Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Money in Politics

By Jared SiegelPublished March 14, 2015

A critical look at the increasing presence and influential power of money in our political environment.

Oscar Wilde once said, "When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is". Many might staunchly oppose his views and argue that the wealth in life is derived from happiness and kindness. But, in national politics, where persuasion wins votes, and the medium for persuasion is costly advertisements, money might just be the most important thing.

            Over the last half decade, money has played an increasing role in politics. The 2010 Citizens United v. FEC and SpeechNOW v. FEC Supreme Court verdicts opened up the floodgates to allow for-profit corporations, unions, and individuals to donate uncapped sums of money for "electioneering communications". While direct contributions from corporations and unions to campaigns and parties remain illegal, SuperPACs, who run independent political advertisements, have emerged to accept multi-million dollar political donations. Their emergence is not the primary concern.  Rather, the chief concern is that the donations to these SuperPACs come from a very small group of wealthy individuals. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top 100 individual PAC donors contributed 80% of total SuperPAC money raised, while only composing 3.7% of all individuals that donated.  

            The greatest issue with the emergence of uncapped campaign finance is that it obstructs the way the federal government operates. President Obama proposed his Climate Action Plan in 2013 with the goal of reducing U.S. carbon emissions, preparing the U.S. for the impacts of climate change, and leading international efforts to address global climate change. However, the proposal has little hope of even making it out of committee. Members of the Senate Environment and Public works committee depend tremendously on the oil and gas industry. The committee chair, Republican senator James Inhofe, a denier of human induced climate change, received over half a million dollars from the oil and gas industry to his leadership SuperPAC between 2009 to 2013. The industry donated $2.7 million combined to then-committee members, 79% of which went to republican Senators, many of whom also deny human induced climate change.

Important issues are being ignored. These are issues that the majority of citizens want Congress to act on. Yet, as long as wealthy individuals and corporations have control over campaign war chests and, consequently, reelection prospects, policy will shift towards their own interests. If we continue on this course, the status quo will be maintained. In the 1863 Gettysburg Address, President called the U.S. a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Let us not let that government become a government of the few, by the few, and for the few.

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