By Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register (TNS)
One recent day, my newspaper had two front-page stories related to money and politics. One was about financial contributions made from the political action committees of prospective presidential candidates to Iowa office-seekers of the same party. Another reported that former Texas Governor Rick Perry has been appointed to the board of the corporation planning the controversial Bakken pipeline.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled money in politics is free “speech,” and doesn’t buy influence. But both of those stories offered small examples of how it might. In the first, potential presidential candidate Rand Paul wants Iowa operatives in his camp, so he donates some of his PAC funds — a thousand here or there — to their campaigns. They in turn may feel grateful enough to repay the favor by talking Paul up to their supporters.
In the second case, prospective presidential candidate Perry gets a direct financial stake in a controversial oil-pipeline proposal. The Bakken pipeline, which would stretch from North Dakota to Illinois, is widely opposed by environmental and other groups. But by investing in Perry and his campaign, the company could bank on having a friend in the White House to create a climate favorable for such projects. In 2012, the head of Energy Transfer Partners gave a quarter million dollars to a SuperPAC for Perry. And now Perry has a seat on its board.
A Perry spokesman said Perry won’t be publicly promoting the pipeline, but he doesn’t have to. His board presence is endorsement enough.
Traditional PACs are chicken feed compared with the filet mignon influence SuperPACs can buy. The first allow a group of people with a common goal — say, reducing environmental regulations — to donate up to $5,000 to a candidate in each round of an election campaign, and $15,000 a year to a national political party. But SuperPACs — authorized by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Speechnow vs. FEC — can raise and spend unlimited amounts of corporate, union or private dollars to promote or discredit a candidate in a federal election. They just can’t donate directly to the candidate or party.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that in 2014 elections, 1,300 SuperPACs had raised more than $695 million. They ranged from the liberal Senate Majority PAC, which raised $67 million, to the conservative American Crossroads PAC, which raised $23 million. Ten billion dollars were spent in the 2012 election cycle — combining the presidential, local, state and regional races — according to national journalist/author John Nichols. But for all that spending, Nichols told a Des Moines audience, 2014 had the lowest turnout in midterm elections since 1942.
Nichols, the Washington correspondent for the progressive Nation magazine and co-author of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America was brought to Iowa by the Quaker American Friends Service Committee to kick off a project provocatively titled “Governing Under the Influence.” It aims to focus attention in Iowa and New Hampshire, the leadoff presidential selection states, on the distorting impact of money in politics, enabled by Supreme Court rulings.
In a rousing speech in the basement of a United Methodist Church, Nichols said most Americans feel too overwhelmed to know what to do. Rather than motivate voters, the excess negativity of political ads causes many not to vote. But Nichols maintains that Iowans get more one-on-one time with presidential candidates than anyone else and should use that to grill them. “Iowans should be saying, ‘How much money have you taken from this interest?'” and how do they stay independent of it, he said. He suggested everyone ask the candidates if they agree with the Supreme Court that corporations are people, and if unlimited spending to influence elections is protected free speech.
Ultimately, those rulings can only be overridden by a constitutional amendment. But history, notes Nichols, was filled with people organizing in response to an injustice and getting the constitution changed — like the 19th amendment, ratified in 1920, granting women the right to vote, the 13th amendment (1865), abolishing slavery and the 15th amendment (1870) giving black people voting rights.
It takes either a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress or in two-thirds of state legislatures to amend the constitution. That must be ratified by three-quarters of the states. But some states have begun the process. Montana and Colorado voted differently for president in 2012, but both voted to amend the constitution to curb money in elections.
It’s a long and laborious process. The 27th amendment, on congressional pay, was submitted in 1789, but not ratified until 1992. On the other hand, the 26th amendment, giving 18-year-olds voting rights, took only three months to be ratified in 1971. Most Americans understood the absurdity of drafting young people who couldn’t even vote. I hope most Americans also understand the absurdity of politicians using their office to return a debt to the deep pockets that helped get them elected.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr