By Mimi Petric
There are two things that are important in politics, Senator Mark Hanna said more than a century ago. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.
A lack of proper campaign financing has left political candidates desperate in their search for sources of money; and thus, turning to private campaign finance from those with means to provide. This option has created more harm than good - creating sources of corruption and a multitude of political polarization. Rather than address the complexities and implications of a lack of proper campaign finance, America is instead seemingly infatuated with hyperpartisanship. Gone is our appreciation for equity and fairness in terms of the political process, replaced instead with a country more divided than ever - meaning it’s time to rethink the way we approach campaign financing.
Former President Donald Trump symbolizes this inequity most clearly. The New York Times puts this best when they mention that during a 2018 dinner at the Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C., Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman - associates of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer - pressed Mr. Trump to remove Marie Yovanovitch as the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. Their schemes were part of a plan to make money from natural gas. Their actions were just a single part of a complex plot that later led to Trump’s impeachment, resulting from his later efforts to compel Ukraine to investigate then-former Vice President Joe Biden. Parnas and Fruman’s corrupt actions personify the most insidious aspect of this: that without even moving a finger, the wealthy can easily influence and skew politics. At the dinner, donors willing to spend lavishly in support of Mr. Trump’s re-election even had the chance to seek the president’s help in placing their own interests above the public interest.
And if this seems far-fetched, it isn’t. The action of skewing politics was clear, too, with Senator Ted Cruz. For his 2016 presidential campaign, a collection of super PACs supporting Mr. Cruz raised $37 million, nearly all of it from three families. Robert Mercer, a private hedge fund investor from New York, contributed $11 million, making him the top known political donor in the country so far this election cycle. The monetary benefits associated with Cruz’s campaign may have well given him an edge over other candidates, effectively creating a skewed election. When we blur the lines between what is equitable and what is not in campaign finance, we stray further away from democracy, contradicting democratic values of equity in both the political and social scope.
The masterminds behind these operations are known as “super PACs” - essentially, committees that may receive unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, labor unions and other PACs for the purpose of financing independent expenditures and other independent political activity. As a result of their use within campaign financing, fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign. Super PACs have revealed themselves to be significantly quicker at campaign fundraising — sometimes bringing in tens of millions of dollars from a few businesses or individuals in a matter of days — has allowed them to build significant campaign war chests in a fraction of the time that it would take the candidates, who are restricted in how much they can accept from a single donor. Just 130 or so families and their businesses provided more than half the money raised through by Republican candidates and their super PACs - wherein lies the problem. When campaign finance becomes skewed to a particular party, American democracy lies at stake as hyperpartisanship takes center stage. Establishing heavy funding for a specific candidate or party creates inherently inequitable circumstances for voters.
And the fallout is omnipresent. Money and its potentially corrupting influence are the bane of US politics, and candidates constantly promise voters that they will try to reform a system that they say has been broken by congressional inaction and the Supreme Court. But as posited by 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren, “money slithers through every part of our political system, corrupting democracy and taking power away from the people. Big companies and billionaires spend millions to push Congress to adopt or block legislation.” If such big influences fail in their attempts, they turn to lobbying federal agencies which are responsible for ordering legislation. And if their endeavors prove to be futile yet again, companies and billionaires run to judges in the courts to block regulations from taking effect.
Yet the most elusive of issues is yet to be solved: how is such a momentous problem to be approached? To approach a lack of equity in the financial scope, we can use the process that Lawrence Lessig of the New York Times suggests: changing the way campaigns are funded — shifting from large-dollar private funding to small-dollar public funding. When campaign funds for candidates become public, the probability of corruption or inequitable spending decreases.
The political and social implications that skewed campaign financing has created is undeniable. But both the people, their advocacy work, and campaign reform can create change. Putting a stop to the influence of wealthy corporations and individuals is a complex issue: but counteracting it is as straightforward as limiting the sources from which candidates can gain financial support. And that’s as simple as it gets.