Navigating the Bizarre World of US Campaign Finance Laws

Introduction

To the casual observer, US politics is just that of any other country. At the surface level, this is true. The usual partisan bickering, soundbites from news clips and horserace aspect of politics is prevalent. Hardly any substantive discussion of policy, honest debates or competing philosophies. This article will examine the deteriorating faith Americans have in their government and media. In this article the author has endeavoured to provide the campaign finance laws and their origin.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

What is on this page?

  • Introduction
  • Money in politics
  • How We Got Here
  • Citizens United v FEC
  • First National Bank of Boston v Bellotti
  • Resolution Pathways
  • Hope in grassroots policy?
  • Notes
  • What would you do next?

Money in politics

Money in politics has become the phrase of the day because it affects every person from the Eastern Seaboard of New York through the Midwest and to the West Coast of California. It even extends to the two States that are not part of the contiguous United States (Alaska and Hawaii).

How We Got Here

A 2014 study by Martin Gilens of the University of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens” confirmed the fears of many.

They precluded that there is little to no relationship between what the masses want, and a legislative change passed in the houses of law. The research also concluded that the interests of affluent people win at the end of the day and are represented in the legislation.

An article on Vox cites subsequent research that precluded that “America is an imperfect democracy, but it is hardly an oligarchy” This article notes that the term oligarchy was coined by the press in 2014 after the Princeton paper.

 But this article voices dissent towards the subsequent research which says when the rich and the middle class disagree, each will win about half the time. Subsequent research notes that the rich get their way 53% of the time as opposed to 47% for the middle class.

Consider that 17% of Americans still want to be in Afghanistan (a 2013 poll found) and yet 6 years later the United States is still in there.

Citizens United v FEC

This landmark case (although not the first) was the catalyst that spurred the growth of money in politics. According to the Supreme Court, political campaign spending by non-profits, labour unions and corporations are protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment. But this fundamentally goes against the principle of one man one vote.

Consider two candidates running for the office. One wants to enact a hike in minimum wage laws to keep up with productivity or inflation and the other is opposed to this hike. According to the court, a company can flood the campaign of who they favour (who will then use that money to buy advertising time on TV, travel the State or even the country, have more staffers etc) naturally that company is opposed to the minimum wage hike and their spending would be the deciding factor.

 As opposed to a level playing field where competing philosophies were hoping for a vote (a more organic process) people in that area would be more exposed to the candidate who was backed by “big money” and that person would inevitably win. Even if the “good guy” manages to have his message pierce through this veil, he or she cannot rely solely on grassroots donations which pale in comparison to the millions that would be poured into his opponent’s campaign.

 This ruling eliminated spending caps and has paved the way for dark unaccountable money into election campaigns.

Would a grandmother in Kansas have her voice heard when she votes against hydraulic fracturing in her area when there is an oil and gas exploration company donating to policymakers?

 Obviously not and the politician would mask this policy by claiming it would bring jobs (ignoring the pollution and increased the likelihood of earthquakes). These scenarios are not abstract, they are real-life examples of the policy in the United States.

First National Bank of Boston v Bellotti

Another abysmal ruling which held that corporations have a First Amendment right to make contributions to ballot initiative campaigns.

Under UK law any cash payment of over 10,000 GBP has to be declared (debit/credit card is fine) why the cap? Because of traceability. Why then should the undue influence of money sway policy away from the will of the people? Last year, Amazon and Starbucks funded a ballot challenge to repeal a tax on large employers (which would have raised $48million) to tackle homelessness in the USA, just another example of how the affluent people and organisation operate in the USA and allowed by the law.

 According to tax experts cited by the Washington Post, cities have limited leverage over large corporations. Matthew Gardner an analyst at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy notes it as a “bargaining power problem”.

Resolution Pathways

A reduction in the length of time that US elections generally take could be a measure necessary to balance the imbalance between the electorates and affluent organisations and people.

It is important to note that in comparison, the nations in the west have much shorter times to campaign (less money relative to the US to raise, shorter time, actually focus on the issues and the policies instead of attending dinners to raise money which eats into campaign time). Many critics of the current campaign system argue that the US should adopt this western model of shorter campaigns.

There should also be a cap on election spending. It is not sustainable because then it becomes a battle of money as opposed to a battle of ideas. The revolving door in politics should be closed as well. Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary pushed for Citibank to merge with Travellers Group. They did and he left his post to be a handsomely rewarded executive at the newly formed Citigroup.

Former President Obama had an email sent to him from Citigroup suggesting members for his newly formed government’s cabinet. Only one name did not make the spot but this article asserts that this is not how a government should be run. Health insurance companies lobby government to not have a universal healthcare policy (Obamacare mandated that people purchase health insurance from the private market and did not provide a public option) A UK-like healthcare system would work wonders in the US.

Hope in grassroots policy?

Mike Monetta the national director of Wolf-PAC says “we don’t have to reinvent the wheel” He maintains that Wolf-PAC is following the route of constitutional change to remedy “big problems” Wolf-PAC is calling for a constitutional convention under Article 5.

 This is the path of least resistance (as opposed to going through Congress) where two-thirds of the States demand a convention to amend the constitution and introduce spending caps as well as provide for the taxpayer funding of elections.

There is historical precedent. New York and Virginia called for a convention to propose the bill of rights effectively forcing the Congress to react. 7 States have agreed.

Notes

A Gallup poll found that less than half of the population trusts the mass media. A Georgetown and NYU research found when they asked 5,400 respondents (more than which is typically used for a nationally representative political poll) to “indicate their level of confidence in 20 US institutions,” the top five were the military, Amazon, Google, local police, and colleges and universities. The bottom five were the press, the executive branch, Facebook, political parties, and Congress, which highlights the distress people in the USA have with their current political system and campaign rules.

What would you do next?

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This article is written by our volunteer Mr Kwaku Asihene Dapaah

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