Campaign Finance and the U.S.'s Corruption Perception Problem

11/01/2010 07:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Our political system is so badly corrupted that it is imploding in front of our eyes." This bleak appraisal comes from Ed Kangas, a former chairman and CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. Kangas spoke at the National Press Club in Washington last week on a panel organized by the policy group Committee for Economic Development (CED), for which he is a trustee. The campaign finance experts, journalists and academics serving as Kangas's co-panelists were less blunt in their remarks, but no one dissented from his dire assessment of the current state of the American political system. The event was carried on C-SPAN and is essential viewing.

When people ask why the United States doesn't rank as highly as it used to in Transparency International's latest Corruption Perception Index, they might want to look at the campaign finance system that has left Kangas - and a great many of us - deeply concerned. This Tuesday marks the first election since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited spending by corporations in candidate elections, and the picture of our democracy isn't pretty.

For starters, the amounts of money being poured into the election are vast. According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), campaign spending is expected to hit close to $4 billion. And this is a mid-term election, no less.

But is the magnitude of the money - staggering as it is - the problem? Commentator George Will has observed that the U.S. spends less money on elections than on potato chips. Even Kangas doesn't seem to have a problem with the amount per se, but he doesn't want "the rich, the unions, the big corporations spending it. I want the people that buy the potato chips to spend it and I want our government to match the contributions and put the power back in the hands of the individual."

Opinions on the amount of money might vary, and I certainly have my misgivings about it, but it is the lack of transparency that is most troubling. When it issued the Citizens United opinion, the Supreme Court predicted that corporate disclosures would be prompt and transparent. It was wrong. An increasingly ineffective Federal Election Commission has read the few remaining campaign finance laws very narrowly and ruled that nonprofit, so-called 501(c)(4) groups, don't have to disclose their donors. The result is that many groups, most notably Karl Rove's Crossroads for America and the American Chamber of Commerce, have collected tens of millions of dollars from undisclosed sources and poured them into aggressive campaign ads. Without disclosure, there is no accountability and, as Al Hunt of Bloomberg recently put it, "without accountability, there is abuse."

Even for those who might dismiss Kangas and Hunt as unduly alarmist, it bears considering why corporate America contributes to political campaigns in the first place. According to a new CED poll conducted by Zogby International, nine out of ten business leaders surveyed said their contributions were aimed at influencing the legislative process, avoiding adverse legislative consequences, or promoting a certain ideological position. The anonymity of contributions (insofar as the public is concerned) doesn't prevent deep-pocket donors from "reminding" their ultimate beneficiaries (the elected officials) about their generous assistance in getting them elected or re-elected. On the contrary, the donors have every reason to convey their agenda to those they helped elect.

A number of factors could account for the U.S.'s decline in the CPI. But simply looking at our campaign finance system and its combination of vast sums of money, lack of transparency and accountability, and heavy corporate participation, is it any wonder we have a corruption perception problem?