Friday, June 20, 2014

What politicians really think about Citizens United

This op-ed originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.

The U.S. Senate just debated a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision about money in politics.

That’s remarkable. We have amended the constitution only 27 times in our country’s history. If a substantial portion of Congress thinks that it is time for number 28, a lot of Americans must be pretty upset about something.

But what has them so upset? The day before the Citizens United decision, Bill Gates had the right to spend as much as he wished urging Americans to vote against Senator Windbag. Corporations were barred from delivering the “vote against Windbag” message. But they could spend as much as they wished urging Americans to understand that Windbag hates puppies, God, apple pie and Betty White.

Technically, all Citizens United did was let corporations explicitly say to voters, “so vote no.”

That’s a lot of fuss over a pretty narrow change.

Which means that the real hubbub over Citizens United is probably not really about Citizens United. Americans are anxious and angry about what they see as an increasing loss of control. Voters hear about lots of money in the political system, and they feel that their government is not listening to or working for them. And they sense a connection between the two.

Enter a new report on “The New Soft Money: Outside Spending in Congressional Elections,” just in time for the fall campaigns. The report was put together by election experts at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. It offers a wonderfully accessible map to the campaign finance system: where the money comes from and where it goes. It also explains some of the biggest points of public disconnect: the growth of outside spending, the patchwork disclosure system, the reason that groups say they are legally “independent” when it is obvious to all that they are prized components of a candidate’s team.

Even more important, The New Soft Money report helps us understand what the spending does — and does not — buy. The report’s authors got unprecedented access to Washington insiders: a year’s worth of interviews, on and off the record, with current and former members of Congress, with lobbyists and staff, with political operatives and the donors who give to them.

What emerges is a much clearer picture of the real impact of outside spending. It’s not just voters who are anxious about a loss of control. The politicians are too.

They worry about the negative ads fostered by anonymity. They worry about losing their ability to shape a campaign’s message. They worry about a narrative driven to extremes, feeding further polarization of an electorate already at each others’ throats.

And in some remarkably candid moments captured by the report, politicians worry about their own fortitude. Said one former congressman: “[I]f you didn’t behave in a certain way, they would come into your district and spend a lot of money to make sure you were defeated in the primary.” Said a former senator, “I’m afraid to do what I think is right.”

The notion that politicians are anxious about a loss of control will be distressing to some and heartening to others. But it should not be overlooked. Americans suspicious of Washington often focus on the perceived threats from insiders. The New Soft Money reminds us that we should also care about the threats the insiders perceive. In some ways, the potential money — the money not spent — is as important as the spending itself.

Recognizing these dynamics is key to confronting the appropriate role of money in politics. The new soft money is now firmly a part of the national conversation. And this new report helps us understand exactly what we’re talking about.

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