Money corrupts politics more than you realize

The power of political action groups isn't just in their ability to buy airtime. Their more insidious function may be influencing legislation before a single dollar is spent.

By MSNMoney partner Jul 27, 2012 8:38AM

By Ezra Klein


Campaigns need votes to win. But they need money simply to survive. They get that money from a vanishingly small percentage of Americans.


According to Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, only 0.26 percent of Americans give more than $200 to congressional campaigns. Only 0.05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. Only 0.01 percent -- 1 percent of 1 percent -- give more than $10,000 in an election cycle. And in the current presidential election, 0.000063 percent of Americans -- fewer than 200 of the country's 310 million residents -- have contributed 80 percent of all super-PAC donations.


"This, senators, is corruption," Lessig said Tuesday, in testimony before the Judiciary Committee. "Not 'corruption' in the criminal sense. I am not talking about bribery or quid pro quo influence peddling. It is instead 'corruption' in a sense that our Framers would certainly and easily have recognized: They architected a government that in this branch at least was to be, as Federalist 52 puts it, 'dependent upon the People alone.' You have evolved a government that is not dependent upon the People alone, but that is also dependent upon the Funders. That different and conflicting dependence is a corruption of our Framers' design, now made radically worse by the errors of Citizens United."


Last week, Senate Democrats took another run at blunting the influence of Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that permits unlimited contributions to independent political committees. The lawmakers voted for the Disclose Act, which would have required groups making more than $10,000 in campaign- related expenditures to disclose contributors who had donated more than $10,000. No longer would information about election spending be limited to, "This ad paid for by Americans United for a More American America."


They failed. Senate Republicans successfully filibustered the legislation. Even if the Democrats had succeeded, the Disclose Act would not have gone nearly far enough.


It's a quirk of politics that we tend to focus on the aspects of problems that are readily dramatized by legislation. This makes a certain kind of sense: It's better to spend our time thinking about what we can fix than what we can't. It can also make us a little myopic.


The Disclose Act was ultimately a minor piece of legislation. Recall those numbers above? It wouldn't have changed any of them. Nor could the act truly force full disclosure. As Lessig argued in his testimony, the Disclose Act wouldn't force disclosure of money that hadn't been spent. In today's world of unlimited super-PAC expenditures, that may be the most influential money of all.


The power of super-PACs is not restricted to their ability to buy airtime for television ads. That's what attracts all the news coverage, but the more insidious function of super-PACs may be influencing legislation before a single dollar is spent -- by threatening to buy future airtime.


Imagine the oil industry wants a small, technical change in a law setting environmental standards. It's an issue few voters are following, or will even hear about. But it's worth billions of dollars to the industry. So oil companies establish a super- PAC and send lobbyists to every congressional office with a simple message: Legislators who support the change will receive a donation, and each legislator who votes against it will be subject to $1 million in super-PAC attack ads in their district in the last week of the campaign.


The most likely outcome is that compliant lawmakers will guarantee that the super-PAC money never has to be spent. Without spending, there is nothing to disclose.


The deeper problem is that the Disclose Act is addressing the wrong problem. Citizens United focused attention on the failures of our system of campaign finance. But it did not create them. As Lessig puts it, "On Jan. 20, 2010, the day before Citizens United was decided, our democracy was already broken. Citizens United may have shot the body, but the body was already cold."


The real culprit is arguably the 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo, in which the Supreme Court held that political money is tantamount to political speech. As a result, Congress can't limit spending by campaigns. Citizens United and related court decisions made it harder to regulate spending by outside groups, which further eroded the legitimacy of the system. It is all but impossible to break politicians' dependence on big funders so long as their opponents can benefit from moneyed interests spending unlimited amounts of cash on an election.


There are good ideas out there. The Fair Elections Now Act would make it substantially easier for members of Congress to rely on small donors to fund their campaigns, though it still would not do them much good if a super-PAC descended in the final days of a race and spent millions on negative ads.


Fundamental solutions require more radical thinking. At the same Senate hearing where Lessig testified, Ilya Shapiro, a scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute, said, "To the extent that 'money in politics' is a problem, the solution isn't to try to reduce the money -- that's a utopian goal -- but to reduce the scope of political activity the money tries to influence. Shrink the size of government and its intrusions in people's lives and you'll shrink the amount people will spend trying to get their piece of the pie or, more likely, trying to avert ruinous public policies."


It is true that if you could shrink the government to a size where it no longer mattered in people's lives, moneyed interests might be less likely to try to influence elections. But that seems unlikely, and between the dismantling of the social safety net and the destruction of our military might, the cure might be worse than the disease.


The other side of the coin -- and, I admit, this is utopian thinking -- is a constitutional amendment making it possible to limit the role of private money in politics. This is not a solution I like endorsing, because it seems impossible to imagine it actually happening. But it was, presumably, difficult for a previous generation to imagine that the Constitution would be amended to permit the direct election of senators, thus necessitating expensive campaigns that only a small fraction of Americans would fund. Yet here we are.

More from Bloomberg

Jul 28, 2012 6:39PM
Over-turn Citizens United.
Outlaw SuperPACs.
Kick the lobbyists out of DC.
Jul 27, 2012 9:24PM
Thanks to the fascist five on the SCOTUS, we have the best government money can buy. And if corporations are people, we'll soon have a CORPORATE DICTATORSHIP. Money is political power, not speech. Oh yeah!  Buy your own government.
Jul 27, 2012 5:12PM
MSNBC is finally getting the massage.  Vested interests own congress. It is time to revolt.
Jul 28, 2012 6:35PM
I can't afford to make a contribution.
And what would my $100 mean anyway when rich people like the Koch's, Soros, and Shelden Adelson are contributing MANY MILLIONS?

