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The Team




Government By and For the Wealthy: What Can You Do


The United States is founded on principles of democracy. Each person gets one vote to elect political representatives, and the government is created by and for the people. Right?

In the early days of the U.S., these principles were already compromised: women, African Americans, and even white men who didn't own land couldn't vote. It was clear that people with power and money had more influence over the government. One of the founding fathers, John Jay, put it very bluntly: "The people who own the country ought to run it."

Today, while the vote has been extended to people of all races, genders, and property status, there's a problem at the center of American democracy: the influence of money. In short, while more people get to vote, corporations and individuals who have the most money have the most influence over political candidates and elected politicians.

As with the founding fathers, it's no secret. Political campaigns -- complete with T.V. ads and private jets -- are terribly expensive. Candidates for public office have to spend hundreds of thousands or even many millions of dollars for a chance to win. As of October 20, 2000, George W. Bush's campaign "war chest" totaled $176,424,329, and Al Gore's was $128,017,877. All of this means that to win a campaign and stay in office, a candidate has to go where the money is, and please the folks there. As Boise Penrose, the Pennsylvania Republican "boss" put it in the 1880s, "When you need money, the place to get it is from them that have it."

Most people know that business interests and wealthy people donate enormous sums -- directly or indirectly -- to political candidates, and that those candidates, once they're in office, work to please the folks who get and keep them elected. And most people understand that the influence of money cuts across political party lines: Democrats and Republicans get comparable contributions from wealthy interests. Often, one corporation will make major contributions to BOTH political parties.

One current example of big money at work on the U.S. government is the case of the Time Warner-America Online merger. In January 2000, the already huge media conglomerate Time Warner, Inc. announced that it was going to merge with the big internet service provider, AOL. The merger would make about $183 billion for the combined companies. In February 2000, just before a senate hearing to decide whether the merger is legal or not, a senior vice president at Time Warner gave $20,000 to the Democratic National Committee. The next month, another Time Warner executive gave $50,000 to the same organization, and in June, the president of Time Warner gave $50,000 to the Republican National Committee.

Overall, Time Warner has given $1.3 million to parties and candidates in the 2000 elections, with the final hearings on the merger still pending. Needless to say, it looks good for Time Warner and AOL being allowed to merge. Such contributions have worked very well in the past for companies in the banking, tobacco, and insurance industries, to name a few.

Corporations and individual people aren't allowed to donate huge sums directly to political candidates. There are limits on the amounts they can give. But there are also loopholes in the laws that regulate donations to political campaigns. Corporations and individuals can give their money to organizations called Political Action Committees (PACs) or to political parties. These organizations then funnel the money to candidates' campaigns. Donations that get filtered through organizations this way are called "soft money," as opposed to the "hard money" that's donated directly to campaigns. It can be difficult or impossible to trace the path of soft money -- who's donating how much to whom. More than $100 million dollars in soft money gets donated to Washington politicians every month.

Most of the money donated to political campaigns comes in checks for $1000 or more, and less than one tenth of one percent of the U.S. population makes donations of that size. A 1998 study of large individual donors ($200 or more) showed that four-fifths of the donors had family incomes of more than $100,000 a year, and only one in 20 had incomes of $50,000 or less a year. Nine out of 10 were white. In other words, a very privileged, very small group gets most of the influence over campaigns.

If everyone knows that corporations and the wealthy have so much influence over the government, why aren't we doing something about it?

It's a bind. Because the influence of money defines politics and politicians in the U.S., doing anything to reform the laws that govern contributions -- enacting "campaign finance reform" -- has been very, very difficult. A few states, such as Maine, have passed laws that raise public funds -- small taxes from ordinary people, instead of big contributions from wealthy people and companies -- to finance campaigns. Proponents of this sort of campaign finance reform argue that making campaigns publicly funded puts influence where it belongs: with the people. A few legislators have proposed federal laws to reform campaign finance: most recently, the McCain-Feingold bill, which would limit soft-money contributions. But, even after being made much weaker, the bill failed to pass in the Senate. Politicians fight hard to preserve the system that got them elected, and they're bound to defend the power of those who finance their campaigns.

Yet there is a growing group of people and organizations working to get the influence of wealth out of politics. Grassroots organizations such as Common Cause and Public Campaign provide information about who's making big contributions to gain political influence, and they're trying to build voters' demand for campaign finance reform laws.

What can you do?

First, you can get informed about who's buying influence over whom. At the Center for Public Integrity website, you can find out about top contributors to any politician. What companies, industries, and individuals are influencing your local politicians? You can also get up-to-date information about political contributions from The Center for Responsive Politics. Reading about these organizations might also give you ideas about how campaign finance reform should work. Should taxpayers pay for campaigns? Should soft-money contributions be outlawed? Should political candidates get free air time on television and radio, so campaigns aren't a contest to see who can pay the most for ads?

Second, you can write to your own legislators, asking them to pass campaign finance reform laws. You can find your legislators by zip code at The Center for Responsive Politics.

Finding ways to stop corporations and wealthy people from buying political influence may be the most important way to make the U.S. government work truly by and for the people. If enough voters make it clear that they want campaign finance reform, legislators will have to do something about it.

The Team


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - Rebels on a Roll!
Becky - When politicians wore guns...
Daphne - Now, just exactly what were the Founding Fathers upset about?
Team - How constitutional is the Constitution?
Teddy - President for Life and other Constitutional Convention bloopers...
Kevin - Democracy: use it or lose it!