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In the wake of Citizens United, the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case that loosened restrictions on political expenditures, campaign financing has gone through the roof. Super PACs and the country’s wealthiest of the wealthy contribute enormous amounts of money to campaigns, helping candidates fight their way into—and stay in—the national spotlight.
The history of campaign finance reform goes back more than a century in the United States. The most common laws have involved limits on the amount of contributions to candidates, political parties, or other groups like political action committees (PACs). An individual can give $2,500 directly to a congressional candidate at the moment, $30,800 to a political party, and $5,000 to a PAC. Of course, the idea that money alone can determine election outcomes assumes that simply spending more on advertising induces people to vote for a candidate, something almost everyone feels is possible for just about everyone other than themselves.
But to what extent can money buy power? Dismantling campaign finance laws can create more incentive for candidates to bend their will to the people who write the biggest checks. When does money go from being necessary for a candidate’s voice to be heard – bumper stickers, yard signs, commercial advertisement – to corrupting the political process?
The basic idea of limiting political contributions is to lower the total amount of money pouring into politics on the whole. The success of that goal can only be described with sarcasm and touches of defeat. Yet despite the failure of these many attempts, the polls show that most Americans support campaign spending limits.
While campaign finance information must be made public by law, that doesn’t mean it is easy to track down. Federal candidates’ reporting requirements allow them to submit campaign donor information on a quarterly basis and sometimes on handwritten documents that must be manually typed in by data-entry specialists. Super PACs, the more formidable big-money vehicles that emerged from the Citizens United decision, can accept unlimited contributions but need only file donors’ information quarterly in general election years and on a semi-annual basis in odd-numbered years. As a result, the identity of the largest donors to super PACs cannot be determined until months after the contributions were made. A fact that makes most American uneasy.
The picture is no brighter with so-called “secret money groups”—organizations such as 501(c)(4) social welfare groups that are not required to disclose their donors under current IRS rules despite increasing levels of political activity and internet activism. These groups are playing a large role in campaign finance precisely because they are able to operate entirely beyond the realm of disclosure and can exert their influence by funding candidates and super PACs in anonymity. The scope of their reach remains unclear.
Better disclosure rules would require more frequent filing deadlines for entities that do file, with mandatory 24-hour reporting for large contributions. They would require a complete move away from any forms without machine-readable data. And they would need appropriate enforcement in tandem from the Federal Election Commission, the six-commissioner elections watchdog agency that unfortunately continues to be gridlocked by partisanship. These improvements would not only assist the journalists, researchers, and members of the public working to expose big money’s influence on politics in real-time, but would also potentially deter some of the most egregious cases of such influence by increasing accountability more generally.
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