Democracy for dollars
Where political might is held by a wealthy few and the corporations are just people too
Published: February 1, 2012
Even if voters were able to rise up and put in office populist politicians with the spine to go against all that special interest money that fills campaign coffers and pays for independently funded attack ads, the fact remains that a conservative majority is likely to be on the high court's bench for years to come. So even when laws are put in place to limit spending or promote disclosure, they are likely to be overturned as unconstitutional.
It is not just lefty diehards like those who joined January's protest outside Detroit's federal court who are saying that America's electoral process is moving in the wrong direction.
Before the South Carolina primary, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press polled voters to learn their opinion of Super PACs.
"Fully 65 percent of those who are aware of the new rules on independent expenditures say they are having a negative effect on the 2012 presidential campaign," the center reported. "And among those who have heard a lot about these new campaign finance rules, 78 percent say the effect has been negative."
The poll also found something that is certainly encouraging for those who turned out for the January protest:
"There is no substantial partisan divide in awareness and opinions of the new campaign spending rules. Roughly half of Republicans, Democrats and independents alike have heard about the court decision allowing unlimited independent expenditures. And among those who have heard about it, comparably wide majorities in each group say it is having a negative effect on the campaign this year."
In other words, those with the big money attempting to pull electoral strings may abhor the idea of a constitutional amendment such as the one being proposed, but the rank-and-file Tea Party types might be receptive.
"People on the right think government is the problem," says Ken Knoppow, a "semi-retired" attorney who showed up for the protest. Although the two sides may not agree about the role of government, the rise of both the Occupy movement and the Tea Party can be traced to the financial collapse that resulted in widespread job loss, a massive bailout of the banks and financial markets, and a massive wave of foreclosures.
"I think the Tea Party should wake up and see what we have in common," says Knoppow, 63.
As of Jan. 20, $33 million has beenspent by Super PACs — which are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of a particular candidate as long as there is (supposedly) no contact occurring between campaign officials and the PAC.
Giving credence to the contention that the movement to amend could become more of a 99 percent issue than a more traditional dispute between rank-and-file Republicans and their counterparts on the left is the recent turn taken in the increasingly nasty GOP primary battle.
Essentially, we've been witnessing the two leading Republican candidates attacking each other for being ... Republicans!
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has gone after former hedge fund manager Mitt Romney for being a vulture capitalist, eliminating jobs to increase profits and picking over the carcass of what remains. And Romney has attempted to tar Gingrich for being a lobbyist for lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are ultimately responsible for the majority of home foreclosures taking place.
Doing much of the dirty work in both cases are commercials being paid for by Super PACs.
In the recently completed South Carolina Republican primary, independent organizations reportedly outspent the candidates by a margin of about 2 to 1.
And we're only a month into the primary season.
Already, we here in Michigan have seen an independent ad — this one from the group Americans for Prosperity — attacking President Obama for the debacle involving the federal government's $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra, a solar panel maker that went bankrupt, costing taxpayers more than a half-billion dollars.
"It is only going to get worse," says Dave Vance, spokesman for the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C. "Most congressional races haven't heated up yet. Once we get to the general election, a huge percentage of the country is going to have to live through these TV commercials. They're only going to fuel public outrage and feed the perception that democracy is on the auction block."
Even more ominous, says Vance, is that some office holders are already floating the idea that limits on direct contributions to campaigns should also be lifted.
In fact, the Republican National Committee has filed a brief with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals "seeking an end to the federal ban on direct contributions from corporations to candidates," according to the group Common Cause.
Vance, however, doesn't see amending the Constitution as being the best way to address the problem. Or, at least, the sole way.
"It can't be the only play in the playbook," he says.
A better approach, he contends, is to pressure lawmakers into passing campaign finance and disclosure laws that will pass muster with the current Supreme Court.
> Email Curt Guyette