Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Money and Politics

Money in Politics Buys Influence
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, November 8, 2022, p. A8

California’s 1960”s Assembly Speaker, Jesse Unruh, was the first to observe, “money is the mother’s milk of politics.”

EMILY’s List, dedicated to supporting women candidates, named itself with an acronym for “Early Money is Like Yeast” – adding, “it makes the dough rise.”

And rise it has. The total for the 2018 congressional midterms was $5.7 billion. This year? Open Secrets reports over $9.3 billion.

And what percent of the 18-and-above U.S. population of 255 million personally donated a total of $200 or more to that $9 billion? For men, 0.58 percent; women, 0.35 percent. Total for the top five donors? $365 million.
[Photo: wikimedia; attribution: emergencydentistsusa.com/price]

What’s wrong with this picture? To borrow from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “let me count the ways.”

Influence. It’s not clear that America ever had what Abraham Lincoln wished for at Gettysburg in 1863: a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Early Federalists were fond of the line, “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” We still have what those Federalists wanted: a “government of the people, by the wealthy, for the wealthy.”

Doubt it? Go back and re-read the numbers.

Everyone can cast one vote. Everyone does not have the same political influence. As Molly Ivins titled one of her books, “You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You.”

Investment. For some anonymous big donors their political contribution is an investment, not a gift. It can return more than buying stocks. I once calculated the return as 1000 or 2000 to one. Give a million dollars, get back a billion – in subsidies, contracts, tariffs, tax breaks, cut rates on drilling or grazing on public lands, or approved mergers.

Time. To put fundraising in perspective, a U.S. senator would have to raise $9343, every day, 365 days a year, for six years, to amass this year’s $25 million average campaign cost. For House members it’s $4528 a day for two years. That’s half, or more, of every day. No wonder they don’t have time to read, let alone write, legislation.

In addition to their own campaign, they’re expected to raise money for their party’s leadership and committee chairpersons – thereby further transferring political influence and power away from the individual Senate and House members.

So what can we do? There’s no shortage of suggestions. Here are examples – some used in other countries.
  • Public funding; from government, or via voters’ vouchers.
  • Term limits. When terms are expiring incumbents don’t need money.
  • Reject Citizens United. Corporations aren’t “persons;” dollars aren’t “speech.”
  • Outlaw dark money. If an organization’s money ultimately reaches candidates all its donors should be identified.
  • Limit weeks of campaigning.
And, because half of all campaign contributions pay for media and fundraising:
  • Require that TV stations, licensed to serve “the public interest,” provide free time to candidates.
  • Prohibit, or limit the number of, political TV commercials.
  • Require candidates using attack ads to pay for attached reply ads from the candidate attacked.
Anyone want “government for the people”? Let’s get to work.
Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner, has worked in political campaigns since 1952. Contact mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org

Mother’s milk. Gary Hooser, “The Mother’s Milk of Politics,” The Garden Island (Hawaii), Aug. 7, 2019, https://www.thegardenisland.com/2019/08/07/opinion/the-mothers-milk-of-politics/ (“Jesse Unruh . . . is credited with coining the phrase ….”)

Emily’s list. “Our History,” Emily’s List, https://www.emilyslist.org/pages/entry/our-history (“Early money is like yeast, it makes the dough rise.”)

$9 billion. “See how campaign money is being spent ahead of midterms,” PBS, Oct 17, 2022, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/see-how-campaign-money-is-being-spent-ahead-of-midterms (“You go back to 2018, [total spending was] $5.7 billion. … this year? … OpenSecrets says more than $9.3 billion ….”)

Donors. “Donor Demographics” [donors as percentage of U.S. population], Open Secrets, https://www.opensecrets.org/elections-overview/donor-demographics

“Who Are the Biggest Donors? Open Secrets, https://www.opensecrets.org/elections-overview/biggest-donors

(Top Individual Contributors: All Federal Contributions, 2021-2022 (rounded; top five) George Soros $128 million (Democrats) Richard Uihlein $81 million (Republicans) Kenneth C. Griffin $69 million (Republicans) Jeffrey S. & Janine Yass $47 (Republicans) Timothy Mellon $40 million (Republicans) $10,000 (Democrats) Total $365 million

E. B. Browning. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How Do I Love Thee?” (Sonnet 43), Poets.org, https://poets.org/poem/how-do-i-love-thee-sonnet-43 (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach …”)

Gettysburg Address. Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Nov. 19,1863, https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbpe.24404500/?st=text (“… we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”)

Those who own the country. Search Google Books with “Adams” AND “those who own the country” Numerous sources. Attributed to John Jay and Samuel Adams. Including, Gilbert John Clark, Life Sketches, Thoughts, Facts and Facetia/e of Eminent Lawyers (1895), vol. 1, p. 46, quoting from, John Adams Diary, 1774, p. 79, “’Those who own the country ought to govern it,’ was a favorite maxim with Mr. Jay.”

