The influence of money on the US politics has been a major concern since the 1960s. Candidates standing for elections used to spend enormous sums of money. This was true for every elective post, with the presidency being the most expensive of all. By the 1970s, there was growing concern that too much money had found its way in the US politics. Organized interest groups such as corporations, lobby groups, and unions made large donations. Concern was raised that political office contenders could buy their way into office instead of being elected by the people based on their character and ideas. This paper explores the influence money has on the US politics since money does have an influence on the US politics and the amount involved keeps increasing from one election to the other.
Concern over the influence money had on the US politics peaked in the 1970s, prompting Congress to pass a law, the Federal Election Campaign Act, in 1971 requiring candidates to disclose sources of their large donations (Bowles and McMahon 255). The law was amended in 1974 to put a limitation on the amount a candidate could spend in an election and to limit the amount of donation an individual or an organization could spend on one candidate. This amendment was challenged in court in Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 (Bowles and McMahon 257). The Supreme Court ruled against limitation on candidate expenditure in an election but not against the 1971 Act disclosure requirement. The Court also ruled that citizens should support political activities of their choice without limitation as long as the activities’ support did not directly support or oppose the election of any candidate (Bowles and McMahon 258). This ruling created room for large sums of what was referred to as soft money to find its way into the US politics.
Candidates became increasing innovative in using soft money in their campaigns in the 1980s and the 1990s, triggering another clamor for a reduction of the influence of money in the US elections in particular (Bowles and McMahon 258). This led to the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002, limiting the number of activities that soft money could finance. As it can be seen, over the years, efforts have been made to curtail the influence of money in the US politics. While these efforts have succeeded in increasing transparency in campaign finance, their effectiveness in limiting the spending and the influence of money in politics is disputed.
According to John Wilson, nothing manifests America’s capitalism more than its elections. He says the system is such that politicians can be bought or sold more or less like Frosted Flakes (Wilson 24). This spells doom to progressive ideas, as they do not stand a chance against money influence. In his own words, “when cold cash determines political influence, those without big money can’t pay the entrance fee to power” (Wilson 24). The most convincing arguments cannot carry the day in Congress because the only language the politicians there understand is money. This calls for reforms in campaign finance to limit the influence of money and to create room for progressive ideas to be heard not only in Washington but also around the whole country (Wilson 24-54).
Money channeled to candidates standing for various seats is nothing but a legalized form of bribery. If one gave a cop in their neighborhood a $1000 because he likes him, he would expect the cop to give his home special attention and treat him and his family differently if they ever run in trouble. Therefore, when something is given out, there are some expectations. To many people, this is outright bribery. However, things change when it is campaign financing under consideration. The Congressional representatives and other people in the elective positions such as the President, governors, and sheriffs hold great amount of influence on the law-making, government policies, and business (Wilson 24-54).
The Congressional representatives pass laws that regulate taxes, government subsidies, and general conduct. When corporations finance the candidates for such positions, they have expectations that when they are elected, they would give them favors in return. These favors could be in form of favorable taxing regimes, government subsidies, or any other form (Bowles and McMahon 254-273). The money these corporations give is legal but a $1,000 given to the cop is illegal, yet their outcome is the same. American Congress, the Presidency, and all other offices tend to serve the interests of the corporations and other big donors who have financed them instead of the common citizens who have voted them into office.
Money gives special-interest groups plenty of power in Washington, D.C. For instance, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is one of the largest recipients of corporate welfare courtesy of huge farm subsidies, sugar tariffs, and ethanol tax breaks. Between 1993 and 1999, the company gave over $700,000 dollars to the Congressional candidates (Wilson 24). Moreover, between 1995 and 1999, ADM donated $1.3 million in soft money to both the Republican and the Democratic Parties (Wilson 24). The company was found guilty of price fixing, for which it was fined $100 million but surprisingly, it continued getting federal contracts worth $83.5 million a year (Wilson 27). A report by Public Campaign in 2000 indicated how money had been used to influence legislations such as the one on gun control (Welch et al. 309).
