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Lee Drutman is the co-author of The People’s Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy.
In the never-ending chatter that necessarily follows the indictment of any politician as important as Tom DeLay, much effort has gone into prognosticating the political ramifications: What does this mean for 2006? Can the Democrats take advantage? What does this mean for the GOP agenda?
These are the kinds of questions that are perhaps to be expected of the mainstream media, with its endless focus on the horse race of politics. Unfortunately, much less has been made of the law that DeLay actually stands accused of violating—a Texas statute that bans corporate money from statewide political campaigns—or the larger problems of corporate money in politics that supported the entire DeLay empire.
In the news coverage so far, the Texas law has generally been treated as an aside, the trap that finally snared Tom DeLay’s arrogance (what is important, it would seem, is that he was finally caught doing something illegal!). Corporate money, meanwhile, is treated as a given—a fact of political life.
But let’s consider, for a second, what we know about this case. We know that Tom DeLay stands accused of violating Texas law by laundering $190,000 of corporate money to support Republican candidates for the state legislature. We know that with the help of this money, Republicans in Texas were indeed able to take over the state legislature, and redraw the election maps so they could send five more Republicans to Congress, increasing the sycophantically corporate-friendly GOP majority in Washington.
Chalk it up as yet another bit of evidence that corporate money can have a major influence on political outcomes.
In the big picture, of course, we ought to know this by now. We know that in more than 90 percent of congressional elections, the candidate who wins is the candidate who raises more money. We know that the cost of running for Congress is now prohibitively expensive—about $1 million for a House seat, about $6 million for a Senate seat. We know that in the last election cycle, business spent $1.5 billion on politics, accounting for 74 percent of all campaign contributions. It follows that if you want to run for federal office, you'd better be good at raising money. And if you want to raise money, you'd better be good at appealing to corporate donors, because without big business donors, it’s awfully hard to raise that kind of money. No wonder that Washington is such a corporate-friendly place these days.
Of course, this isn’t “news.” DeLay’s alleged laundering of corporate money is just another example of how big corporations—who have exponentially more resources than average citizens—use those resources to shape political outcomes. This happens all the time. Perhaps we are desensitized to it.
Or perhaps there is a sense of collective frustration that makes it seem easier to ignore the problem. We passed McCain-Feingold, and little changed—corporate campaign contributions did not vanish off into the sunset. There are 17 other states that, like Texas, also ban corporate money in statewide political campaigns. We even have federal law, the Tillman Act, that has officially banned corporations from contributing to federal campaigns for 98 years. Yet corporate money keeps finding its way into politics, often in decisive ways. What gives?
There is, however, some hope. This fall, the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of a Vermont law that limits campaign spending and contributions. The point of the law is to make candidates less dependent on wealthy donors (e.g. large corporations) by putting a cap on the arms race of political spending.
Under current Supreme Court precedent, however, such an expenditure limit could be deemed unconstitutional. The precedent would be the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling, which equates money with speech and therefore deems spending limits unconstitutional.
However, since Buckley was decided, we have amassed almost three decades of evidence demonstrating what happens when campaign expenditures are unlimited and the highest bidders are comfortable going quite high. It is also worth noting that while Buckley protected the speech of those few with countless resources to expend on politics, doing so effectively drowned out the speech of many others who might like to make their voice heard but can only offer small contributions.
In 2002, the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the Vermont law, writing that without expenditure limits, Vermont officials “have been forced to provide privileged access to contributors in exchange for campaign money,” and that “the basic democratic requirements of accessibility, and thus accountability, are imperiled when the time of public officials is dominated by those who pay for such access with campaign contributions.”
This fall, the Supreme Court will decide. If it upholds the Vermont law, it would be a major step forward in the fight against excessive corporate political spending, since spending limits by necessity reduce the amount of money in politics.
And as the Supreme Court considers this case this fall, we ought to keep in mind the antics of Tom DeLay.
No doubt, in the big picture, Tom DeLay’s alleged corporate money laundering amounts to just one more example in the countless litany of big corporate money making a mockery of democracy.
Yet, because it has grabbed the spotlight, it offers an important opportunity to talk about what role large corporations, with their disproportionate financial resources compared to ordinary citizens, should play in politics. And the more we talk about this now, the stronger a case we can make this fall for upholding Vermont’s expenditure limits.