, Salem, MA

March 5, 2014

Watson: Money is corroding our political system

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — We are grappling with plenty of big problems in our country today, but the biggest one of all is partially hidden, and its very existence makes almost impossible the satisfactory discussion and resolution of all of the other problems.

I’m referring to the enormous, insidious and growing role of money in our political process. Funding lobbyists, underwriting candidates and campaigns, influencing the content and character of media, and often determining government policy, huge amounts of money are constantly at work within the institutional structures of our democracy and within the largest media companies of our TV, cable, Internet and social communication networks.

First, the extent of “traditional” lobbying has expanded tremendously. Corporations, unions, industry groups, the financial sector and a host of other special interests have increased their lobbying expenditures exponentially. There are roughly 35,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, and they deeply influence politicians, their staffs, legislation, policy debates, agency activities, regulation, enforcement and even the Congressional agenda itself.

Just to take one example of thousands, the Wall Street financial services sector spends tens of millions of dollars annually on hiring lobbyists, donating to politicians and funding various methods of political advertising. What the sector gets for its money is face-to-face access to senators and congressmen and their staffs, legislation that is modified by its concerns, and influence on public opinion and on election outcomes.

There is a revolving door connecting industry and lobbying firms with politicians and their staffs. Play ball with a big corporation and they’ll hire you when you leave office. Or join a professional lobbying firm and your political contacts will get you a seven-figure salary.

Additionally, after the Citizens United decision of early 2010, when the Supreme Court removed many of the limits on corporate and union political spending, there has been an explosion in the number of super PACs and in the creation of 501(c)(4), nonprofit organizations that spend money on all sorts of political activities, lobbying and campaigns.

Super PACs are organizations that are permitted to support specific incumbents or challengers during election campaigns. PACs have grown in number and impact in direct response to Citizens United. Although they are not permitted to donate directly to candidates, they may set up what are, in essence, parallel campaign organizations to create and fund political advertisements that either promote their candidate or attack an opponent.

Super-PAC advertising is overwhelmingly negative, emotional and often inaccurate. That is because the identities of donors are not revealed either prior to or during the airing of the ads. Under current law, sometimes the sources of contributions are not disclosed until after elections.

But not content with being identified at all, big-money individual donors and organizations have taken advantage of another tactic. They organize and operate behind the façade of 501(c)(4) nonprofits and basically engage in the same electioneering as super-PACs. As such, they are not required — ever — to publish their identities. So, anonymously and with virtually no spending limits, they are flooding media with distorted and negative ads.

And the media — increasingly reaping millions of advertising dollars — are becoming compromised and ineffective when it comes to reporting on and fighting the steady slide of our democracy toward one distorted by money. Network television, cable, the Internet and the many social media platforms are increasingly funded by political spending. This is especially disturbing because the funds for real journalism are steadily shrinking.

Most sophisticated candidate organizations today use “big data” to employ Facebook, Twitter and Web ads to target citizens with messages tailored to their personal profiles. Increasingly, anonymously and without accountability, political ads will follow citizens throughout their digital travels (whether on laptops or smartphones). And Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and other online ventures — increasingly replacing traditional print journalism and reaping billions of dollars — will not protest or raise the alarm.

The role of money in politics today is out of control. Roughly $10 billion was spent during the 2011-2012 election cycle. Most of that sum went into negative, misleading ads intended to alienate and divide the citizenry. Most of the ads discourage rational and substantive discussion of important issues. All of this has a corrosive effect on representative and responsive democracy.

Here’s something key: Whether you are on the right or the left, you’re probably getting angry and alienated by democracy’s dysfunction. We need major initiatives to reduce lobbying, eliminate the revolving door and limit the role of money in our system. Ultimately, if more rigorous campaign finance laws cannot be written and passed, we may have to amend the Constitution to restrict the role of money in this democracy.

Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at