The U.S. dodged another bullet last week with an 11th hour deal to open to the government and raise the country’s borrowing limit. We’ll do the debt ceiling dance again in a few months, but for now at least our national parks are open, thousands of government employees are back to work and we can finally catch that fox on the White House grounds.
But what we can’t do is become complacent about the daily dysfunction that grips our government.
This Congress, the Congress that has brought us the debt ceiling crisis, the sequester, and the debt ceiling take two, is the very same that came into office via the two most expensive congressional elections in history.
Could it be a coincidence that our most expensive elections yield our most rigidly ideological Congresses? Sure.
Is that likely? Probably not.
While both the 2010 and 2012 congressional elections topped out at well over $3 billion dollars, both elections also featured huge influxes of spending by organizations and entities that did not disclose their donors. The numbers are tricky to pin down, but estimates show that these non-disclosing groups have ratcheted up their spending from less than $6 million in the 2006 election to beyond $300 million in 2012.
Why does this matter in terms of the way our Congress behaves? It matters for two reasons.
The first may sound obvious, but as demonstrated, getting elected is expensive. The constant need to raise incredibly large sums of money puts pressure on lawmakers to toe-the-line for their biggest donors. Super PACs, which allow for unlimited contributions from any source, are like beacons for the most deep pocketed sources with the most uncompromising views.
I’ll put it like this: Have you ever talked to someone with such strongly held vanilla views that they were willing to drop $91 million dollars into an election? Well, neither has your member of Congress.
The second factor is that corporations and the extremely wealthy have different priorities than the average American. While many Americans will tell you right away that unemployment is the most crucial issue facing the country, those in the higher income brackets see it differently. In fact, they’re more than twice as likely to say the deficit is the biggest problem facing the country than the general public.
These factors taken together make it clear that the only way we’re going to get a Congress that’s more responsive to average folks, instead of to a minority of very wealthy Americans and corporations, is to clean up our elections.
Unfortunately, like most problems worth solving, there’s no silver bullet.
One of the most promising short-term solutions is a rulemaking being considered by the Securities and Exchange Commission that would require publicly traded companies to disclose any funds spent on elections.
The SEC’s consideration of the rule comes just as companies are beginning to see the value in voluntary disclosure. Many top companies, such as Merck, Qualcomm and the United Parcel Service, received top marks from the Center for Political Accountability’s CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Accountability and Disclosure. The Index, which scores the top 200 companies in the S&P 500, also shows a clear trend toward more disclosure among the companies it has rated two years in a row.
At a briefing scheduled for Oct. 30, Sens. Menendez and Warren will make the case for the rule alongside Columbia Law Professor Robert Jackson and other corporate governance experts and investors.
The momentum on this rule is real, and while it won’t expose the entire universe of dark money, it’s the perfect place to start. Once voters have a better picture of the funding sources behind the most uncompromising candidates, they can better evaluate their messages and make more informed choices in the voting booth.
For more information on the Senate briefing on the Securities and Exchange Commission rulemaking please visit http://pubc.it/GzuGTd.
Kelly Ngo is the online advocacy organizer with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.