Big bucks silence views of ordinary folks

By Phil Power/Bridge Magazine

Surprise! Would you believe that … political systems are stacked in favor of those with money?

That’s probably been true since the days of the pharaohs, if not before. But these days, two things make the normal much worse in our country:

First, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, essentially ruled two years ago that government could place no restrictions or limits on the amount of money corporations, unions or really rich people could spend for political purposes.

True, corporations and unions cannot give money directly to candidates, but they can now give unlimited amounts to political action committees — the so-called Super PACs — which then can spend lavishly to support candidates, mainly through TV ads.

The second big problem: Even though we cannot now curb that spending, states have every right to require the disclosure of who gave what to whom — and require that information to be disclosed in a timely fashion. But campaign disclosure laws, perhaps especially in Michigan, are disgracefully toothless.

What all this means is that ordinary folks have precious little to say about the workings of our “democratic” political system. The result is that many of us are (you pick): disenchanted, alienated, marginalized, grumpy, or turned off.

Last week’s news offered plenty of evidence.

Just take the presidential primary process. On the national stage, as of Jan. 20, $33 million had already been spent by the “Super PACs,” receptacles for big money that are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts to support a particular candidate for president. Ostensibly, these outfits are (wink, wink) independent of the candidates they’re supporting, although the folks running them are often former staffers or campaign managers for the candidates.

“Restore Our Future,” a Super PAC created to support Mitt Romney, raised more than $30 million last year, 98 percent of it in donations of $25,000 or more. And just five donors to Newt Gingrich’s PAC, “Winning Our Future,” kicked in $2 million.

Nor are the Republicans alone. Not to be outdone, “Priorities USA Action,” which works for President Obama, raised more than $4 million from just 12 donors.

All these figures come from the Federal Election Commission. The FEC reporting cutoff date was Dec. 31, 2011, so these numbers don’t include $10 million recently poured into the Gingrich campaign by Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson, or the $33 million collected by Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit funded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, according to Common Cause, a good government outfit.

The bottom line is that we, in effect, have opened the door to big donors and allowed them to essentially buy our national political system. Paraphrasing (and distorting) Abraham Lincoln: It’s government by the (wealthy) people, of the (rich) people and for the (even richer and largely unknown) people.

And while the total sums may be a lot less eye-popping, much the same thing is going on in Michigan, according to Rich Robinson, the head of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

According to a MCFN  report, while $61 million was spent in races for governor, secretary of state, attorney general and justice of the Supreme Court in 2010, $22.9 million was not disclosed in the state’s campaign finance reporting system. Why? Our pitiful disclosure law simply doesn’t apply to campaign-focused TV issue ads.

The leading local exemplar of the art of buying the political system is Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who, with his wife and son, owns the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

The Ambassador Bridge is the only way to get billions of dollars across the border in this area. And — no doubt because his monopoly is astonishingly profitable — Moroun fiercely opposes a publicly owned span advocated by Gov. Rick Snyder, the government of Canada and virtually every business interest in the state.

The Morouns spent a reported $6 million last year in television ads inaccurately savaging both the proposed bridge and Snyder. Additionally, last year, the family gave at least $242,000 to Michigan political groups, according to MCFN. In addition, the family gave more than $368,000 to federal campaign committees last year.

Much of this went to key legislators, most of them Republicans. As a result, while most of the governor’s program sailed through the Legislature, he couldn’t even get the lawmakers to vote on the bridge.

As for Moroun‘s lavish spending: “I think it’s clearly meant to drive policy,” says Robinson. “I’d have to say it succeeded.”

So what’s the solution? I see three possibilities:

  • Far tougher and more timely campaign financial disclosure laws. We may be unable to set any limits on personal contributions, but we could legally require they all be fully disclosed immediately.
  • Publicly financed elections. Nobody (well, hardly anybody) likes the idea … but if you consider the vast amounts of unreported cash coursing through the political system, we might well be better off by cleaning it out once and for all.
  • An aroused public. In a series of small community conversations conducted by the Center for Michigan from 2008-2010, more than 10,000 Michigan citizens expressed dismay at the workings of our political system and called for reform. Sadly, these voices have fallen on deaf ears — deaf because the politicians have a vested self-interest in not hearing them.

So far, when it comes to success, the reformers have a batting average of essentially zero. The result: More disenchanted, alienated, marginalized, grumpy and alienated citizens. When you think about what that means for our future, it has to scare you.