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May the Biggest Wallet Win

The accelerating danger posed by the outsized influence of ‘big money’ in American politics

By Marie Sherlock

"We don't have a democracy. We have an auction."

The U.S. Capital building with dollar bills. Next Avenue, campaign finance spending
Political campaign spending and fundraising in the U.S. has indeed soared to new heights in recent years,"  |  Credit: Getty

My son slapped this bumper sticker on his bedroom door in 2004. He was 15 and full of righteous youthful indignation.

But he wasn't wrong — and the influence of Big Money on our democracy has only gotten worse over the past two decades.

Setting Records Every Cycle

One indicator is the escalating price tag for presidential campaigns. President Biden's 2020 bid for commander-in-chief was the first ever to raise $1 billion. Spending on federal races in 2020 from all sources totaled $14.4 billion — twice the amount of the previous record, set just two years earlier. And experts estimate that the 2024 election cycle will again break records.

"There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money — and I can't remember what the second one is."

"Political campaign spending and fundraising in the U.S. has indeed soared to new heights in recent years," says Anna Massoglia, editorial and investigations manager at OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in American politics.

Yet — despite widening polarization on nearly every other political issue — an overwhelming majority of Americans agree that money in politics is out of control. A 2023 Pew Research Center survey revealed that 72% of Americans support spending limits on campaigns and 80% agree that big donors have too much influence.

"Strong majorities of Republican, Democratic and independent voters believe that there's too much 'big' and secret money in politics," says Aaron Scherb, spokesperson for Common Cause, a nonpartisan "citizens' lobby" working to ensure fair elections.

A Brief History of Money in Elections

How did we get here? A good place to start might be before America's founding. When George Washington ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758, he reportedly plied voters with free alcohol — a total of 144 gallons of rum, brandy, hard cider and beer. These "voting parties" — paid for by candidates — were apparently commonplace in Colonial America.

"Big money shouldn't dictate policy outcomes."

Indeed, the entire idea of fundraising was a foreign concept during the early years of the republic when wealthy individuals bankrolled their own campaigns (and, one assumes, those rum-fueled election-day revelries) but gained in popularity during the 19th century as candidates without family fortunes sought public office.

Money gradually — but decisively — replaced alcohol as the key ingredient in political campaigns. William McKinley's campaign for president in 1896 raised more than $16 million in contributions, leading to this infamous quote from his chief fundraiser Mark Hanna: "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money — and I can't remember what the second one is."

Good grief. At least he was honest.

Supreme Court Scuttles Reforms

As contributions grew, so did concerns that donors, particularly corporate donors, might buy influence with politicians. The Tillman Act, adopted in 1907, explicitly prohibited corporations from contributing money to federal campaigns. By 1910 Congress had enacted the Federal Corrupt Practices Act requiring public disclosure of money political parties spent in congressional races.

The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971 instituted a comprehensive system of disclosure and reporting requirements for federal campaign contributions. Crimes committed by President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972 resulted in a revised FECA in 1974 that set limits on contributions and expenditures by individuals, political parties and PACs (political action committees) and established a special enforcement arm — the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

But the Supreme Court quickly dealt a blow to the FECA in Buckley v. Valeo (1976). The Court ruled that while contribution limits were constitutional, spending restrictions violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment. The former, the court decided, could corrupt elections while the latter could not.

The '80s and '90s saw the growth of donations to entities not tied to a specific campaign and thus unregulated under the FECA — aka "soft" money versus "hard" money subject to FECA rules. In response, Congress adopted the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002 prohibiting most "soft" money donations.

"Strong majorities of Republican, Democratic and independent voters believe that there's too much 'big' and secret money in politics."

That brings us to the 2010 Supreme Court case of Citizens United v. FEC (and a sister case, SpeechNow v. FEC) which "fundamentally altered the campaign finance landscape in the United States," according to Massoglia. Those cases decreed that corporations enjoyed free speech protection and therefore can make unlimited campaign expenditures as long as the recipient PAC is not coordinating with candidates or parties.

And thus the SuperPAC or "independent expenditure-only committee" was born. Disclosure requirements were upheld — the rationale being that donor disclosure would bring transparency to any resulting river of cash.

And there has indeed been a deluge. By one account spending by outside groups increased by nearly 900% between 2008 and 2016. It doubled again between 2016 and 2020.

Contributions by billionaires have multiplied nearly 40-fold since Citizens United. The result, says Jessica Jones Capparell, spokesperson for the League of Women Voters, is that "[we've shifted] away from a democracy that focuses on the needs of its people toward one that prioritizes the desires of the uber-wealthy."

