One important aspect of yesterday’s elections not receiving nearly enough attention in the national headlines is the massive amount of political spending – much of it by dark money groups that do not disclose their funding sources – in state judicial elections.
Our friends at Justice At Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice are shining a much-needed light on this overlooked fact and its implications in new research released today.
The research shows the unsettling fact that spending on Supreme Court elections during the 2014 election cycle reached $13.8 million, topping the previous record of $12.2 million, set in 2010.
Among the key take-aways from the report is the extent to which political spending by corporations and other outside Big Money players is an election issue:
TV ads in Montana, Ohio, and Illinois accused candidates of being owned or influenced by special interests, or alternately asserted that a candidate was unaffected by special interests. An ad aired by Montanans for Liberty and Justice said candidate VanDyke was “in the pocket of out of state special interests” while incumbent Wheat urged voters in an ad by his campaign to “tell these corporations that neither your vote, nor my seat, are for sale.” Both VanDyke and Ohio Justice Judith French were targeted with graphically similar TV ads depicting photos of their faces tucked into businessmen’s cash-lined suit pockets.
The corporate accountability expert offers his thoughts on campaign finance reform.
Robert Weissman is an expert on issues related to financial accountability and corporate responsibility. As president of the nonprofit Public Citizen organization, he’s championed citizen interests before Congress, executive branch agencies and the courts on various policies, including healthcare, intellectual property and trade and globalization.
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Congress passed – unanimously in the Senate and without debate – and President Obama will sign, H.R. 2019, the “Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act” (named after a 10-year old child who died last year of brain cancer). If the legislation actually did what it touts – to finance pediatric research – it would be a noble bill for a noble cause.
But it is a fig-leaf bill. Its real purpose is to begin dismantling the presidential public financing system, and is very unlikely to produce any revenues for pediatric research.
The bill was originally introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), a longtime opponent of campaign finance reform. After Harper was unable to persuade Congress to approve earlier legislation that would have entirely defunded the public financing program, Harper re-worked the bill into what it is known now.
The legislation transfers public funds used to pay for the nominating conventions into the general treasury, then states that those funds may be used for pediatric research, if Congress ever decides to appropriate the funds for that purpose.
This same Congress slashed National Institute of Health (NIH) funding by $1.55 billion, which finances the pediatric research program, in the appropriations bills, and then placed caps on any further spending by NIH. The Kids First Research Act, if ever implemented, would transfer from the presidential public financing system to pediatric research, a pittance of what Congress slashed from the research budget. And even that pittance is not likely to happen. Given current spending caps on governmental agencies, Congress also would have to pass legislation lifting the spending ceiling for the National Institutes of Health to carry through with this appropriation, something that this Congress is very unlikely to do.
The U.S. Supreme Court could soon issue its decision in Shaun McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case that challenges aggregate contribution limits to federal candidates, political parties, and political action committees. Several outcomes are possible, ranging from a complete elimination of said limits to a total preservation of those limits.
However, there is a third (perhaps more likely) middle-ground scenario in which the Supreme Court maintains aggregate limits on contributions to political parties and PACs, but eliminates them for contributions to candidates. In the aftermath such a ruling, a wealthy donor could still effectively contribute more than 24 times the legal limit to political parties, according to a new report by Public Citizen.
Now, imagine a world in which well-reasoned, appropriate limits established by the government were overlooked by individuals and the government itself, allowing people and businesses to exceed reasonable limits by 24 times the legal threshold.
- Currently, a driver can legally drive with a blood alcohol level under 0.08. Imagine if a police officer looked the other way if a driver registered a 1.94 reading, 24 times greater in this case would mean the person’s blood is nearly two percent alcohol, which would almost certainly be fatal.
- The speed limits on most major highways fluctuate between 60 and 80 miles per hour. What if drivers were able to drive 1,440 miles per hour, or 24 times the posted limit, without the government intervening? Even twice the legal speed limit would pose significant danger to the driver and other motorists.