September 27, 2011 Dylan Ratigan

Money and Politics: How Did We Get Here?

– by Mary Murphy

This week we kick off our “Mad As Hell” series, “Get Money Out!” along with our friends at The Huffington Post.  It all comes down to one underlying problem — money’s undue influence over our political system.

We know Americans are fed up with their politicians and the special interests that fund them. But how did we get where we are today — with Washington separated from voters by a wall of cold, hard cash?

Take a look at the numbers:

  • In 1976, presidential candidates spending totaled $67 million.
  • In 1976, winning House candidates spent $87,000 on average.
  • In 2008, presidential candidates spent a total of $1.3 billion.
  • In 2008, it cost over $1.5 million to win a House seat.

Those number may look huge, but they’re going to continue to grow.  By 2012, spending just on the fall elections is projected to reach over $6 billion.

Where is that money coming from?  Prior to the 2010 election, key industry sectors, like finance, gave more to republicans than democrats. In 2006 and 2008, it flipped, with Wall Street giving more to the victorious Democrats.

Back before the “money switch” turned democratic, in 2004 Wall Street preferred George Bush to John Kerry. There was so much money flowing that President Bush openly joked about it at the 2000 Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, telling attendees, “Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.”  (If you missed that speech, here’s the clip.)

All this money had a serious impact on decision making during the financial crisis.  When politicians had to vote on a $700 billion bailout to Wall Street, both parties picked donors over voters.

But money in politics is not a new problem — it all started back in the 1970’s. New television and new direct mail techniques were driving up the cost of congressional campaigns. Meanwhile, Congress was trying to control money in politics and clamp down on Nixon-era abuses. It put limits on what candidates could raise, and spend.

But the Supreme Court, in a 1976 decision, Buckley v. Valeo, ruled that Congress could only limit contributions, not spending. Money, said the court, is speech. The court would continue chipping away at campaign finance regulations for years to come.

Pretty soon, the first wave of television friendly republicans swept into office in 1978. A young Newt Gingrich saw how the fundraising vehicles called Political Action Committees could be used to build their own power.

Congressional leadership had been based on seniority, but it soon became based on fundraising prowess. And eventually, these republicans took the majority.

The money wave was bipartisan. In 1982, it was a congressman named Tony Coehlo who brought new business PAC money into the Democratic Party. By 2002, the situation was so outrageous that Sen. John McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold were able to pass a bill to restrict contributions to the political parties.

But this opened up a loophole for “soft money” to go directly to outside groups. By 2004, there was so much money in politics that massive donations from individual billionaires – T. Boone Pickens on the right and George Soros on the left – had turned politics into a sport for billionaires. And in 2010, the Supreme Court, in a controversial decision called Citizens United, gutted most remaining campaign finance restrictions, saying that corporations and unions could put unlimited sums of money directly into elections.

President Obama slammed the decision in his 2010 State of the Union saying, “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections.”

Today, we’re in a new era of American democracy where debate is shaped and controlled by well-monied forces not on the ballot.  Our hope is that by shining a light on the issue, we can begin to fix it.

Mary Murphy is a producer for The Dylan Ratigan Show.

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