Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, uses a scuba diving analogy to describe the effect of big money in politics. She likened corporate cash to a lifeline that politicians cannot live without in the murky depths of a campaign.
“When you become a politician that money is your oxygen tank,” she said.
Corporations, Wall Street banks, oil companies and pharmaceutical companies, among others, are using donations to buy access and influence, she said. Elected officials make policy choices based on these contributions, consciously or subconsciously.
“They are beholden to their donors, whether they know it or not,” she said. “It just becomes subconscious.”
A public campaign financing option is one of the best ways to curb big money in politics, said Flanagan. With this option, candidates who chose to forgo corporate cash and private donations can have enough money to win elections.
“We have to adopt a public financing option to level the playing field,” she said.
In a public financing program, also called a clean elections system, if a candidate can gather enough small donations of around $5 they qualify for a sum of funding from the government to help finance the campaign.
Flanagan said a public financing option combined with free TV airtime would be the best way to reduce dependency on corporate contributions.
Common Cause, a national organization, has been fighting for these programs across the country, but has not succeeded in Colorado.
Maine and Arizona enacted this option for all state offices in 2000. Connecticut and two municipalities, Albuquerque, N.M. and Portland, Ore., passed a law called Clean Money, Clean Elections in 2005.
North Carolina, New Mexico, Vermont, Wisconsin and Massachusetts have also enacted some form of public financing.
Lawmakers who have participated in the program have made major reforms while in office, which they often credit to the lack of corporate donations, said Flanagan.
Individual donations and contributions from PACs, which pool individuals’ money, are less of a concern to Flanagan. The most reckless spending comes in the way of “independent” expenditures from corporate entities, funneled through non-profit and tax-exempt organizations.
“It’s obscene the amount of money they’re spending,” she said.
Independent expenditures are those by groups that are prohibited by law from coordinating with any candidate or political party, but have no limits on how much they can raise to influence a race.
Independent expenditures can be frustrating for candidates as well as for voters, because candidates have no control over the messages these groups put out, positive or negative.
Colorado holds one of the top spots in the country for most money spent on campaigns by independent expenditure committees, according to a Colorado Public Radio story.
Many of these committees are 527s, tax-exempt organizations which generally have no limits on how much money they can raise for an election or a candidate, but cannot coordinate with campaigns or parties in any way.
Also in the independent expenditure category are two types of non-profits, 501c3s and 501c4s. These are often formed by corporations and labor unions to influence campaigns, though like 527s they cannot coordinate with candidates or parties.
These groups do not have to disclose frequently, or sometimes at all, on a national level to the Federal Election Commission.
Unlike issue committees and candidates, independent expenditure committees do not usually disclose much information to the public, either. They often have little web presence or public visibility, as a recent Colorado Statesman story points out.
Colorado enacted a law, Senate Bill 203, earlier this year that does put stricter requirements on these groups, however. The bill outlined new reporting requirements, limited foreign contributions to these committees and required that any entity contributing $1,000 to a race outside of a candidate or party register as an independent expenditure committee.
Though this bill is a start, a multi-pronged approach is needed to reform the pay-to-play system in Colorado and nationally, said Flanagan.
“I don’t think there’s one silver bullet,” she said.
Photos courtesy of Creative Commons, Google Images