Molly Ivins. Molly Ivins, “You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You,” 1999, https://www.amazon.com/You-Dance-Them-What-Brung/dp/0679754873

Political “Investments.” Nicholas Johnson, “Campaigns: You Pay $4 or $4000,” Des Moines Register, July 21, 1996, p. 2C, https://www.nicholasjohnson.org/rcntpubl/campaign.html (“Why would anyone contribute so much money? The answer first came to me during President Nixon's Administration. Milk producers wanted a higher support price. The Department of Agriculture could find no justification. The producers gave Nixon $200,000. Shortly thereafter we all started paying $400 million more for our milk. The math isn't too hard: $400 million divided by $200,000 means the milk producers got a 2000-to-one return on that campaign contribution. What a "return on investment"!”)

“Campaign finance in the United States,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campaign_finance_in_the_United_States (“Campaign finance in the United States is the financing of electoral campaigns at the federal, state, and local levels. In 2020, nearly $14 billion was spent on federal election campaigns in the United States -- "making it the most expensive campaign in U.S. history",[1] "more than double" what was spent in the 2016 election.[2] Critics complain that following a number of Supreme Court decisions -- Citizens United v. FEC (2010) in particular -- the "very wealthy" are now allowed to spend unlimited amounts on campaigns (through "Super PACs"), and to prevent voters from knowing who’s trying to influence them (contributing "dark money" that masks their identity).[3] Consequently, as of at least 2022, critics (such as the Brennan Center for Justice) allege "big money dominates U.S. political campaigns to a degree not seen in decades" and is "drowning out the voices of ordinary Americans."[3]) (“More than one billion dollars of Dark money was donated in 2020.[50]”) (“No major party nominee turned down government funds for the general election from 1976, when the program was launched, until Barack Obama did so in 2008.[71] Obama again declined government funds for the 2012 campaign, as did Republican nominee Mitt Romney, setting up the first election since the program's launch in which neither major party nominee accepted federal funding.[72] Nor did either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton accept federal funding for the 2016 general election.[73]”) (“Impact of contributions A 2016 experimental study in the American Journal of Political Science found that politicians made themselves more available for meetings with individuals when they believed that the individuals had donated to their campaign.[85] A 2011 study found that "even after controlling for past contracts and other factors, companies that contributed more money to federal candidates subsequently received more contracts."[86] A 2016 study in the Journal of Politics found that industries overseen by committees decreased their contributions to congresspeople who recently departed from the committees and that they immediately increase their contributions to new members of the committees, which is "evidence that corporations and business PACs use donations to acquire immediate access and favor—suggesting they at least anticipate that the donations will influence policy."[87]) (“A 2012 study by Lynda Powell examined "subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which money buys influence" in state legislatures "from setting a party's agenda, to keeping bills off the floor, to adding earmarks and crafting key language in legislation", rather than the roll call to vote yes or no on particular legislation.[90] She found that political money "carries more weight" in states with "more highly compensated legislators, larger chambers, and more professionalized leadership structures", where the "majority party's advantage is tightly contested and whose legislators are more likely to hold hopes of running for higher office";[90] less weight where legislatures have term limits and voters are more highly educated.[90][91]”)

Expenditures. “Top Spending Candidate Committees 2022 Cycle,” Expenditures, Open Secrets, https://www.opensecrets.org/campaign-expenditures (Top five Senate committees (rounded): Warnock $76 million; Mark Kelly $73 million, Val Demings $68 million, Fetterman $52 million, and Tim Ryan $45 million; Total $314 million. 6 years = 2190 days. $76 million/2190 = $34,703

David Knowles, “U.S. Senate seat now costs $10.5 million to win, on average, while US House seat costs, $1.7 million, new analysis of FEC data shows,” New York Daily News, March 11, 2013, https://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/cost-u-s-senate-seat-10-5-million-article-1.1285491

Average cost. “Average Price of Victory,” Karl Evers-Hillstrom, “State of Money in Politics: The price of victory is steep,” Open Secrets, Feb. 19, 2019, https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2019/02/state-of-money-in-politics-the-price-of-victory-is-steep/ (“[In 2018] Victorious Senate candidates spent an average of $15.7 million, while the average winning House candidate shelled out just over $2 million on average.” See third “Source” cite. Total costs this year ($9.3 billion), vs. costs in 2018 ($5.7 billion), is a 163% increase. 163% of $15.7 million is $25.6 million; 163% of $2 million is $3.26 million. Daily costs. 6 years=2740 days. 25.6 million/2740=$9,343 2 years=720 days. 3.26 million/720=$4528

What can we do?

The examples/selections of proposals are my own, from reading, conversations, and experience over the years. I make no claim to being the first to think of any of them (except perhaps the last). What follows are random selections of material touching on these ideas.


Electoral Reform, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_reform (includes “4. Electoral reform by Country” for 17 countries)

Google search: “reforms to cut the high costs of American elections”

Column’s proposals.

Public funding: government or vouchers.

