Elicit the Best from Sun. January 9 by Norm Eisenberg

Good morning and happy new year. Welcome everybody!

This is a subject that I AM passionate about, so let’s just hope I can avoid any curse words.


There must be a LOT of money out there. And there is. WAY TOO much. In the 2006 mid-term election the total cost of inflation-adjusted federal and state elections was 10.2 billion dollars. In 2014, it was 9.4 billion. This last time it was 16.7 billion.

Here’s what is widely considered the cause: The Supreme Court’s decision in 2010—CITIZENS
UNITED– that opened the flood gates to rivers of money that previously had been restricted by
federal laws that tried to at least minimize corruption.

How did we get here?

Our country has a long history of trying to keep political donations in check.

  • As long ago as 1907 the Tillman Act banned corporate contributions in federal elections.
  • The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 regulated the financing of federal election campaigns (president, Senate, and House), including the money raised and spent by the candidates pursuing those offices and by the political parties.

Because of increased concerns about political spending, especially after Watergate, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (helpfully referred to as bik-ruh) became law in 2002. Thanks, in large part, to senators John McCain, Republican, and Russ Feingold, Democrat. This act prohibited independent expenditures for political campaigns by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, labor unions, and other associations. But Citizens United said that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from imposing such prohibitions. Other court decisions in recent years leaned toward the concept of political contributions as a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. Bik-ruh, through the Federal Election Commission, continues to regulate other kinds of donations, but following Citizens United a separate class of contributions was created specifically to allow unlimited independent expenditures through so-called Super PACs funded by those previously prohibited donors, to finance independent expenditures and other independent political activity. These expenditures may not be made in concert or cooperation with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, the candidate’s campaign, or a political party. Well, sure.

Traditional PACs (Political Action Committees) have a $5,000 per person cap on donations and cannot accept money from corporations or unions, but they may contribute directly to a politician or political party. Super PACs (which operate under a separate class of laws and thus are not technically Political Action Committees) are limited to spending independently of such campaigns.

Super PACs are also exempt from requirements to immediately report funding sources.

Other kinds of PAC’s that ARE regulated are:

  1. Separate Segregated Funds (SSFs), which are political committees established and administered by corporations, labor unions, membership organizations or trade associations. These committees can solicit contributions only from individuals associated with a connected or sponsoring organization.
  2. Nonconnected committees are free to solicit contributions only from the general public.
  3. Hybrid PACs may use a separate bank account to give limited amounts of money directly to political campaigns and another bank account that can make independent expenditures in unlimited amounts.
  4. Leadership PACs are political committees that are subject to restrictions such as limits on the dollar amounts of contributions they can make. Often, they are directly or indirectly established, financed, maintained or controlled by a candidate or an individual who already holds a federal office. These are not authorized committees of that candidate or officeholder and are not affiliated with an authorized committee of a candidate or officeholder. The purpose often is to support candidates for various federal and nonfederal offices. (We might call them “making friends” PACs.).

So, what are some of the consequences that I see as having come from all of this money?

  1. Worsening attitudes towards politicians, who even after elected bear the ugliness bestowed upon them by the frequent distortions and lies in those commercials.
  2. Elected officials spend way way way too much of their precious time soliciting contributions, and likely a disproportionate amount of time on rich people. Do you think this affects their legislative priorities? for the not so wealthy, it’s email inboxes clogged with pleadings to “chip in.” Over and over again.

Most candidates actually abhor the constant time-consuming quest for contributions!

By all means Google “Dick Durbin dialing for dollars” to see a 4-minute video by our neighboring senator, born in East St. Louis. Or try “DC sweatshops dialing for dollars” for an appalling article. Both are a few years old, but could things be any better now?

As speculated in a year-end charity request in my outdoor mailbox, the significant fall-off in their usual rate of contributions from the less well-off (like me) might have been a result of election donations. The parties have competed successfully at the money challenge, but big donors surely have greater long-term reservoirs.

Our country is increasingly divided by all the extremist advertising noise that easily gathers attention.

Several individual officeholders raise funds for themselves by being outrageous enough to obtain lots of money. Who needs the moderating influence of a big-picture political party?

And forget about disclosure of contributions to show citizens where the money comes from. Politicians wrote the laws needed to comply with citizens united, but that did not require disclosure. so-called dark money is a whole other big problem.

Honestly, this subject is so complicated and, in my opinion, so depressingly harmful to our American civilization that a few minutes from an amateur like me cannot provide more than a hint at the relevant issues. My broadest suggestion is that we Americans, including politicians who are unhappily forced to grovel for money, need to undergo a change in mindset. We CAN—we MUST– develop a workable and more attractive and much less costly alternative to the way we prepare ourselves to participate in elections. I wish CU could be overturned, but maybe it’s not a good idea to mess with the First Amendment, and it’s in all likelihood not politically feasible anyway. But if we can set goals as ambitious as setting foot on Mars, hopefully we can fulfill another mighty ambition to find ways to make campaigns much less costly; become better informed and more trustful about government and politics; create far less animosity among groups who hold their own usually legitimate grievances; and retain the freedom to donate as some might wish while our country also deals much more successfully than we do now with serious public issues.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.