When considering the influence of money on the US politics, one should remember another important group – the lobbyists. Lobbyists are defined as hired agents whose role is to influence government policy for the benefit of their clients. The main instrument of influence is supposed to be through information. Lobbyists give information to support their stand and suppress or withhold information that is contrary to their positions (Bowles and McMahon 254-282). The understanding being that they will avail as much information as possible to help policy makers to make an informed decision. However, lobbyists have an extra weapon at their disposal, and that is money. They go out of their way in giving out campaign contributions to gain access to policymakers, which is legal. What is illegal is when the same is done in exchange for official favors (Bowles and McMahon 254-265). However, despite the fact that it is illegal to receive gifts from lobbyists, lawmakers accept gifts worth of millions of dollars. That comes in form of paid up trips to luxury establishments and other vacation sites. According to a 2006 report, over the previous five years, the members of Congress had accepted 23,000 free trips worth $50million (Welch et al. 309).
Another way, in which money influences the US politics, is through influence peddling where access to powerful people is traded for money. For example, Jack Abramoff charged the Indian tribes $25,000 dollars to arrange for a meeting between the president and two of their representatives (Welch et al. 310). Abramoff, a former College of Republicans national chairperson pleaded guilty to influence peddling such as in the Reed case and many others. He used to receive money from clients for use to bribe policymakers for access or favorable policies in a scheme that involved many officials that were more public and lobbyists. This means decisions of the people involved made decisions influenced by money probably against what they could have done if they did not receive the money. Tom DeLay, a former Republican House majority leader, once told lobbyists they had to “pay to play” (Welch et al. 310). This was out rightly sourcing for money.
Furthermore, money influence the US politics through structural biases where the wealthy naturally command the attention of decision-makers and politicians alike (Rowbottom 2). Their success in business makes the public officials and politicians see them as a resource on economic matters and policies. If the government wants to succeed in job creation, it would need to engage private business leaders as majority of those jobs would come from the private sector. Such privileged positions are accorded to corporations and to high net worth citizens (Rowbottom 5).
Because money plays a great role in determining who is elected for a certain position, it only follows that most of those who win seats come from privileged backgrounds (Rowbottom 7). The wealthy tend to participate in politics more because they are more motivated. They stand to lose if elections do not go their way or if policies are passed that would impact their interests negatively. The poor have nothing to gain or lose so they are indifferent to what happens in the political arena. Even where the rich do not stand for elective positions, they are able to influence the outcome by funding the candidates, lobbyists, and other political operatives. Money in this sense becomes a political resource (Gilens 234-235).
Money is also employed to influence public opinion through advertising. Here, money is used to control the main communication channels to rely information in a specific manner. The goal here is to shape the public opinion and sway it in the preferred direction. Advertising is the biggest item in campaign budgets as opponents try to outshine each other in the media (Gilens 237-242). This happens because with the high population and the distances involved, the only way a candidate can connect with the masses is through the media (Schultz 244). Prime time is bought for a fortune, and money is obviously the determinant of how much time one gets. Whoever wins the media largely wins the elections because of the influence media has on the people.
Welch et al. warn against exaggerating the amount of money involved in politics and its influence (313). They state that the 2004 presidential campaign cost roughly $2 billion but that amount fades away when compared to the $4.7 billion that Americans spend on detergents annually or the $1 billion spent by the federal government every few hours (Welch et al. 313). Corporations spend far much more to attract customers when compared to what politicians spend to attract voters.
The effects of money are cumbersome to pinpoint. It is very difficult to measure the extent, to which money influences political outcomes. Money often influences votes and policies. Campaign contributions affect voting in Congress. Money in politics contributes to the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Nevertheless, when the public is attentive, money has little impact. How huge donations influence presidential candidates is difficult to quantify. It is obvious that some candidates are deterred from running by lack of money or the very thought that they are not likely to raise enough money but it is difficult to determine how many.