There was a time in our history, thankfully long past now, when bribery was common and money's slithery movement through the passages of American government was all but invisible, save for the occasional scandal that would burst forth into public consciousness. Today, we know much more about who's getting what from whom. Members of Congress have to declare their assets, lobbyists have to register and disclose their activities, and contributions are reported and tracked. Whatever you think about the current campaign finance system, it's much more transparent than it once was.
But if outright bribery is rare, should we say that the system is good enough? It's a question we have to answer as we move into a new phase of the debate over money in politics. In the wake of last week's Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. F.E.C., many liberals are nervous that the Court's conservative majority is poised to remove all limits on how much can be donated to candidates and parties. For their part, conservatives seem to be preparing to open a new front in this seemingly endless battle, this time on the disclosure requirements that allow us to track who's spending money to get their favored candidates elected. But those of us who worry about money's distorting effects on the process would do well to acknowledge that the combination of more transparency and more money—much, much more money—has created a new reality with dangers that aren't well described by the traditional conception of "corruption."
Over the last few decades of campaign finance history, the immediate arguments have changed many times. Sometimes we argued over "soft money" contributions to political parties, sometimes we argued over phony "issue ads," or 527 organizations and 501(c)(4) organizations, or corporate contributions and aggregate contributions. The specific locus of controversy keeps changing because political money always seems to find its way around whatever obstacles are placed in its path. And the fundamental divide that runs through all these arguments is, just as it has always been, that liberals want to reduce money's influence over politics while conservatives want to increase it.
Conservatives might protest that that's not really true; they just care deeply about freedom. But no one buys that for a minute. Their position on the issue is both practical and ideological. They know that if the super-wealthy are allowed to put as much of their money as they want into elections, Republicans will benefit more than Democrats. It's no wonder that Republican party chair Reince Priebus called the McCutcheon decision a "very big victory for the RNC." And they genuinely believe that's as it should be; both the poor person and the rich person have the same right to donate large amounts of money to candidates, and if in practice it's a right only the rich person can exercise, well that's the way of the world.
And exercise it they do, with candidates, parties, and independent groups the grateful recipients of that civic-minded largesse growing larger with each passing election. But if your idea of "corruption" is only that which is illegal under bribery laws, that isn't a problem that demands a solution. In the McCutcheon decision, Justice Roberts was quite clear in his belief that "Any regulation must…target what we have called "quid pro quo" corruption or its appearance…a direct exchange of an official act for money." Large donations meant to gain the donor access or mere influence over lawmakers, he argued, aren't enough. In his dissent, Justice Breyer took issue with this rather pinched view, saying "we can and should understand campaign finance laws as resting upon a broader and more significant constitutional rationale than the plurality's limited definition of 'corruption' suggest."
So maybe what we have here is in part a problem of nomenclature. If you don't want to call it "corruption," call it "distortion"—the creation of a system that is warped far beyond what it would be under any reasonable conception of democracy, even if nobody's breaking any laws.
There is a meaningful difference. Most of the benefits big money looks for these days are spread beyond an individual, sometimes to an entire industry (like banks or oil companies) and sometimes to an even larger group of people and entities who have a common interest, like wealthy people who want to keep taxes on investment income lower than taxes on wage income. If someone like the Koch brothers succeeds in getting their favored candidates elected and their favored policies enacted, many billionaires and corporations will smile in appreciation. They won't be doing it just for themselves.
There's an important caveat, which is that money can have a great influence on the arcane details of legislation, where the public neither knows nor particularly cares what's going on. Lobbyists still give plenty of money to members of Congress, and they do so to ensure the access that allows them to nibble at the nation's laws for their clients' benefit. In and of itself, money may not be able to buy a big, visible policy change—a reduction in the top tax rate or the killing of a minimum wage bill, for instance. But it can still buy an obscure provision in the nation's banking laws, one that could be worth billions to some very interested parties but makes no front-page news.
Even disclosure of all campaign contributions to every type of independent group would probably have just a small impact in reducing the distortion money imposes on the system, in part because citizens can't be expected to expend the effort to follow its every tendril. When a voter sees an ad casting aspersions on Senator Smiley's opponent and hears "Americans for an American America is responsible for the content of this advertising," what can she conclude? Not much, unless she happens to also read an article informing her that AfaAA is a creation of Oswald Greedyhands, whom some consider a heroic job-creator and others consider a nefarious exploiter of working people. Then she's going to have to think about Oswald's relationship with Senator Smiley, and learn about the Senator's legislative record to see what favors he might have done for Greedyhands Industries. It's a lot to expect of a citizen who has her own life to lead.
So even if the information is out there somewhere, and activists sound the alarms, so long as the money keeps pouring in, the system will bend inexorably toward the interests of those who fund it. A plutocratic system of government of, by, and for the wealthy isn't necessarily "corrupt," in the sense of being awash in specific, explicit bribes. But it isn't particularly democratic, either.
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