“Public financing of campaigns,” Campaign Finance in the United States,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campaign_finance_in_the_United_States#Public_financing_of_campaigns (“Massachusetts … taxpayers are allowed to contribute $1 to the statewide election fund by checking a box on their annual income taxes.” “Seattle voters approved the Democracy voucher program in 2015, which gives city residents four $25 vouchers to donate to participating candidates.[99] Vouchers have been proposed in other cities and states as a means to diversify the donor pool, help more candidates run for office, and boost political engagement.”)

Term limits. When their term is expiring incumbents don’t need money.

Dan Greenberg, “Term Limits: The Only Way to Clean Up Congress,” The Heritage Foundation, Aug. 10, 1994, https://www.heritage.org/political-process/report/term-limits-the-only-way-clean-congress (“[T]erm limits … are supported by large majorities of most American demographic groups; they are opposed primarily by incumbent politicians and the special interest groups which depend on them.”)

Reject Citizens United.

Corporations aren’t “persons;” dollars aren’t “speech.” “Campaign Finance Reform Amendment,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campaign_finance_reform_amendment

“We the People Amendment,” Campaign finance reform amendment, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campaign_finance_reform_amendment#We_the_People_Amendment (“Section 2. Federal, State and local government shall regulate, limit, or prohibit contributions and expenditures, including a candidate’s own contributions and expenditures, to ensure that all citizens, regardless of their economic status, have access to the political process, and that no person gains, as a result of that person’s money, substantially more access or ability to influence in any way the election of any candidate for public office or any ballot measure.”)

Dark money.

“Dark money” exception,” “Campaign Finance in the United States,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campaign_finance_in_the_United_States#"Dark_money2_exception (“A major loophole to disclosure requirements is "dark money," so named because while the recipient knows the identity of those giving them money, the public knows neither the identity of the campaigns, candidates nor other entities receiving the money, nor the amounts raised and spent, as these are exempt from disclosure requirements.”)

Limit weeks of campaigning.

Danielle Kurtzleben, “Why Are U.S. Elections So Much Longer Than Other Countries'?” National Public Radio, Oct. 21, 2015, https://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2015/10/21/450238156/canadas-11-week-campaign-reminds-us-that-american-elections-are-much-longer (Japan 12 days; France 2 weeks; Canada 78 days; Argentina 60 days; U.K. 139 days; Mexico 147 days;

Require that TV stations, licensed to serve “the public interest,” provide candidates free time.

Danielle Kurtzleben, ibid, “Big Money in Politics,” (“ … in some countries, like Japan, candidates each get equal, free, ad space”).

Prohibit, or limit the number of, political TV commercials.

Danielle Kurtzleben, ibid, “Big Money in Politics,” (“A candidate can't keep advertising for a year and a half, for example, without millions of dollars at his or her disposal. The U.S. system essentially requires candidates to raise millions of dollars to even mount a serious run.” “Brazil, the U.K. and Japan, among many others, simply don't allow candidates to purchase TV ads (but that doesn't mean zero ads — in some countries, like Japan, candidates each get equal, free, ad space).”)

Require political attack ads to pay for an attached reply ad from the candidate attacked.

By “attached ad” is meant that a reply to the attack would immediately follow the attack. Many variables are possible. The station (or social media source) could provide that the station would provide the time to the person attacked without charge (as the FCC required with its “personal attack” rule). It would be an equal opportunity to immediately reach the audience exposed to the attack (a variance on the “equal opportunity” rule). And it would provide a different view on a “controversial issue of public importance” (as required by the “fairness doctrine”).

So while this idea has no specific antecedent its underlying concept was the basis for analogous FCC rules (dates indicating when they were abolished): the “equal opportunity,” “fairness doctrine” (1987) and “personal attack” (2000) rules. (For the “equal opportunity” rule, see “Equal-Time Rule,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal-time_rule .)

Overly simplified but adequate for our purposes, they all recognized the power of mass media, and the “public interest” requirement in stations’ licenses. “Equal opportunity” provided that if a station gave free time to one candidate, they were obliged to provide an “equal opportunity” to reach its audience to all other candidates for that office.

The “fairness doctrine” required two things: stations must provide some programming dealing with “controversial issues of public importance,” and, in doing so, provide a representation of the range of viewpoints on that issue.

The “Personal Attack Rule, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_attack_rule “The personal attack rule was invoked whenever ‘an attack is made upon the honesty, character, integrity, or like personal qualities of an identified person or group’ during broadcast or original cable TV programming while discussing ‘controversial issues of public importance.’[1] After such an attack, within a week the broadcast station or cable provider responsible for the programming was required to give the person or group attacked the following: notification and identification of the cablecast; a script, tape or accurate summary of the attack; and an offer of a reasonable opportunity to respond over the cable facilities.[1]”

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1 comment:

Greg Johnson said...

Another great article. Always appreciate the footnotes and references you offer for further reading.

Of possible interest to readers may be the PBS documentary "Dark Money" which provides some examples that support what you've written above. I think you make reference to it, but here's a link to the trailer on YouTube: https://youtu.be/yCOL-dbsjsI

The video is available for rent from Google [View]

It is also available for rent from Amazon [View]

More information on Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Money_(film)