Why Big Money Still Won in 2012

May 8, 2013

Crossposted at Huffington Post.

“We got way too excited over money in the 2012 elections,” Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein argued at a conference on money in politics at Yale University on Monday.

In the wake of the 2012 election, the political commentariat has largely dismissed the effects of unprecedented outside spending unleashed by Citizens United and the threat it poses to democracy. “Both sides had a lot of money,” Klein said. “They also had a lot of free media, so it’s not as if the only information voters were getting was coming from ads….So we can just say the two sides more or less canceled each other out.”

This emerging consensus only makes sense if one believes elections directly determine policy outcomes — as if legislation is shaped through polar decisions in a few hundred federal electoral contests every two years. But the more troubling role of money in politics is its potential to shape lawmakers’ decisions after they are elected.

To quote an expert on the topic, Warren Beatty, in the 1998 comedy Bulworth about an honest and lyrically-inclined senator, says: “One man, one vote, now is that really real? The name of our game is let’s make a deal. The people got their problems, the haves and the have-nots. But the ones that make me listen pay for thirty second spots.”

Congress’s accomplishments, or lack thereof, in the first five months of the 113th Congress illustrate the problem. In a deeply polarized and partisan atmosphere, the one thing on which bipartisan consensus exists in Washington is placing the needs of the donor class first.

The National Rifle Association spent nearly $20 million in the 2012 election on outside spending, making it the 15th largest independent spender. Is it any wonder senators facing tough re-election contests in 2014, such as Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), voted against universal background checks for gun purchases despite near-consensus support among the public?

And while the threat of a double-dip recession couldn’t persuade Congress to avert the self-imposed sequester, the typically languid House and Senate did manage in a mere six days to grant the Federal Aviation Administration more flexibility in managing the cuts — the only exception of its kind. While 800,000 workers experience cuts to unemployment benefits and 140,000 fewer families receive low-income housing vouchers, those people don’t exert enough power and influence to extract concessions from Congress. Would these people have more clout if they had the means to make large campaign contributions?

With policy consequences such as these, money in the 2012 election and beyond is most certainly something to get “excited over.” Big money supports and threatens both Democrats and Republicans in general and primary elections. Even if outside spending is not decisive in the outcome of elections, elected officials still legislate in fear that, at the margin, a deluge of spending could hinder their chances for re-election. And so long as that is the case, politicians will remain more responsive to the will of moneyed interests than the average voter.

By focusing too much on election outcomes rather than the distortive effect of money on actual governance, commentators risk undermining the cause for reform. Public campaign financing remains the best way to amplify the voices of ordinary people, even in post­-Citizens United democracy. New York State is considering adopting a system of small donor matching funds, innovated in New York City, that provides $6 in public funding for every $1 raised in small contributions from local residents. The Empowering Citizens Act offers a similar approach at the federal level.

Public campaign financing has the potential to empower ordinary citizens to have a greater say in our democracy. It is acutely needed after an election that gave moneyed interests even greater access and influence in Washington and statehouses around the country, even if it did not change the outcome of the electoral contests.

Photo by 401(K) 2013.