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Why Big Money Still Won in 2012

In a recent post, Ezra Klein said we got “too excited” over big money in the 2012 election. But it’s about more than just election outcomes. Money still distorts public policy, as we’ve seen this year.

  • Jonathan Backer
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.