Pouring money into politics became 2012’s extreme sport

A $6 million man wouldn’t have stood a chance running for a contested U.S. Senate race in 2012. And for president, a $600 million man would have been outspent 2-1. This month’s election saw several Senate races in which expenditures of the Republican and Democratic candidates exceeded $50 million, including that of Democrat Sherrod Brown and his Republican challenger Josh Mandel in Ohio.

The irony may be that results of the Nov. 6 ballots show that money, long said to be unable to buy happiness, also couldn’t buy victory. More high spenders lost than won, which has to give some of the candidates’ “investors” pause. One of the biggest spenders was Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who funneled more than $53 million to groups backing the Republican presidential candidate and three GOP senatorial candidates, including Mandel. All lost.

One might be tempted to conclude that the system worked, but that would be a dangerous conclusion. Those who are inclined to buy election results are not likely to stop because of an initial failure; they are more likely to conclude that they must find smarter ways to spend their candidate-support dollars.

Money is not only a corrupting influence on the political process when the best-financed candidate wins. It corrupts in other ways, by sending a message to individual voters that their vote is not as important when corporations or unions can pour millions — or even hundreds of millions — of dollars into support of a candidate or party. And when individuals can donate huge sums of money to political advocacy groups that manage to maintain the fiction that they are “educational” in nature, those donors get tax write-offs for, essentially, financing political campaigns.

Even if the big spenders didn’t get the results they hoped for this time, unlimited money is a cancer on the body politic.

A court-created problem

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens Untied, which equated corporations with people and then gave those corporations a First Amendment right to spend money in political campaigns was activist and wrong-headed. For Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is regarded as the swing vote in the 5-4 decision, to write that such spending would “not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption” was monumentally naive.

Nonetheless, Citizens United is the law of the land, and the Supreme Court, given two opportunities to revisit the issue in the last two years, did not backtrack, it doubled down.

The best that can be hoped for at this time is a legislative remedy that will at least restore some transparency by requiring donors to identify themselves. And perhaps a few public interest lawsuits would push the Internal Revenue Service to challenge some of the bogus claims of tax exemption by organization that are clearly pursing political, not educational, agendas.

Republicans used the filibuster last July to block a vote in the U.S. Senate on the Disclose Act, which would have required disclosure by major political donors. It’s time to reinvigorate the debate. It’s also time to address the abuse of filibusters in the Senate, but that’s a subject for another day.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.