If you want to get Big Money out of politics just make it, in a roundabout way, illegal. The 1910 law was repealed in 1971, but during its span of 61 years Big Money as we know it today played no part in American politics.
But now Big Money rules supreme, a tsunami of cash pouring into political campaigns since Citizens United opened the floodgates. It flows from the “One Percenters,” those rewarded so handsomely by today’s status quo: the nation’s corporate interests and our wealthiest citizens. Their lavish campaign contributions enable them to dominate elections and to tilt public policy toward their interests alone. This is a travesty of democracy, and to maintain their privilege the donors of Big Money will seek to destroy any threat to it.
The Green New Deal is such a threat, a mortal threat: it promises a brighter future for the rest of the American people, the other 99%.1
Big Money’s leverage derives from the stratospheric costs of political campaigns. If Congress could limit those costs somehow to a tiny fraction of what they are today, then Big Money would be rendered superfluous and the One Percenters irrelevant.
Congress once did this. In a similar political environment more than a century ago it enacted a pair of campaign finance reform laws to protect elections from the corrosive influence of great wealth. One passed in 1907 was partially effective, and the subject law in 1910 was decisive.
Both laws were repealed six decades later, unfortunately, an action marking the first stroke in fifty years of savage attacks on American democracy. (The coup de grace was Citizens United.)
Taken whole the Green New Deal seeks to repair the damage. It will reclaim the earlier, humane, more equitable political economy of the mid-20th century, when a single income from a well-paying job provided families with decent housing, wholesome food on the table, and affordable healthcare. When public services, facilities, and infrastructure were well funded, well maintained, abundant. When you could work your way through college. When “welfare” was not ridiculed, but meant compassionate care for the disadvantaged. When a Republican president built the Interstate highways; when his Democratic successor sent us to the moon.
Not perfect, not totally free of injustice, but this was a vibrant democracy: before those two campaign-reform laws were repealed in 1971; before Ronald Reagan killed anti-trust enforcement with purposeful neglect, and installed deregulation, privatization, and rancid neoliberalism as Washington’s governing memes; before he and his successor George H.W. Bush tripled the national debt in 12 years, slashing taxes and flooding the military with borrowed money; before Bill and Hillary Clinton abandoned the traditional Democratic voters, selling out the party to Wall Street greed and triggering the Great Recession; before George W. Bush took us into the disastrous wars of imperialism we are fighting still; before Barack Obama granted sub rosa pardons to criminal Wall Street executives and shoveled billions of taxpayer dollars back into their banks; before Citizens United; before William and David Koch took up seriously the financing of political campaigns1, and before the crypto-facism of the Trump Administration.
Five decades of body blows. The Green New Deal has much to repair and recover.
The Green New Deal is a project of the Sunrise Movement. Addressing climate change as the umbrella issue, it is a comprehensive unyielding demand for justice— social, racial, environmental, political, and economic justice.
Full-spectrum justice is absent when a government favors the rich and the corporate. The Green New Deal stands opposed to this: the fossil fuel corporations, for starters, will be forced to yield to the well being of all the American people. Other industries, too: the healthcare and banking sectors impose great injustices today, and so does the exorbitant cost of higher education. So does a racially-biased criminal justice3 system poisoned with profit seeking. So does the Department of Defense, squandering half the discretionary budget. And so forth.
The Green New Deal was introduced as House Resolution 109 on February 7, 2019, by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and 90 co-sponsors, and later in the Senate as Resolution 59 by Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, with 11 co-sponsors.
It is a call to a revolution already simmering in the country. Street demonstrations nationwide clamor for justice in many forms; an American replica of YellowVests emerges; a bill for universal healthcare is introduced with wide support; the social media are alive with messages of resistance; and HR 1 sails through the House, vastly expanding voting rights.2 Green New Deal cosponsors represent more than half the states of the union, and six in the Senate are presidential candidates for 2020: Senators Sanders, Gillibrand, Harris, Warren, Booker, and Klobuchar.
Every member of the U.S. Congress today, and every aspirant, is handicapped by an intractable obstacle, the exorbitant expense of election campaigning—now in the millions. They are virtually forced to rely on the One Percenters, the most able and willing sources of so much money.
