what companies are spending. The Securities and Exchange Commission should adopt a rule to require such disclosures immediately. In the longer term, we need to replace the current campaign spending system altogether with one that relies on small donors and public financing. But replacing the current system—including the outrage of billionaires and corporations dominating our elections with outside spending—will require overturning Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United. And that will take a constitutional amendment—something hard to do, by design, but something We the People have done time and again to strengthen our democracy.