THE 2012 ELECTION featured, as always, a record amount of spending. It featured, as always but in a far bigger increment than the usual increase, a record amount of spending by outside groups. With new avenues for unlimited contributions unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, outside groups spent more than $1 billion in the 2012 campaign, compared with less than $300 million four years ago, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Some observers, noting the status quo nature of the outcome — a Democratic president reelected, Republicans remaining in control of the House, Democrats in the Senate majority — have wondered whether this flood of cash made a difference. “This was an arms war fought to a standstill,” said Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute.
But whether the outside spending changed the outcome of any particular race, the problem is embedded in the expenditures themselves. Both the remarkable size of the checks written by big contributors in 2012 and the fact that a sizable chunk of the contributions was not publicly reported nurture a climate ripe for corruption. If big donors are not buying guaranteed election results, they are buying access — and perhaps more if favored candidates win. With million-dollar checks no longer raising eyebrows, candidates are indebted as never before to the outside interests bolstering their campaigns, whether they are wealthy individuals, corporations or labor unions.
The size of contributions to super PACs and other outside entities in 2012 was staggering. The Center for Responsive Politics calculates that the top 100 individual contributors to super PACs represented just 1 percent of individual donors but accounted for 73 percent of money going to super PACs. Even more troubling are the known unknowns: Who gave to the nonprofit social welfare organizations and trade associations that made up nearly a third of the $1 billion in outside spending but, unlike super PACs, did not disclose their donors’ identities?
The Supreme Court’s misguided campaign finance jurisprudence has made this situation more difficult, but not impossible, to fix. Some antidotes to big money in politics are featured in legislation sponsored by Reps. David E. Price (D-N.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). The Empowering Citizens Act would encourage small donations by creating a 5-for-1 federal matching fund system in both congressional and presidential campaigns. It would eliminate the candidate-specific super PACs, such as Mitt Romney’s Restore our Future and President Obama’s Priorities USA, that did the most to shred the fiction of independent expenditures, and prohibit candidates and their representatives from soliciting money for super PACs.
As vital is a renewed effort to pass the Disclose Act, which would pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding the spending of nonprofits and trade groups. Absent changes, the nation’s elections will be increasingly characterized by mega-donors and secret money. That may not change the result in individual races, but it is decidedly unhealthy for democracy.