Democracy Agenda: Money in Politics

February 4, 2016

The role of big money in politics has become an intense, burning issue for millions of Americans. Disquiet over the growing power of large donors is widespread in both parties. The challenge now is to ensure that action follows anger — to show that something can be done about it. Reform of the campaign finance system should be a central priority for the next president and Congress.

American politics has long required large sums. Recent Supreme Court decisions, most famously Citizens United, have obliterated most rules that had restricted — however imperfectly — that flow of funds. With startling speed, political money now has tilted toward a handful of donors. In the first half of last year, just 158 families were responsible for more than half of all money raised in the presidential campaigns.[1] In the 2014 midterm elections, 100 people spent almost as much as all the 4.75 million small donors combined.[2] Prior to 2010 and its court rulings, super PACs did not exist. Since then they have emerged as a powerful new vehicle for campaign funding, spending $1 billion. Just 195 donors and their spouses gave 60 percent of the funds.[3]

The domination of elections by a relative handful of donors threatens democracy and good governance. Those without access to the biggest donors face a formidable barrier to running for and competing in state and federal contests. At the same time, taking views that are opposed by the biggest donors can be risky. A 2014 study from the Moritz College of Law at the Ohio State University found that some members of Congress worry that taking stands opposed by large donors will result in large spending against them in the next election.[4] It is perhaps not surprising that average Americans believe that the system is rigged against them. Trust in government is historically low, hovering between 21 and 24 percent, and 55 percent think candidates promote policies that directly help their donors “most of the time.”[5]

Americans overwhelmingly oppose this state of affairs. Asked to rank which issue most concerned them in the upcoming presidential race, respondents in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll chose “wealthy individuals and corporations will have too much influence over who wins” as their top choice.[6] A June 2015 New York Times poll found 84 percent said money has too much influence on campaigns, with even more saying the campaign funding system needs to be fundamentally changed or completely rebuilt.[7] But that same survey also found nearly 60 percent of respondents were pessimistic that any change would happen, suggesting that citizens are losing hope that anything can be done.

But in fact, much can be done right now to restore a more representative government and address the barriers that prevent ordinary people from running for office. The seemingly chaotic world of campaign finance is a product of a few concrete problems, and none of them are intractable. Many of the most visible perversions of our campaign finance system are of recent vintage and can be directly traced to a series of controversial 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decisions under Chief Justice Roberts. To put America back on track, the next president — and Congress — should take the following concrete steps:

  1. Establishing Small Donor Public Financing
  2. Overturn Citizens United and Restore a Pro-Democracy View of the Constitution
  3. Eliminate Secret, Unaccountable Money
  4. Strengthen Rules Preventing Candidate Coordination with Super PACs
  5. Reform the FEC to Ensure Fair and Vigorous Law Enforcement

[1] Nicholas Confessore et al., The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election, N.Y. Times, Oct. 10, 2015,

[2] Kenneth P. Vogel, Big Money Breaks Out, Politico, Dec. 29, 2014,

[3] Michael Hiltzik, Five Years After Citizens United Ruling, Big Money Reigns, L.A. Times, Jan. 24, 2015,

[4] Daniel P. Tokaji & Renata E. B. Strause, The New Soft Money: Outside Spending in Congressional Elections (2014), available at

[5] Public Trust in Government: 1958-2014, Pew Research Center, Nov. 13, 2014,, Americans’ Views on Money in Politics, N.Y. Times/CBS News Poll, June 2, 2015,

[6] Influence of Money in Politics a Top Concern for Voters, Wall St. J., June 21, 2015,

[7] Americans’ Views on Money in Politics, N.Y. Times/CBS News Poll, June 2, 2015,