What Is and Is Not Regulated Today

Today the Federal Elections Commission oversees three broad areas of campaign finance regulation. One is public financing of presidential elections — you know, that box you optimistically check on your 1040s each tax season, hoping that campaign finance sanity will magically materialize? It's essentially a nonstarter in today's high-stakes elections because candidates must agree to limit their expenditures to qualify for those federal funds.

More relevant are the other two areas that the FEC regulates: registration and contribution limits; and disclosure requirements.

"While Citizens United opened the door for more money than ever to flood U.S. elections, it did not render reform efforts futile."

Candidates for federal office, political parties, traditional PACs and SuperPACS (those "nonconnected" PACs) all must register with the FEC once they've met various fundraising or expenditure thresholds. Limitations on contributions vary according to the type of donor contributing and the type of recipient PAC.

(Remember, contribution limitations don't apply to SuperPACs, which can accept unlimited "soft" money from any source, except foreign nationals and federal contractors. And there are no spending limits; Buckley v. Valeo is still good law.)

Candidates, PACs and SuperPACs are all subject to disclosure requirements, which include how much and from whom money has been raised and how much has been spent. You can view a lot of that information on the FEC and OpenSecrets websites.

A subcategory of "nonconnected" (soft) money that is not subject to FEC rules (and thus not subject to disclosure requirements) is called, aptly, "dark" money. It derives mainly from politically active nonprofits — most 501(c)(4)s. Dark money accounted for $1 billion in spending during the 2020 federal election cycle that number is expected to rise for the 2024 cycle.

What Can Be Done

So, to summarize, while numerous reporting and disclosure requirements have survived SCOTUS decisions, Mark Hanna's proclamation at the turn of the 20th century still holds true: Cash is king in American politics. Federal campaigns are awash in money, much of it "dark." And money talks: Those who spend the most usually win and wealthy donors are granted access to political decisionmakers that is not available to the average American.


But all is not lost. "While Citizens United opened the door for more money than ever to flood U.S. elections, it did not render reform efforts futile. There remain avenues to address the influence of money in politics at all levels of government," says Massoglia.

Efforts at the Federal Level

As noted, courts have largely upheld donor disclosure requirements — and those regulations are crucial. "When voters have access to information about the big donors and special interests backing candidates, they can make more informed decisions," explains Massoglia.

The DISCLOSE (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections) Act would rectify the glaring omission of dark money groups from FEC disclosure requirements. Some version of the DISCLOSE Act has been introduced every Congressional session since 2010—when it came within one vote of passing. "Republicans," says Scherb, "have repeatedly filibustered it in recent years."

The Freedom to Vote Act is a more comprehensive voting rights bill which incorporates the DISCLOSE Act. It failed recently due to a Senate filibuster too.

State and Local Efforts

"With congressional Republicans continuing to block progress at the federal level, more and more states and municipalities have taken matters into their own hands and passed a variety of reforms," says Scherb.

One effort is publicly funded campaigns with "small-donor matching systems" or block grants. More than three dozen states and municipalities have adopted some type of publicly financed elections. "These bills empower average Americans by matching their donations and make it possible for people of average means to run for office," says Scherb.

"Passing reforms at the state and local level will create bottom up pressure on Congress to eventually do so at the federal level," he adds.

Join the Fight

What could be more fitting, more appropriate than for ordinary Americans to come together to ensure that all Americans' voices are heard — not just those with well-financed megaphones?

Luckily, there are a number of nonpartisan groups working to reform our out-of-control campaign finance system. They act as FEC watchdogs, pushing for the commission to enforce violations (the six-member FEC — composed of three members of each party — often deadlocks), and advocate for legislative changes at all levels. Groups like Common Cause, Campaign Legal Center, End Citizens United and the League of Women Voters are all committed to campaign finance reform.

The battle to rein in the influence of "big money" in campaigns won't happen overnight. With a reluctant Supreme Court and concerted partisan efforts to stymie legislation at the federal level, there is hard work ahead. "This is a marathon, not a sprint," warns Scherb.

But he and others firmly believe it's a race that must be won. "Big money shouldn't dictate policy outcomes," Scherb says.

If it does, that means we have an auction — not a democracy.

Marie Sherlock
Marie Sherlock practiced law for a decade before turning to writing and editing in her 30s — and never looked back. She's worked as the editor of several publications and is the author of a parenting book (Living Simply with Children; Three Rivers Press). She spends her empty-nest days writing about travel trends and destinations, simplicity, spirituality and social justice issues. Read More
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