For all the money sloshing around in American politics, you still cannot buy the results of elections
Đang xem: The best congress money can buy
IT IS fair to say that the Supreme Court of Chief Justice John Roberts is not extravagantly admired by Democrats. Of all its conservative rulings, the one they find most enraging as November's mid-term elections approach is undoubtedly its 5-4 decision in January in the case of Citizens United. This held that since the first amendment tells Congress to make no law abridging the freedom of speech, previous legislation that barred companies, unions and other groups from paying directly for political advertisements during election campaigns was unconstitutional.
Barack Obama was furious. This was a “green light” to a stampede of special-interest money that would enable “Big Oil”, Wall Street banks, health-insurance companies and other powerful interests “to drown out the voices of everyday Americans”. As the mid-terms have neared, the cries of “foul” have multiplied. David Axelrod, one of Mr Obama's advisers, complained in September about “an audacious stealth campaign” by “powerful corporate special interests” using front groups to pour millions into misleading, negative campaign ads that could “tip the scales” in the coming election. The New York Times bemoaned “the most secretive election cycle since the Watergate years”.
Vast right-wing conspiracy, revisited
How valid are these complaints? This cycle has indeed seen the emergence of an exotic bestiary of organisations bearing innocuous labels such as Crossroads GPS, Americans for Job Security and Americans for Prosperity. These are raising lavish sums for pro-Republican political advertising, but the ads do not disclose the source of their funding. Voters would plainly see such advertising differently if they knew, say, that Crossroads GPS and its partner, American Crossroads, were connected to Karl Rove (George Bush's former strategy guru), or that Americans for Job Security was formed by the insurance industry, or that Americans for Prosperity is funded by the billionaire Koch brothers in order (says Mr Axelrod) to “support their right-wing agenda and corporate interests”. An investigation by the Washington Post concludes that special interests have increased their spending fivefold compared with the 2006 mid-terms, and that the disclosed proportion has declined from more than 90% to less than half.
That said, the impact of Citizens United is in danger of being vastly exaggerated. The bipartisan Centre for Public Integrity reports that in recent weeks organisations with Republican affiliations have spent five times more than their Democratic counterparts. Add to this the message from the White House that vengeful, deep-pocketed businesses and shadowy special interests are poised to buy the November elections, and you might well conclude that money is destroying American democracy.
This is just not true. Consider, for a start, these two words: Meg Whitman. The former chief executive of eBay has by now spent about $120m of her own money on her campaign to become governor of California, and yet the latest polls have her trailing her Democratic rival, Jerry Brown, who says he has spent $11m.
This is not to say that possession of a personal fortune is a fatal handicap in politics. Michael Bloomberg's three terms as mayor of New York and Jon Corzine's victory in the New Jersey governor's race of 2005 suggest the opposite. But Mr Corzine failed to buy his way to re-election last year. The moral of such stories, and the conclusion of a mountain of research, is that although money can sway the odd race here and there, it is generally subject to the law of diminishing returns. Once a candidate has spent enough to become known, the value of each extra dollar falls. A study by Americans for Campaign Reform in 2008 put that minimum at $700,000 for a crack at a seat in the House of Representatives.
This leads some to argue that instead of seeking to cap campaign contributions and spending, reformers should aim to help candidates across the magic threshold. A bill languishing in Congress, the Fair Elections Now Act, would offer public matching funds. Yet even that may be unnecessary. Gary Jacobson of the University of California in San Diego says the wielders of campaign funds have become expert at spotting competitive candidates and giving them the money they need to make a fight of it.
Besides, the Democrats are hardly penniless. The Democratic National Committee raised more than $16m in September, mainly from small donors, and has tended to do better at this than the Republican National Committee, whose mismanagement under the lackadaisical Michael Steele is one reason why Republicans are turning to outside organisations. And though outspent so far in the advertising war, trade unions (no less liberated than companies by the Citizens United ruling) have been working hard on the get-out-the-vote “ground war” at which they excel. Mr Jacobson expects the mid-terms to see many races between well-financed Democrats and Republican candidates with less money of their own but more help from outside organisations.
In other words: a pretty fair fight. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution says that the Citizens United decision will no more determine the mid-terms than Mr Obama's outspending of John McCain in 2008 swung the presidential race. That contest was determined by the fundamental politics (rejection of the Bush legacy, the charm of Mr Obama), as November's will be (the jobless “recovery”, disappointment with Mr Obama). Bill Galston, also at Brookings, goes so far as to wonder whether the fuss about it might be a pre-emptive attempt to explain away a defeat.
Politics in the United States is contaminated by money in many ways. But if the Democrats are hammered in November, it will not be because of the judicial activism of a conservative Supreme Court. It will be because they have done too few things that voters admire, and too many they do not like. To that extent at least, American democracy remains in rude health.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The best Congress money can buy?”