Now that US elections are more expensive than ever, Elizabeth O’Malley examines the link between money and politics
Why do American politicians need to be dragged kicking and screaming to pass a law which allows its citizens, not free healthcare, but the right to buy insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions? Why does the US allow foods and drugs on the market that the EU has banned for being unsafe and unhealthy? Why does the US spend more on weapons and defence than the next 25 biggest spenders combined?
The answer lies in a decision made by the Supreme Court of the US in the 1970s that struck down an attempt to limit campaign donations and ruled that spending money to influence elections is constitutionally protected. Essentially, money equals speech. Another decision in 2010 allowed unlimited donations by anyone, individual or corporate. Contributors can remain anonymous.
From the moment a Congressperson gets into office, they are required $35,000 a week in order to be able to run in the next election. The Senate is even more expensive at $60,000 a week, according to the average election spending numbers from 2012.
Money has become crucial for House, Governor, and Presidential races where the amount of advertising a candidate buys often determines the winner of an election. Policy positions, performance in debates and personal histories still play a role, but money remains key to getting elected.
If you’re running for election, you’re not going to be able to raise millions of dollars from private donations alone. What happens next is a group with an interest in having sway over the political process steps in with a chequebook. They’ll fund you if you give them something in return.
With Coca Cola alone spending over $2 million, the oil lobby spending over $100 million, and the health lobby spending an incredible $300 million on lobbying and political donations, it’s clear that these groups are willing to invest money in order to try and sway public representatives to legislate in a way they find favourable.
Yes, this means that certain groups, such as charities and other non-profit organisations will have some sway, but those with the most money have the most power, and that’s more likely to be BP than Greenpeace. Additionally, it stands to reason that politicians should not need to be paid by these organisations in order to make law that helps people.
In Ireland, we are not immune from our public representatives being controlled by money. After all, the Mahon Tribunal exposed part of what we already suspected; that it had become de rigeur for our government during the boom years to award development contracts in return for donations.
But apart from individuals influencing once off decisions, Irish politics has, for the most part, avoided the enormous pitfalls of the US system. Advertising on TV and radio is prohibited; meaning campaign spending is minimal. Costs are also subsidised by the government. The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill 2011, which limits party donations to a total of €2,500, is currently making its way through the Oireachtas.
Why is this an issue? Democracy rests on the consent of the governed, the idea that those who we elect will represent our interests. In the US, money has the effect of distorting this paradigm in favour of big business and against the interests of the majority of citizens.
Politicians use up their political influence, time and money focussing on the issues important to their campaign contributors, leading to legislative inertia. Any attempts to reform the education system, fix social security or tackle poverty are put on the back burner, or forgotten completely.
That’s not taking into account those times when a particular lobby is opposing some reform you want to make. For example, the US, despite being a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, has never enforced it. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, there has been no real regulation put in place to limit exposure in the banking sector. Any attempts at reform of gun-control laws are vigorously blocked by the NRA and other groups.
A good example is when the government tried to promote healthier lunches in schools by limiting salty food and adding more vegetables. This was defeated through lobbying by Coca Cola, Del Monte and others. This is where the infamous ‘pizza is a vegetable’ rule came from.
By ensuring that those with money wield political influence, you entrench the interests of the already powerful in society. It is no wonder then that the US has the worst income equality in the developed world. It is also no wonder that the US has the fourth lowest tax intake out of the OECD countries, beating only Turkey, Chile and Mexico.
The problem with saying that spending money is a form of freedom of speech is that it is based on the flawed perception that if you don’t allow large donations, either by individuals or corporations, then you are limiting their rights to express themselves. Instead the opposite is true. By allowing an unlimited amount of money to be donated, you rob those who don’t have money of their voices.
It seems unlikely that anything will change. Since the Supreme Court has taken a position that money is speech and corporations are people, which have been generously described as legal fictions, it seems that any proposed change in the law would be struck down. Then again, a new generation on the bench and informed debate have been known to change supposedly intractable positions before.