My Glimpse Behind the Curtain of Campaign Finance “Laws”

By Mikala Cohen

While we all know that money and politics go hand-in-hand in all branches of government, it is difficult to grasp the reality of this situation. Moreover, I know that Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is arguably the greatest travesty of a judicial decision in the 21st century, but it is impossible to fully grasp its enormous and far-reaching proliferation. In my opinion, it is incredibly difficult for people to fully understand how influential every monetary contribution is on how candidates campaign for office, get elected to various positions and exercise the “power” they have. Through my experiences this summer as hill-tern and financial campaign intern in Washington D.C. and Virginia, I’ve managed to get a glimpse into how the cogs of the political machine are greased and rusted by money.

As an intern with the House of Representatives, I was well-informed about the many contentious bills up for debate and passage on the floor in the first summer of the 114th Congress, from the Interior Appropriations Bill to the REINS Act. I was heavily involved in researching H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act as it was officially designated or popularly known as the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act. While exploring various online resources to determine what organizations support and reject this bill, I found maplight.org, which listed legislators in Congress with the amount of money they had received from organizations in support and against the bill. With the aid of public FEC filings and political contributions, this website effectively allowed me to compare how a representative voted on the bill with the monetary contributions they had received. As you may have guessed, the majority of representatives voted along the lines of their monetary contributions. While I concede that many of these correlations may just be coincidental and that these elected officials voted without considering monetary contributions, I also know that it is likely that campaign finances were a contributing factor in many voting decisions. The Citizens United decision prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation. In my jaded opinion, this decision has effectively prevented my government from being beholden to each American citizen equally and fairly without the influence of monied individuals or corporations.

Even before starting as a financial intern with a Northern Virginia House of Delegates race, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how campaign finance works. While I knew that candidates dedicate huge portions of their days just to call time to garner monetary support for their campaign, I also remembered the $5,200 limit on how much an individual can give to any single candidate during a two-year election cycle. It remains unsettling to me that people donate to political campaigns in the interest of garnering influence with an elected official, but $5,200 didn’t seem like that much to me when candidates are raising millions of dollars for Congressional races. However I found out this summer about just a few of the many loopholes that allow individuals and corporations circumvent these spending caps and basically disenfranchise other non-contributing Americans. With no limitation on the amount of money a contributor may give to a political action committee, individual citizens can earmark thousands of dollars to PACs to help a specific candidate or support the PAC’s efforts to help a candidate. Therefore people can only spend $5,200 in direct contributions to candidates, but can earmark millions of dollars, if they so choose, for that candidate through PACs. How biased can an elected official be if political action committees spend millions on their behalf?

While I may cheer for Bernie Sanders when he discourages the formation of super-PACs supporting his campaign for President, Billionaires for Bernie was recently officially formed with the FEC as a super-PAC in support of his candidacy. I love the idea of “feeling the bern,” but can any political campaign actually and totally separate money from politics? I worked in Washington D.C. for three months in various places where I learned a great deal about positive governance and Democratic politics. But now at the end of the summer, I find myself dismissing about the shear possibility of politics being unaffiliated or concerned with monetary contributions.

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