The little people have lost any say in the government.

Jul 29, 2012 3:51PM
It just goes to show any member of congress is the best MONEY CAN BUY.. Thanks to the US Supreme court ! The bench full of idiots !  9 fools and gee they get jobs for life ! LOL LOL Only in THE USA baby land of the free ? Home of the truly stuipd.. We have no one to blame but ourselves
Jul 28, 2012 9:21PM

So...corporate SuperPacs, threaten to buy airtime in order to throw mud at a person in office, to get small changes in the law to benefit the corporation(s)...and/or they withhold campaign money.

Hmm... Sounds like they put the people's representatives are in-between a rock and a hard place.

Smells like, tastes like, extortion of the people's my non-elitist opinion.


Whatever happened to antitrust laws...Whatever happened to truth in advertising laws?  Whatever happened to political representatives that actually represented the people? ...Whatever happened to Mister Smith? ...I don't know much, I'm far from being a lawyer. I'm just asking as an American citizen, an actual person, It seems to me there is something that could be, should be done using laws that we have on the books...yet, I'm just a simple American citizen, who could never understand the complex workings, of any of what, seems to be a Mafioso type mentality, and a hostage type situation.


Jul 29, 2012 11:35PM
You gotta admit.....FUNDING FATHERS are the new hierarchy for the 21st century.
Jul 31, 2012 11:29PM

I would like to see it required that all legislators' votes on legislation be published on a monthly, if not weekly basis. By published, I mean in every newspaper and on every news station, and in every library in the country. A summary of each bill would be required also. I know there is a website or two that provide this information, but not everyone has a computer. Knowledge of what your legislator is doing to you should be as simple as possible to see and must become automatic for voters like checking the weather report. 


Most would be shocked at what is being done to them by the people they voted into office. Elected officials need to be accountable to all constituents for how they vote. Most people don't have a clue as to what's being done to them once their representative gets into office.

Jul 30, 2012 1:47PM
Term limits might slow the corruption--might???
Jul 31, 2012 8:51PM

I did not need a story to let me know that money corrupts politics. I consider that common knowledge.


I sometimes wonder how many people get into office for the first time with the true intention of doing something great for this country. Then get bought into a bill that makes them tons of money. It's all downhill from there.

Jul 31, 2012 7:55PM

"An amendment that would legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences was inserted into the defense authorization bill. The defense bill passed the House May 18."


I read your whole post but fail to see where or why "this Administration" would be interested in getting this passed. Further, the style smacks of GOP subversiveness, it got slipped in, just like the Gramm Leach Bliley Act did in 1999. Further still, only the GOP has ads that exaggerate well beyond truths. These Comment Boards are full of posts blaming Obama for Dubya acts or worse, not addressing the gross incompetence of the Party of NO GOP operatives in Congress. Carl Levin & Debbie Stabenow have done magnificent work to keep our Rights intact and to go after the type of crud that would want to suppress our Freedom. Democrats didn't lobby the SCOTUS to call entities "people" and give them the same Rights. The enemy is obvious and it seems to have served YOU enough Kool Aid so that you became drunk on delusional propaganda.


May no GOP encumbent retain Office this Fall. May we know your lobbies and vanquish them from American Soil. I am not a card-carrying Democrat, but I respect good ethics and character.  

Jul 31, 2012 9:40PM

"I sometimes wonder how many people get into office for the first time with the true intention of doing something great for this country. Then get bought into a bill that makes them tons of money. It's all downhill from there."


This is why it's critical to vote out the entire GOP encumbents. There are few Democrats left and the Tea Party is validated proof of that corruption assimilation. Time for REAL CHANGE whether crooks are ready or not.

Aug 1, 2012 12:55AM

their seems to be a disconect between  what is best for we the people and wat is the best for corp.profit..greedy congress goes with the money everytime.selling out the American wonder why the president leans toward socialism type programs?read his income statements when the guy was in congress .and tell me unfit mitt has a better trac record .the choice is nov.comes down to a president who will seve American families.or a president who will serve American corporations and let the people be dammed.


Aug 2, 2012 5:06PM
Doesn't take a genius to figure that money corrupts.  So what does our illustrious Supreme Court do?  They make it easy for the corruptor to exist.  Thank you men of genius who think corporations are people and people are....well they don't count.
Aug 3, 2012 11:57AM
Vote for the right person who will Keep America strong and free not just because your a  INDEP, DEM or REPUB..Wake up people Vote them all out find someone you believe will get the job done right.
Aug 3, 2012 10:30AM
I think term limits and adding the twenty eighth amendment would work wonders. Whether it is Obama giving the unions money in exchange for support or Bush giving oil companies a break they are screwing any one with a net worth of less than five million.
Aug 3, 2012 12:55PM
There may be reasons to reduce the size of government but that would do next to nothing to correct the problem. Take the oil company example where the oil companies want to weaken environmental regulations. FIring some regulators may make it less risky to ignore the regulation but that is not what the oil companies want. They want the elimination of certain regulations. In other words, they want to go in the front door, not the back door as Cato desires. They want to have their cake and eat it too.
Aug 4, 2012 8:00PM
You forgot to mention the most common solution to corrupt government: A violent revolution that tears the whole system down.
Aug 1, 2012 6:50PM
Conveniently no mention of Big Union money buying political favor that has nearly ruined our auto industry, education system, and bankrupted our cities.  Agreed money has to be removed from politics, but legislation like the Disclose Act would allow for those currently in power to intimidate and punish any companies or individuals opposed.  Corruption can be reduced with term limits, setting flat tax rates and eliminating loopholes and deductions.  Reducing the power of government is the only way to put power back in the hands of the people.
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