A History of Political Corruption in America
Money has been corrupting politics for a long time. It’s up to us to stop it.
“The death-knell of the republic had rung as soon as the active power became lodged in the hands of those who sought, not to do justice to all citizens, rich and poor alike, but to stand for one special class and for its interests as opposed to the interests of others.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, 1903
How We Got Here
Big Money’s corrupting role in politics has been around for a long time. But in the last 40 years, it’s gotten a whole lot worse.
Politicians used to have to raise a few hundred thousand dollars to run for office. Now they have to raise tens of millions. Meanwhile, the influence industry in Washington has become a very big business, spending tens of billions of dollars annually on lobbying, campaign contributions, deceptive PR campaigns and phony grass-roots groups.
As a result, political and lobbying organizations representing well-financed special interests have achieved overwhelming control of the public debate and policymaking.
How did the system get so out of control? And what has the fight for reform been so far?
In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt called for, among other reforms, a ban on corporate participation in elections (although he had his own corporate fundraising scandal in his 1904 presidential campaign). Two years later, Congress passed the Tillman Act, which did exactly what Teddy asked — prohibited corporations from contributing to federal campaigns.
Forty years later, the Taft-Hartley Act fortified the Tillman Act, banning labor unions and corporations from spending money in federal elections and from making contributions to federal candidates.
The Modern Era
Modern campaign finance rules were born in 1971 with the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act, which was strengthened in 1974 by the creation of the Federal Election Commission. Subsequent court cases and legislation — namely, Buckley v. Valeo (1976), McCain-Feingold (2002), McConnell v. FEC (2003) and Citizens United v. FEC (2010) — fought to reinterpret or reassert the framework established in 1971.
Buckley v. Valeo has, over the years, proven to be especially significant because it was the first U.S. Supreme Court decision to equate political money with speech — a concept that has been taken to its extreme in recent years and stood in the way of reform.
The last 40 years have also been marked by some good news — significant improvements in the tracking of campaign-finance data, as well as some legal skirmishes that have attempted to keep Big Money at bay and create greater transparency of spending. Unfortunately, though, too much money — both lobbying and political expenditures — remains hidden.
In January 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision blasted a hole in the laws that once tried to keep Big Money from completely flooding the system.
Political spending has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, but since Citizens United it has truly skyrocketed. The 2010 elections saw a record-breaking $489 million spent by outside groups — a 450 percent increase over the 2006 cycle.
So-called super PACs are proliferating at warp speed — a new breed of political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited sums of money to directly support or oppose candidates.
Corporations can now essentially spend whatever they want in elections. That’s, in part, why the 2012 election cycle is expected to cost $6 billion. And it’s why the industry trade associations representing energy, health care and financial services are poised to spend billions more in the coming years influencing policymaking through lobbying, television ads and other political activities.
Recent years have also seen the birth of a sustained backlash. New citizen movements — the Tea Party on the right and Occupy on the left — were born out of a sense that government is no longer responsive to the average citizen. In the same time frame, over a dozen constitutional amendments to curb the influence of money in politics have been proposed and state-level courts have begun handing down decisions that directly challenge the logic of Citizens United. Prodded by citizen activists, city councils in Los Angeles, New York and other major cities have passed resolutions in support of constitutional reform to reduce the influence of special interests and large donors in elections.