Campaign finance is arguably the breakout issue of this election year. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both rail constantly against Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened up election spending to corporations and super PACs. On the GOP side, candidates' super PACs have garnered as much news media scrutiny as the candidates themselves.
This might seem like music to the ears of those who worry about how money dominates politics. But Citizens United is only the harmony, not the melody of that tune. The much greater threat to America's hallowed system of self-government remains the day-to-day routine of “hard money” fundraising.
Hard money refers to contributions given directly to a candidate's campaign, not to “outside” political groups such as super PACs. Even with a cap on these contributions of $2,700 per individual, such donations constitute the bulk of political spending. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, of the $3.7 billion spent in the 2014 congressional midterms, super PACs, nonprofits and other outside spenders made up around $560 million, or roughly 15%. In contrast, $1.5 billion, or 42%, was spent by candidates themselves, with the rest left to party committees.
Two other inside-the-Beltway terms — call time and the cash committee — illustrate why hard money is the core problem.
Call time is the hours politicians spend dialing for dollars. House Democrats, for instance, are advised to spend four hours a day in the cramped cubicles at their party's headquarters phoning rich people who often don't live in their districts.
When Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) recently announced that he would retire from Congress, he estimated that during his 15 years in the House he clocked about 4,200 hours of call time. Translated into a 40-hour workweek, that's two full years spent trying to cajole money from people like a telemarketer.
Cash committee is a nickname for the House Financial Services Committee because it's such a lucrative fundraising perch — but one rife with conflicts of interest. In the 2014 election cycle, for example, committee members received more than $30 million from finance, insurance and real estate industry employees.
Contributions of this magnitude are normally raised at events in one of the many renovated townhouses surrounding the Capitol building owned by trade associations, or at posh restaurants a few blocks from Senate and House offices. Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) hosts a monthly book club where, according to Bloomberg Politics, Wall Street lobbyists contribute thousands to receive a signed copy and some hors d'oeuvres (though attendees rarely read the book in advance). During the height of the fundraising season, like right now, 20 or more such fundraising events are held in Washington every day.
The hard money chase marinates our elected representatives in the mind-sets of the wealthy and special interests — and takes them away from doing the job we voters pay them to do. As former Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), who later served as a lobbyist for the motion picture industry, has opined: “The sad truth is … there simply isn't enough time in the day to stay competitive in campaign finance and do the actual job of policymaking.”
Overturning Citizens United or regulating super PACs would, alas, do nothing to free our politicians from this frenetic fundraising. That can only be accomplished by cutting the ties between lobbyists and legislators and redirecting politicians' time and energy toward small donors.
New York City has a model program that matches donations less than $175 6 to 1. Suddenly these small checks collected in bulk become a lot more valuable to a politician with limited time. As one participant told the Brennan Center in 2010, “The multiple match increases reliance on small donors, [so] there is less need ... to cozy up to special interests.” And if Congress banned lobbyists from contributing to elected officials, as South Carolina has since the early 1990s, cash committees would become a relic of the past.
Neither of these changes would require a constitutional amendment, and both could revitalize our politics from statehouses to Capitol Hill.
These are the kinds of campaign finance reforms we should be talking about during this election cycle. In fairness, Sanders and Clinton have reform ideas that extend beyond tackling Citizens United, but they rarely talk about them and haven't debated them with any specificity. Republican presidential candidates have proposed much more limited fixes, some of which are quite dangerous, such as raising or removing caps on political donations to candidates entirely.
Focusing so intensely on one court case makes it harder to gain attention — and momentum — for other, more effective reforms. The next time you hear someone talking about Citizens United, you might remind them that super PACs are only 15% of the problem.
Nick Penniman and Wendell Potter are coauthors of the book “Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It.”