Corruption in the Political System

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January 2, 2012
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Russ Feingold

On January 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down one of the most lawless decisions in its history: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In one fell swoop, the court overturned nearly 100 years of settled laws that had limited the ways that corporations could influence our democracy. Now, more than at any other point in my lifetime, I have grave concerns about the integrity of our election process.

So, as the 2012 election cycle approaches, we must join together to demand both transparency and accountability from our elected officials.

As recently as ten years ago, members of both parties were engaging in blatant corruption. And while I never saw the proverbial suitcase full of $100 bills, the corruption was real. I heard senators from both parties talk about the six-figure donations they had successfully solicited from corporations for their political parties — even as they considered legislation relating to the same corporation. This behavior wasn’t so much bribery but extortion: Elected representatives felt a tremendous incentive to extract gigantic donations from political donors of every kind — including giant corporations.

Then, on March 27, 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, a law I co-authored with Senator John McCain (R–Arizona) that banned the the unregulated “soft” (unregulated) money that was infecting Washington.

In the years after our law passed, I started to become more optimistic about the integrity of our election system. Then, in 2008, I watched as candidate Barack Obama harnessed the power of the Internet to fund his campaign with small-dollar donations from everyday citizens. Not political action committees, not corporations, not lobbyists, but young college students, working families, and senior citizens fueled his movement with $10 or $25 contributions.

On the Internet, Americans could now support candidates or organize around issues or legislation. Average citizens who felt passionately about the environment, health care, or even access to the Internet itself could now band together with thousands of others, right from their own home. It was a healthy time for citizen participation and oversight. This mechanism of influence threatened corporate political interests that had evaded most public scrutiny and accountability for so long.

The 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United created a new framework for corruption. National political organizations, like “Super PACs,” would now be able to collect and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of a particular candidate. In some cases, the spending by national groups might match, or even exceed, the amount spent by a candidate’s campaign itself.

In 2012, national corporate interests will be able to anonymously support and fuel misleading and negative campaign ads. This could be a terrible step for our democracy. And because of inadequate disclosure requirements, voters may not know who’s funding an advertisement until after an election, if ever. Other types of organizations are not required to disclose their funding sources at all, and because they use deceptively opaque names, like “Americans for Apple Pie,” it will never be known who is responsible for their ads.

In addition, a candidate’s efforts to run a positive campaign could be foiled if an outside Super PAC runs scorched-earth negative ads. The result will be campaigns that are more negative, less transparent, and less locally controlled than ever before. I worry that both political parties, Republicans and Democrats, will continue down this road of corruption unless we, as citizens, collectively demand a different path.

In addition to campaign finance reform, we must also enforce our existing laws. Unfortu­nately, the Federal Election Commission lacks the power to do so. For just this reason, I have for years, supported abolishing the FEC and replacing it with an agency that has both the authority and the expertise to enforce our election laws. Senator McCain and I proposed a three-member Federal Election Administration that would police the campaigns, organizations, and individuals involved in the political process. I hope my former colleagues in the U.S. Congress will create such an agency.

Until a new Supreme Court overturns the disastrous Citizens United decision, and until Congress passes a reform bill (such as the DISCLOSE ACT — the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act), which creates a new agency that actually enforces the laws we do have, I worry we will return to another era of widespread corruption in our political system.

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Russ Feingold, a Democrat, represented Wisconsin for 18 years in the U.S. Senate. He is the founder of Progressives United and the author of the forthcoming book While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post 9/11 Era. During the winter quarter of 2012, Feingold will serve as the first Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor at the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University.

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