The self-serving policy preferences of the One Percenters are never obscure and rarely compromised: legislation is no longer crafted primarily to serve the public4 interest, but to create, enhance, or protect the welfare of its richest and corporate citizens. We live in a shattered democracy.
Those who watch and care see oligarchy: governance by and for the few. Former President Jimmy Carter was interviewed by Thom Hartman:
HARTMANN: Our Supreme Court has now said, “unlimited money in politics.” It seems like a violation of principles of democracy. … Your thoughts on that?
CARTER: It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over. … The incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. 3
The Green New Deal will be stillborn unless this impact of Citizens United is thwarted.
Only the Supreme Court can overturn the decision, but Congress can make Citizens United utterly irrelevant by slashing radically the costs of political campaigning. And it can do that by exhuming those two old laws repealed in 1971.
They were terminated by the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act. “FECA” meant well but in hindsight it committed two unforced errors, both with grievous results.
First, FECA institutionalized PACs.4 For years organized labor had been funneling money into Democratic campaigns through the AFL-CIO’s unique political action committee; Republicans found this distasteful so FECA leveled the field, authorizing corporations to create PACs as well.
Next FECA placed severe restrictions on campaign contributions from both individuals and PACs, and they were to be transparent. FECA did mean well. But subsequent amendments to FECA and new laws gradually loosened those restrictions and then Citizens United effectively removed them—politically empowering the One Percenters and shattering democracy.
Here is what oligarchy can do for you.
Mr. Sheldon Adelson, billionaire owner of Las Vegas casinos, contributed $82,522,800 to the Republicans in the 2016 cycle and $123,234,400 more in 2018.5 Because online gambling was emptying his brick-and-mortar resorts, he wanted to make it illegal. At his urging the Trump Department of Justice “reinterpreted” an existing regulation, and that was the end of online gambling.6
But this is just pay-to-play favoritism. The true savagery of oligarchy is displayed in the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017. It reduced the personal income taxes of Mr. Adelson by 6.5%, and corporate income taxes for his Las Vegas Sands Corporation by 40%—and so too for every other corporation in America. The not-so-rich paid for this, according to the Brookings Institution: “The Tax Cut and Jobs Act will, under the most plausible scenarios, end up making most households worse off than if it had not been enacted.”7 Then Yahoo News quantified the outrage: for tax year 2018 American corporations paid $91 billion less in taxes—while taxpayers were assessed $94 billion more.8
That is perverted democracy defined.
If oligarchy’s grip is powerful because campaigns need mountains of money and the One Percenters have lots of it to offer, what are the numbers? The aggregate cost of the 2016 national election was $6.5 billion. It was spent on professionalized campaign staffs, consultants, ad agencies, opposition-research shops, incessant polling, and by far the largest single item: hundreds of millions to the media conglomerates for advertising air time and print space.
To put its government in place no other democratic nation on earth spends more than a small fraction of this.
A campaign industry has emerged in the U.S., turning a serious public function into a media circus of suspenseful entertainment, a lurid spectator sport.
A campaign industry has emerged in the U.S., turning a serious public function into a media circus of suspenseful entertainment, a lurid spectator sport.
A campaign industry has emerged in the U.S., turning a serious public function into a media circus of suspenseful entertainment, a lurid spectator sport, and the presidential election process now rambles along for a year and a half, three times longer than a whole season of professional football.
The men and women of the U.S. Congress complain bitterly of spending half or more of their working hours begging for money to support the campaign industry.9 This means their work of governing becomes a half-time job, but they have no choice. According to OpenSecrets.org, a 2016 Senate campaign cost nearly $20 million, and a House campaign about $1.6 million.7
The spectacle is wholly unnecessary. We endure a year-long barrage of kamikaze political ads, engineered imagery, ideological tantrums, subtle appeals to fear and hatred, dozens of inane “debates,” and dueling platitudes from the candidates just to reach the primaries. The glittering pro forma party conventions come next and then rinse-andrepeat for the general election.
Voters need information, not extravaganza. We need to know the candidates’ qualifications for office, their detailed records of public service, their unequivocal positions on the issues of the day, and their stated intentions if elected; everything else is gossip.
