The issue of big money in politics is receiving increased attention as the country barrels toward a presidential election cycle where all spending records are expected to be smashed. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have spoken out on tackling the problem, as have a handful of Republican candidates.
What is this problem, exactly? Represent.Us, a group that supports campaign finance reforms and is advocating for them at the city, municipal and state levels, presents an answer in a new video.
Pulling from a study by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, the video explains how legislative actions taken by politicians in Washington do not reflect the priorities of the broader population, but instead are moved by the opinions of the wealthy elite.
These elite have the means to influence government through lobbyists, campaign donations and public relations campaigns. And studies by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics have shown that wealthy elites dominate political spending. A study released Thursday by these two groups found the percentage of donations made by the .01 percent rose to nearly 30 percent in the 2014 elections, up from 25 percent in 2012.
All of those contributions and the lobbying that goes along with them pay off in the end. Another Sunlight Foundation study cited in the video found the nation’s top 200 corporations and their executives and employees spent $5.8 billion on lobbying and campaign donations from 2007 to 2012 -- while receiving $4.4 trillion in support from the federal government through contracts, grants, tax breaks, subsidies, loans and bailouts.
One thing the video does not cite is other political science research indicating that the very rich who have influence in Washington have political views that are much different than those of the average American. The wealthy are far more likely to favor debt reduction, cutting Social Security and Medicare, lowering taxes and privatizing public schools than the rest of the country.
As Represent.Us notes, all of this is perfectly within the realm legal behavior. In fact, it is all but encouraged by the Supreme Court. In the 2014 McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision, the court overturned long-standing aggregate campaign contribution limits to empower wealthy campaign donors to give maximum contributions to as many candidates, parties and PACs as they want.
In dismissing concerns about the influence and access that large donors may gain from lawmakers they contribute to, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Representatives are not to follow constituent orders, but can be expected to be cognizant of and responsive to those concerns. Such responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials.”
Roberts repeated that final sentence in his decision in the Williams-Yulee vs. Florida Bar case released on Wednesday, which upheld campaign finance restrictions for judicial races -- but only because the judges on the court think that judges like themselves should be above the muck of politics.
“Politicians are expected to be appropriately responsive to the preferences of their supporters," Roberts wrote.
The court essentially believes that politicians ought to be responsive to their biggest financial backers, who, based on quite a bit of statistical research, hold political views that are not representative of almost any given politician’s constituents.
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