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Money in Politics: This Time, It’s Different
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by David Hauck | 2012

Four years ago, the Obama campaign harnessed social media and the internet to bring in unprecedented amounts of political contributions from small donors. Nothing like it had ever been seen in previous presidential elections and several commentators talked about how the ability to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from millions of small donors represented a turning point in campaign finance. In future elections, they said, candidates could avoid the corrupting influence of, and dependence on, large donors with special interests and, instead, tap into a vast network of small donors. But this optimistic scenario was snuffed out by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC).

Money in Politics: This Time, It’s Different

 

By David Hauck—Four years ago, the Obama campaign harnessed social media and the internet to bring in unprecedented amounts of political contributions from small donors. Nothing like it had ever been seen in previous presidential elections and several commentators talked about how the ability to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from millions of small donors represented a turning point in campaign finance. In future elections, they said, candidates could avoid the corrupting influence of, and dependence on, large donors with special interests and, instead, tap into a vast network of small donors. But this optimistic scenario was snuffed out by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) .

In the Citizens United decision, five of the nine Supreme Court justices found that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution, and that corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose individual candidates as long as these efforts were not coordinated with the candidate’s campaign. Although there have always been loopholes that corporations, wealthy individuals and unions willing to skirt the edges of campaign finance laws could use, the legal ambiguities that hung over them restricted this from happening. After Citizens United those legal clouds disappeared, and large donors poured money into the 2010 congressional races.

 

The Avenues Contributions Take

These unlimited political contributions flow through two channels. The best known are the super PACs (super political action committees), which can spend money to encourage voters to choose or oppose a candidate through ads, mailings and phone calls as long as these activities are not coordinated with the candidate’s campaign. These PACs are “super” because, unlike a candidate’s own PAC, which is legally limited in the amount it can receive from a single donor, they can accept unlimited amounts of money. Super PACs are legally required to disclose the names of their donors to the FEC, which is why, for the most part, corporations do not give them money and, therefore, avoid possible negative publicity or consumer reaction.

 

Secret Donors

In order to provide a way for publicity-shy corporations and individuals to invest large sums of money to influence elections, a second, lesser-known channel has been created. Social welfare groups can be established under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code to promote broad community interests. Because they are not technically political organizations, they do not report the names of their donors to the FEC. Under the guise of informing the community about public policy issues, the 501(c)(4) social welfare groups associated with super PACs run ads criticizing candidates that they want to see defeated.

In 2010, these 501(c)(4) social welfare groups outspent super PACs by a 3:2 margin. So far in 2012, social welfare groups and their anonymous donors have spent nearly twice as much as the super PACs in their efforts to defeat President Obama, Democratic senators from swing states, and Democratic representatives from closely contested districts.

 

Big Polluters, Big Money

The amounts of money being raised and spent by conservative super PACs and their affiliated 501(c)(4) groups are enormous. The Koch brothers, who made their billions in the oil industry, are planning to raise $400 million, including their own $100 million donation. Groups run by Karl Rove are aiming to spend at least $340 million. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to raise $100 million from large corporations. Altogether, these conservative groups intend to spend close to $1 billion on the 2012 election. This dwarfs the amount being raised by super PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations allied with the Democratic Party and exceeds the record $750 million spent by the Obama campaign in 2008.

 So, what do the donors want in return for all this money? The ideal result would be Mitt Romney in the White House, a Republican majority in the Senate (achieved by picking up at least four seats), and a continued Republican majority in the House. With conservative control of the executive and legislative branches, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions and other toxic air and water pollutants coming from power plants, refineries and hydrofracking operations would be gutted. Federal incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency, already curtailed, would disappear. And “drill, baby, drill” would become our national energy policy.

 

What Sierra Club Members Can Do

·         Make donations to candidates that support our environmental goals with particular attention to Sierra Club-endorsed senatorial candidates in tight races (e.g., Bill Nelson, Florida; Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts; Bob Kerrey, Nebraska; Sherrod Brown, Ohio; Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin). The conservative super PACs and social welfare organizations are running negative ads against many of them, and we can help ensure they have the resources to respond.

·         Volunteer some time for a campaign. One of the House seats the Democrats hope to pick up is right here in Maryland. We have endorsed John Delaney in that race, and he has a good chance of winning what will be a tight election. (See the article in this issue of the Chesapeake about why the Sierra Club endorsed John Delaney.) You can help his campaign even if you do not live in his district.

 

·         By all means VOTE.           

 

David Hauck chairs the Maryland Chapter’s Political Committee.

 

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