Our campaign finance system is corrupt.
Money, in sums that are beyond exorbitant, is far too often the determinant factor in not only elections but also what drives our elected officials and how they spend their time. And further, the loopholes to hide money and avoid disclosure remind one of a collapsed dam overwhelming those in the way of the rushing waters … you and me. This is a threat to our democracy.
As the nation embarks on another orgy of political fundraising and spending, we need to end this money arms race. Spending in the 2020 election, at the federal level, was $14.4 billion, according to Open Secrets. That is double the amount four years before and roughly five times the amount only two decades earlier. “Soft” money, that spent by SuperPACs, and “dark” money groups, who don’t disclose their donors, was almost $3.3 billion of that amount, Open Secrets reported.
And just wait until 2024. In the midterm elections of 2022, without a presidential race, spending in federal and state races was $16.7 billion, a new midterm record, according to Open Secrets.
It now can cost almost a half billion dollars to win a Senate seat in a swing state. The 2022 Georgia Senate race saw more than $491 million spent. In Pennsylvania, more than $418 million was spent.
And all this spending has been controlled by a small segment of our citizens. In federal races, almost 75% of the money was supplied by an elite donor class: 0.52% of Americans, Open Secrets reported. In other words, it’s not democratic.
PACs and Super PACs are increasingly the nexus of elections. And their giving is tied to what they get. Financial institutions and health care PACs are major contributors and, in both cases, 95% of their donations go to incumbents. Is it any wonder that 94% of House incumbents and all Senate incumbents won in the last election, even though most polls have Americans supporting and respecting our Congress at around 20%?
More and more, the “game” is being controlled by “dark money” players, those who utilize super PACs to avoid disclosure. Foreign individuals and governments can and do use the same dark money channels and methods that billionaires, global corporations and big unions use to conceal the sources of funds.
Now, anyone with enough money can set up and run election spending through a series of LLCs, “nonprofit social welfare organizations,” and Super PACs with pleasant sounding names so that neither the voters nor state and federal election officials can tell where the money originally came from.
This has become a national security concern that both parties have a responsibility to fix.
And as you can imagine, money drives our representatives’ actions. Candidates who spend more money almost always win, increasing the pressure to fundraise constantly. From Day One, members of Congress spend half their time (and in many cases, more) raising money instead of studying policy, building relationships and serving constituents. The idea of citizens giving up their roles in private society to serve for a period of time then leave, as described in The Federalist Papers, has been completely lost to careerism and opportunities for enrichment.
Let’s not be confused that our elected officials are primarily working for our benefit.
Americans no longer believe that government is run to serve their interests; they see it prioritizing the interests of those who can pay to play. Recent Supreme Court decisions have placed the burden squarely on us to solve this problem with a constitutional amendment. That’s why we’re part of American Promise, an organization of more than 100,000 professionals, elected officials, business leaders, volunteers and supporters working for passage of the For Our Freedom constitutional amendment which would allow restrictions on political spending.
Americans are united in support of this idea. A University of Maryland study in 2018 found that 75% of the public, including 66% of Republicans, support an amendment. More recently, a CBS News Poll found that 86% of Republicans and Democrats who agree that democracy is under threat identify the influence of money in politics as the leading cause of that threat.
Our forefathers, in their wisdom, built a structure to amend the Constitution in cases such as this, and we’ve done it many times before. We adopted the Bill of Rights shortly after the nation’s founding. In the wake of the Civil War, we passed amendments to outlaw slavery and ensure the rights of former slaves. And we passed amendments that included women’s suffrage and strengthened civil rights.
With this amendment, we’ll be able to decide for ourselves how to appropriately protect our voters, our elections and our future from out-of-control money influence from all sources, including foreign governments. We’ll be able to stop the shell game of dark money and require disclosure of sources of funding for the deluge of campaign and election attacks. At the very least, we ought to know who’s trying to call the shots over our politicians and government.
This is another constitutional moment, when Americans understand that our representative democracy must be preserved and strengthened to foster civic trust, national cohesion and constructive problem-solving. It’s time to act to ensure Americans’ freedom to participate as citizens with equal representation and voices that rightfully rise above the power of concentrated wealth.
Read American Promise’s For Our Freedom Amendment at www.americanpromise.net.
Tom Leppert was mayor of Dallas from 2007-2011. Ann Drumm is the North Texas organizer for American Promise. They wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.
Part of our Opinion series on The American Middle, this essay calls for a constitutional amendment to restrict campaign spending.
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