The following is a guest blog by Josh Silver, executive director of Represent Us, campaign to pass the American Anti-Corruption Act which would overhaul campaign finance, impose strict lobbying and conflict of interest laws, and end secret political money. Unchecked campaign finance hinders the work of groups like Greenpeace to motivate our elected officials to get things done for our people and our planet while in office. The interests of lobbyists gets in the way of actual public representation in the White House and on Capitol Hill.
The election spending numbers are in and they broke all the records. President Obama and Governor Romney each raked in more than $1 billion, independent groups spent $1 billion more and super PAC king Sheldon Adelson told the Wall Street Journal that next election he’ll double the $100 million he spent this time. The total tab for federal elections? More than $6 billion.
That’s $6 billion taken away from investment in a cleaner planet, a greener economy and healthier global citizens.
Before I begin with an encouraging new political campaign that promises to finally check the unbridled power of big money interests in government, here’s a primer on why that mammoth number matters.
Contributions to politicians and political parties by just the top ten spending energy companies reached $19 million this election cycle. And that doesn’t include the secret money that countless energy companies spend through “501c4” nonprofit organizations such as Americans for Prosperity and Sixty Plus Association. Amount spent by the American Petroleum Institute in 2011 on public relations/advertising with just one firm? $68 million. These often-overlooked expenditures go towards fake grassroots groups and nefarious political attack operations.
For those of us who care less about partisanship and more about what our elected officials actually do — or fail to do — once in office, the 2012 election portends a bleak future.
Look to nearly every regulatory failure, broken campaign promise and wasteful government expenditure, and odds are you’ll find a ignoble tale of money corrupting the process and harming the interests of everyday Americans and our planet. Those are the same regulatory failures that prevent the US from embracing a bold climate change treaty, that allowed the Gulf oil spill, and sparked the great recession. And those are the same Americans (and planet) who can’t afford lobbyists and big-digit contributions.
If the sheer size of the checks being written isn’t enough, here’s a comprehensive list of why unchecked campaign spending remains the greatest obstacle for every person and organization fighting for a greener future:
1) While the biggest super PACs did not win the day, big donors did. Democrats beat huge outside spending, but they had to raise and spend roughly the same amount of money as the GOP, and the bulk of it came from large donors. Even with Obama’s impressive 4-plus million donors, campaign finance watchdog Open Secrets reports that the President’s campaign raked in 68 percent of its cash from large donors. Romney, 82 percent. Just more than 0.3 percent of Americans donated $200 or more to candidates and PACs this year. And while many donors are altruistic, many of the biggest spenders are not. They invest in politics in order to reap a return, and studies prove it’s a good bet. In a 2011 study, researchers followed a crucial tax policy debate — “The American Jobs Creation Act” — and calculated the amount companies who lobbied the bill saved on taxes based on the final law: 22,000 percent. That means for every dollar spent on lobbying, the companies got $220 in tax benefits.
2) Money buys access to politicians now more than ever. Lets use the “fiscal cliff,” as the most recent example. Witness the steady stream of high power CEO’s visiting politicians on Capitol Hill to tell them how they’d like to see the issue resolved. One group called “Fix The Debt” has raised more than $43 million to influence the economic debate, and had 54 CEO’s plying Congress recommending policies that help them and hurt their employees. You want face time with your elected representative but you don’t write big checks? Unlikely. The influence of money has permeated the DC elite, and is brilliantly critiqued in this New York Magazine piece by Jonathan Chait.
3) The “money primary” has narrowed to a jury of billionaires. Long before the infamous Citizens United court case opened the door to super PACs, the undue influence of money in politics made access to money — not good ideas — the primary litmus test for any political hopeful to gain his or her party’s blessing. Now the money primary has narrowed to a small jury of billionaires who alone can ensure a well-funded bid. As a result, 2016 presidential hopefuls from both parties have already visited billionaire PAC donors to kiss their rings. Mega donors like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers don’t just get face time; future presidents come to them years before the action starts, and assure them that they share the same policy objectives. Rest assured, nearly every one is directly at odds with yours.
4) The threat of rampant spending threatens politicians more than ever. Thanks to unlimited political spending, the energy industry and other special interests overtly spend millions of dollars against politicians who vote against their interests. Politicians know this, and calculate every policy decision based on how it will affect fundraising and potential opposition spending. The public interest is often a secondary consideration, and accounts for the glaring regulatory failures that define US government. Why do environmental issues continue to fail despite massive organizing campaigns and massive philanthropic support? It’s all about the money.
5) Lucrative influence industry jobs cause politicians and their staff to sell out the public interest, and prompt unprecedented numbers of politicians go straight from public service to K Street through the “revolving door.” Over 5,400 congressional staffers and close to 400 members left Capitol Hill to become federal lobbyists between 2001 and 2011. The average pay raise for politicians? 1,452 percent. In this environment, elected officials and their staff routinely do the bidding of special interests in anticipation of those jobs, and once they leave public service, use their rolodexes to curry influence with their former colleagues. Weak lobbying and “revolving door” rules allow politicians to call themselves “historical advisors” to skirt current rules.
6) PACs will learn from this experience, change old habits, and spend more effectively next election. Expect major shifts in strategy and tactics, with more online ads, more opposition research, more robo-calls, more below the belt attacks by secret groups, and other innovations.
This is the context in which many Democrats muse that $6 billion elections aren’t so bad after all, and Republicans like Karl Rove and Sheldon Adelson double down on plans to spend even more next time around. It’s the next chapter in the long-running, dysfunctional drama that has turned ours into a democracy in name only. And it is what inspired a group of conservatives and progressives to recently launch an ambitious new political campaign to change the entire system through sweeping overhauls of campaign finance, lobbying and disclosure laws. The campaign, Represent.Us is an unprecedented effort to unite grassroots progressives and conservatives — who both genuinely want to end the auction — behind the same, transformative political reform strategy.
The centerpiece is called the American Anti-Corruption Act, and its architect is former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter. It is legislation that would prohibit politicians from soliciting money from those they regulate; it would severely limit how much lobbyists can donate to campaigns; it would provide a $100 tax rebate for every American to contribute to candidates; it would make all political spending fully transparent; it would set contribution limits to super PACs…. it is bold enough that it proudly lives outside of the narrow range of debate in Congress today.
That’s why Represent.Us is not beginning with Congress, but rather by enlisting one million Americans as “Citizen Cosponsors” of the Act. Once we have the army, we’ll introduce the Act. Once we introduce the Act, we’ll ask every politician to cosponsor it and promise not to loophole or delay it. And the ones who won’t support it will become targets of a well-run campaign to unseat them from office.
Represent.Us marks the beginning of the broad based, bottom-up, right-left movement that has been missing from the reform equation for too long. It represents the greatest hope we, the people, have to reclaim our elections and our government. And it will fail if it doesn’t gain the active support of millions of environmentalists who understand that if we fail to get money out of politics, energy companies will continue to have their way with our elected leaders, and our planet will continue its slow march towards obsolescence. If you don’t join this money out movement now, ours will soon be yet another great empire that rose, and then fell to the point of no return. The stakes are that high.