Word spread this week that the Koch brothers were temporarily slowing their funding of the extremist Tea Party as they complete an audit of their failed 2012 electoral efforts. This shouldn't be viewed as surrender. Anyone willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to win the White House and Congress doesn't give up after they lose one round (especially when they are worth billions). The Koch brothers are committed to gutting environmental protections and devouring government agencies, and they will live to fight another day.
And when that day comes, people who value government safeguards should be ready, because the money the Koch brothers and their polluter friends are saving now will likely be dropped in lump sums later in the year.
The dollar amounts could be astonishing unless America finally creates sensible guidelines for political donations. A new court case could signal whether we will continue to let deep-pocketed donors hold sway.
The case--argued before the Supreme Court--could remove the current limit on how much individuals can donate to political campaigns, parties, and PACs. Right now people can give up to $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to PACs every two years. Since this case will be decided by the same justices who removed caps on corporate giving in the Citizens United ruling, it's possible the floodgates of personal spending will be thrown wide open.
We need more accountability built into the system or we risk having our political system completely commandeered by the highest bidder. Citizens United blew the lid off donations and the effect was immediate and extreme. In the 2009 Virginia governor's race, candidates spent $15.7 million. After Citizen's United, the 2012 Senate race in Virginia shattered records: candidate spending shot to $32.3 million and outside spending hit $58.7 million.
When that kind of money pours into a race, it means outsiders talk to voters more than candidates do. Big spenders define the race--and policies and platforms--more than the people's representatives.
The good news is that money can't always buy you love. One of Karl Rove's Super PACs spent almost $105 million in 2012 to support or defeat various candidates but was successful in less than 2 percent of its races. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, known for its climate denial and fossil-fuel friendly policies, spent more than $32 million in campaigns but achieved less than 7 percent of its desired outcomes. Instead, Americans swept clean energy champions into office up and down the ticket. Polluters had the money; but they didn't have the votes.
Voters can combat the influence of money at the ballot box. But if we don't start demanding campaign finance reform, our power could be eroded by bigger and bigger piles of money. We have to keep holding our lawmakers accountable for the money they accept and the steps they take to reform political spending.
And we have to be prepared the next time polluters' money starts swirling around campaign offices. We beat the Koch brothers and their friends in 2012, but we can't let our guard down. If we want to build a cleaner, more sustainable energy future for our children, we have to roll up our sleeves and get to work.