Campaign money and two terrible tendencies

In the campaign over Maine’s open U.S. Senate race, money has become an issue.

Independent candidate Angus King offered to discourage SuperPAC activity if other candidates did the same. Democratic candidate Cynthia Dill, who decries the decision in the Citizens United case, said she might agree but details would need to negotiated. Then Republican Charlie Summers called the offer a “gimmick,” closing the door to this option.

Because Summers refused to endorse Olympia Snowe when she was challenged by tea party candidate Scott D’Amboise, he might not receive some of her campaign funds and thus will want other sources of money.

As Dill and Summers point out, King starts the general election campaign with far more money than other candidates. As of May 23, King had raised about $470,000 to Summers’s $90,000 and Dill’s $39,000.

Right now our discussions about money should be broadened. Whoever becomes Maine’s next senator will vote on legislation and regulatory and judicial appointments affecting campaign finance.

Although many see big campaign money as legalized bribery, often it rewards and supports politicians who already agree with funders. Those with the greatest economic power thereby get greater political power. When the funds are used to run ads that actively misinform citizens, this undermines democracy.

Two terrible tendencies should worry us. One is the turn away from transparency, so it’s unknown who has put up the big money and what they want. A second is the growing amount of money spent in lobbying by the major election funders. As the campaign money opens the door, corporate lobbyists walk in.

In Maine, late, undisclosed money flowed into races in 2010. The Republican State Leadership Committee sent $400,000 to five state Senate races. Because these were not reported quickly, Democratic candidates missed out on the matching funds they could have used to respond.

In 2011, $250,000 of the $313,000 raised by the group against election-day registration came from the Michigan-based American Justice Partnership, an organization tied to Charles and David Koch. Disclosed after the deadline, these funded negative, misleading ads, which claimed, “Outside interests are trying to get rid of Maine’s ethics law.” Fines levied in 2011 and 2010 were too small to stop similar future behavior.

What happens in Maine this year will be deeply affected by the highly activist decision in the Citizens United case. The activism started when conservative Chief Justice John Roberts ordered the Citizens United case to be heard two years in a row and shifted the focus from a narrow matter to overturning one hundred years of campaign finance law.

Although it’s a staple of Republican rhetoric to decry “judges who legislate from the bench,” this contradicts calls to overturn Obamacare and other laws passed by elected officials.

More consistent is conservative columnist George Will. Advocating judicial activism, Will wrote that deferring to decisions by “elected representatives can be dereliction of judicial duty.” Will, a strong supporter of Citizens United, endorses overturning other long-standing laws, even reversing an 1873 decision and 1930s cases regulating business and work conditions.

Today’s activist court has created a system where it’s perfectly legal for one individual, gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson, to write a check of $10 million to Mitt Romney’s SuperPAC as part of his plan to spend $100 million. Given Adelson’s wealth, $10 million is equivalent to $40 for a family with a net worth of $100,000. Other contributors give huge amounts but their names – and interests — are not known.

What used to be a bipartisan consensus in favor of disclosure has vanished. The current Republican leaders in Congress were once full-throated advocates of transparency. Said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in 2000, “Republicans are in favor of disclosure.” In 2007, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), now Speaker of the House, proclaimed, “[S]unlight is the best disinfectant.” Now all congressional Republicans oppose the proposed legislation requiring disclosure of SuperPAC donors, called the DISCLOSE Act.

Dill and King favor overturning Citizens United and support rapid disclosure. What does Summers think?

A highly activist Supreme Court led to our flawed campaign finance regime. However much money is spent in this Senate race, we should discuss how to ensure transparency and shine a light on the stream of money and the bonds between contributors, lobbyists and elected officials. Money most certainly should be an issue for Mainers, as they pick a senator for our state.

Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at ASFried and at her blog, www.pollways.com.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.