Providing the essential information does not require the best part of two years and $6.5 billion: Parliamentary elections in Britain cost about US$40 million. They are completed in six weeks.10 Canada is a bigger country: a typical national election there costs about US$75 million and is concluded in eight weeks.11
Laudable examples, and there are initiatives underway to reform campaign finance. Some seek to overturn Citizens United, but given the existing grip of oligarchy and Trump’s Supreme Court, snowballs in hell come to mind.
The Congressional fix is eminently feasible, however. It would be a workaround, leaving the decision untouched, but Citizens United could be left stranded and harmless if Congress revitalized either of those century-old laws repealed by FECA. One of them 8 would remove most of the money from the game, and the other could put us on par with Canada, even better.
By the end of the 19th century, the corporate rampage of the Gilded Age had become intolerable. Anti-trust legislation was passed and monopolies broken up, but corporate interests continued to buy politicians by donating sumptuously to their campaigns. So in 1907 Congress passed the Tillman Act, prohibiting corporations from making political contributions of any sort.11
A new Tillman Act today, however, would not impede our Sheldon Adelsons and it would almost certainly die at conception anyway. The six mega-corporations of the media industry would kill it to protect their great cash cow. That’s what oligarchy does. But suppose it squeaked into law: Citizens United rests on the Supreme Court’s surreal claims that corporations are persons and their campaign contributions are free speech; the new law would die there in a heartbeat. (Forty less demented governments around the world absolutely ban corporate political contributions.13)
The Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1910 offers a template more likely to succeed, and to kneecap the Adelsons in the bargain. It said nothing at all about the campaign contributions a candidate could receive. Instead it imposed severe and inflexible limits on their campaign expenditures. Candidates could spend no more $0.03 per constituent, up to caps of $5,000 for House campaigns and $25,000 in Senate races.14 Similar modest limits today (let’s adjust for inflation) would liberate candidates from the 9 burden of raising millions—you don’t need what you can’t spend—and no candidate could outspend another to buy an election. Effective campaigns of informing the voters would be adequately funded, but the marathons of spectacle would end.
Quick. Simple. Effective. If you want to get Big Money out of politics just make it, in a roundabout way, illegal.
Limiting candidates’ expenditures is commonplace. Eighty three of the worlds’s 97 democracies do so: the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Austria, France, Ireland, Belgium, New Zealand, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Mexico, Bulgaria, Poland, Chile, Italy, Portugal, and 66 more.15
The spending caps in Canada and the UK have been in place for more than a century,16 and both countries limit expenditures by the political parties as well; US$24.9 million in Britain, in Canada US$21.0 million. Individual candidates can spend no more than US$91,700 in Canada and US$131,000 in Britain: trifles compared to the millions their American counterparts must raise. And isn’t $100,000, plus-or-minus, adequate? Are these countries less well governed? Are their democracies intact?
Ours is not: it has been eroding for at least five decades. Reclaiming it seems unlikely in five more, given the status quo, except for this concept of spending caps. It is an arrow straight to oligarchy’s Achilles heel.
So there you have it, beleaguered men and women of the U.S. Congress. You can emasculate Big Money by legislating spending caps. Then you’ll need only enough 10 financing to inform your voters, and you can raise this trifle during coffee breaks from shallower pockets. You are obligated now only to your constituents, freed immediately from the influence of immense wealth and the need to court it. You can govern full time.
And not the least benefit: democracy can recover as oligarchy withers.
The challenge here is not to reinstate spending limits immediately or even soon. Given Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, snowballs come to mind again. But so does the 2020 election, and it promises to be a game changer.
First spending limits. Then the Green New Deal. 11
Richard W. Behan
Richard W. Behan is professor emeritus of natural resource policy and dean emeritus of the School of Forestry at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.
1 For a detailed accounting of the Koch brothers’ influence, see Jane Mayer, Dark Money, New York: Doubleday, 2016.
2. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will not, he has said, even bring it to the floor—a stark example of the status quo’s toxicity and the need for wholesale reform.
10 “Democratic Differences: What the Brits and the Americans should teach each other about elections,” by Anne Applebaum in Slate, April 16, 2015.
12 A new Tillman Act would have to outlaw PACs, the mechanism through which corporations contribute to campaigns. Technically, corporations are still prohibited from contributing directly. Empirically the prohibition is meaningless.
13 See the website for the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. It has an immense searchable information base, here
14 See Federal Corrupt Practices.
16 The figures in this paragraph are found on the website noted above, for The Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.