By Zac Emanuel
To understand how money influences politics, you first have to grasp how money gets into politics. In the United States of America, an individual may only donate $2,800 directly to any candidate during any election cycle. They can only give $5,000 to a Political Action Committee (PAC) that donates to candidates. They can give $10,000 to their local, district, or state parties, and $35,000 to the national party. While this might seem like a lot of money, it pales compared to the over $5,000,000,000 (5 BILLION!) spent in the 2016 election cycle alone. These limits on campaign funding are set in order to prevent the wealthy from having an outsized impact on our political process. In some states, this is in addition to public funding for their campaigns. In states like Maine and Arizona, and in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland, the majority of politicians finance their campaign with minimal amounts of private funds. Rather, the electoral governing body finances each campaign. With all of these measures in place, how do five billion dollars get spent in the 2016 electoral cycle? The answer can be found in the aftermath and effects of two Supreme Court decisions, Citizens United v. FEC and Speechnow.org v. FEC. These two cases, in conjunction, opened the floodgates of money in our election cycle. The Citizens United decision made it so that corporations could not be limited in its spending on political communication (essentially, that “Money equals speech”) and Speechnow changed the reporting requirements for certain political spending (making it that certain groups did not need to report donors and donations to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC)).
To understand how these two cases changed the fate of elections in our age, you have to first begin to learn about the players these cases affected. There are three major-non candidate political spenders: PACs, Super-PACs, and Dark Money.
Political Action Committees, or PACs, are typically set up by an organization or corporation to raise money to spend on candidates it favors in elections. They may donate directly to candidates up to $5,000 per election cycle, but other than that has the same limitations on spending that individuals do. They are also required to report to the FEC who donates, and how much.
A Super-PAC is a style of political action committee that arose directly due to the two cases discussed above. As long as they do not directly do not donate to a candidate, and only have “independent-expenditures” (to operate independently from a candidate, without communication, direction, and oversight directly from the candidates), they have no limit on the amount of funds they can spend, raise, and from who they raise. However, many of these groups are led by former staffers for the candidates they are supporting, and while they may not be directly lead by a candidate, they have inside knowledge on how the candidate thinks, brands themselves, and communicates. They also can communicate indirectly via the media. There is nothing preventing, for example, a Super-PAC from retweeting the candidate. More egregiously, a candidate saying in an interview that they want to focus their campaign on issues X,Y, and Z, and they want to focus on their opponents record on 3 other issues, and a Super-PAC immediately adopting that as their strategy, is also not against the rules.
“Dark-Money” groups are another form of monetary flooding in our electoral process. So named due to the non existent reporting requirements for 501(c)4 “social welfare” and 501(c)6 “Chambers of Commerce” tax exempt groups, the only mitigating factors and laws for these groups political actions is that they are required to only partake in “issue advocacy” and not “political advocacy”. Notable groups that take advantage of 501(c)4 tax status advocates include on the conservative side the NRA, Americans for Prosperity, America First Policies, and on the liberal side, the NAACP, Everytown for Gun Safety, and Planned Parenthood. Ironically, the ninth-largest 501(c)4 in 2018 was Ending Spending.
Now that we have an understanding about what these groups are, we can begin to understand the gross amount of money they handle. Between 2000 and 2008, $1.7 billion was spent total by the top 20 PACs, Super-PACs, and 501(c)4 and 6 groups. In 2018 alone, which, as a non-presidential election year, typically has less spending than the previous electoral cycle, $1.97 billion was spent by the top 20 of these groups. In the same amount of electoral cycles, 2010-2018 spent over $6 billion total, compared to the above mentioned $1.7 billion. Looking specifically at the 501(c)4/6 groups, the amount of money spent by these groups jumped 5878.43% from 2004 to 2012. There has also been a 600% increase in the number of such groups. But the spending arms race has not just exploded from these PACs and dark money groups. Overall spending in elections has skyrocketed when the candidates are factored in too. The amount of overall spending, candidates, included, increased by 79% in the five electoral cycles since 2010 compared to the five before it.
So, you might be asking, why does this matter? Yes, it is a lot of money, but how does that affect you? In short, a variety of ways. First, 90% of the time, the candidate that spends the most money or is supported by the most money, wins their election. The second, is that while quid-pro-quos are illegal in campaign finance, unofficial bribery in does in fact exist. Looking at the report cards Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, the NRA, and Americans for Tax Reform, one can see that the same groups that make donations and expenditures on behalf or to candidates rates them, endorses them, and expects them to fight for their causes. This affects YOUR representation in congress. It is how while most Americans support more stringent background checks for gun purchases, NRA backed politicians refuse to move on it. It is how while Climate Change is settled science, fossil fuel backed candidates will be skeptical publicly, and refuse to take meaningful action. You want to know why the opiate crisis took so long to recognize, and Purdue Pharma event was allowed to downplay the addictiveness of their opioids? Look at the $12,000,000 in PAC donations and $27,500,000 spent on lobbying by Big Pharma in the 2018 midterms and 2018 as a year. Gun access? $9,000,000 in the 2018 midterms and $5,000,000 on lobbying by the NRA in 2018.
In this day and age, you cannot win a major election without some sort of PAC or fundraising behind you. No money, means no staffers, no advertisements, and no press coverage. It prevents you from getting your name and message out. Therefore, even politicians who argue for more regulated campaign finance still have some measure of support from the very groups they seek to depose. In the same sense the 501(c)4 Ending Spending exists, you have to play the game to win. Moral victories do nothing for your constituents, or problems you seek to solve in office. Therefore even the most ideological pure candidates for the most part take some kind of PAC funding, whether Dark Money or traditional PAC. It is why when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren said they would not take funding from these sources during their presidential primary campaigns it is newsworthy, as it is significantly more difficult to operate a campaign in this manner. It is also the reason the Dem ocratic National Committee chose to include a set amount of donors required to serve as debate qualifications, in order to force all the candidates to attempt to form a more grass roots-centric campaign.
Money dictates our elections, it shapes what we see in advertisements for or about candidates, who we see in elections, and what messages get spread. Know who contributes to or on behalf of your representatives. And keep in mind “Citizens for (your town)” may not actually be citizens of, or for your hometown in actuality. In politics, money talks, and frankly, it can silence everyone else in the room.