Thursday, December 11, 2014

Here we go again: Wealthy to get even louder voice -- Dec. 11, 2014 column


Americans have a hate-hate relationship with money in politics.

We hate the corrupting influence of lobbyists and big money, but most of us also hate to open our own wallets to campaigns and political parties. We take a dim view as well of public or taxpayer funding of campaigns.   

Some wish for a constitutional amendment, which is about as likely as a magic wand, to make the money in politics disappear. Instead, we cede influence to a sliver of the population that does contribute to political campaigns and committees.

Only 0.2 percent of Americans gave $200 or more in the 2014 election cycle and only 0.04 percent gave more than $2,600, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.

“In other words, current rules limiting how much an individual can give to party committees haven’t been a pressing problem for most Americans,” the center says on its website.

But the fortunate few who do feel restrained by current limits have an ally in Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The incoming majority leader negotiated a provision in the $1.1 trillion federal spending bill (on page 1,599 of 1,603 pages) to raise the limits on contributions by wealthy people to national party committees.

In effect, the provision guts what’s left of McCain-Feingold, the bipartisan 2002 law that prohibited large contributions by the wealthy and corporations to national party committees and required disclosure of those contributions. Donors soon found that the law allowed individuals and corporations to contribute “soft” money that didn’t have to be reported to outside groups.

This year, the maximum someone can give either the Democratic National Committee or Republican National Committee is $32,400. Under the new scenario, the political committees could set up three new separate accounts with separate contribution limits. Estimates vary on how much people then could give.  

In a letter to senators, six campaign finance watchdog groups said a single individual could contribute $777,600 per year or $1,555,200 per two-year election cycle. A couple could give $3,110,400 per two-year cycle, said the letter signed by Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and three other groups.

“There is absolutely no justification for allowing these massive contributions that can only be given by millionaires and billionaires and are bound to result in corruption and national scandals,” the letter said. 

So where did the bail-out for the parties come from?

“This provision was worked out in a bipartisan way to allow those of us who are organizing political conventions to raise the money from private sources as opposed to using taxpayer funds,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters.

It’s not the first time Congress has cut public funding of campaigns. In April, President Barack Obama signed bipartisan legislation to eliminate taxpayer funding for national political conventions and redirect the money to childhood disease research at the National Institutes of Health.

Former Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., championed the measure, which was named the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act in remembrance of a 10-year-old girl in Leesburg, Va., who died of brain cancer.

Taxpayers have been paying part of the conventions’ costs since 1976. In 2012, taxpayers gave each party about $18 million for the events, a pittance of the total bill, most of which was paid by corporate and individual donors.

We are witnessing the last gasp of the campaign finance reform era that was born after the Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s. Although the Supreme Court has watered down laws seeking to limit contributions, the people never embraced the laws either.

Congress approved a $1 checkoff  ($2 for a married couple) to help pay for presidential campaigns. Later tripled to $3 and $6, the checkoff never caught on. At its most popular, 29 percent of taxpayers used it, in 1980. By 2012, only 6 percent did.   

Since 1976, about $1.5 billion has gone to publicly financed candidates and nominating conventions, according to the Congressional Research Service. But presidential candidates have chosen to opt out rather than abide by the limits that accompany public funds. 

In 2012, Obama became the first president elected without accepting public funds.

We tend to act only in the wake of scandals, so it may take the next Watergate to wake us up to the need for campaign finance reform. Until then, the people with deep pockets will dig even deeper, and reap the rewards.   

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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