A storm is brewing. No, I'm not talking about "Nemo" which is about to slam New England. I am talking about within Republican party politics - specifically, the power grabs amid the various factions: The Tea Party, the Establishment, and the Outside Interests (represented by Karl Rove). Initially embraced for their energy, the Tea Party has shown itself to be incapable of fielding candidates that can win anything bigger than House races. The Establishment is seeing its power usurped by the upstarts, as well as being pushed out of incumbencies, and trying to reassert itself. And Big Money just wants control of everything without having to dirty their hands by actually running for office.
This situation is the result of the American way of life, and some various court cases and changes to law. Political parties have come and gone (whigs and Torries anyone?), but campaign rules and - particularly finance rules - are somewhat anathema to the American idea of opportunity and entrepreneurism. Even in the 1800s, campaigns and advertising were self-funded
. This began to change and after the civil war, corporate money became more involved in the process. Various laws have been passed along the way, but campaigns always manage to find a way around them.
From the Tillman Act
to the Federal Corrupt Practices Act
to the Hatch Act
, attempts were continually made to limit corporations' influence over elections. Finally, in the 1970s, Congress passed laws creating the FEC and giving it some teeth, and created laws requiring campaign financial disclosure. Subsequent laws further refined donation limits and sources.
Decades of campaign finance reform legisilation was largely undone by a single Supreme Court case. I am referring to - of course - the Citizen's United
case. That one decision opened the floodgates for a new beast known as the Super PAC. Where candidate-controlled PACs were tightly regulated by the FEC and campaign finance law, the Super PACs were (and are) the wild west. There are no financial limits; they are essentially private "companies" that can raise and spend as much money as they want - in any way that they want - to try to influence the outcome of an election. The only requirement is that they aren't supposed to coordinate directly with the candidates' campaign apparatus.
This is where Karl Rove comes in. He and other "grassroots" organizations like Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity are free to do what they want with their money. Karl has publicly stated that he wants to undermine the fringe Tea Party candidates that win primaries and lose general elections. Naturally, the Tea Party is incensed. The Establishment is likely both happy and scared. Happy to see the Tea Party marginalized; scared that they will be forced to kiss the ring of this new Godfather.
It all sort of makes you wonder how this all works in other western countries. Is money truly a king-maker in - say - Germany or France?
France has gone through some of the pain we have and in 1988 began to tighten things up
. Along the way, they also shortened the election campaign cycle:
Campaign finance is strictly regulated. All forms of paid commercial advertisements through the press or by any audiovisual means are prohibited during the three months preceding the election. Instead, political advertisements are aired free of charge on an equal basis for all of the candidates on national television channels and radio stations during the official campaign. Campaign donations and expenditures are capped. Candidates must appoint an independent financial representative to handle all their financial matters relating to the election. Campaign accounts are audited by a special commission. Candidates whose campaign accounts are certified may be reimbursed up to 50 percent of their expenses by the state if they meet certain conditions.
No legal entity is allowed to participate in financing a political candidate unless the legal entity is a political party or a political group. Financing is not allowed in any form whether direct, e.g., by donating money, or indirect, e.g., by rendering services or granting favors or advantages to a candidate’s political campaign by providing services and products below regular market fees or prices.
Nor is a legal entity allowed to finance political parties or political groups. Financing is not allowed in any form whether direct, e.g., by donating money or properties, or indirect, e.g., by rendering services, providing products below regular market fees or prices, or granting favors or advantages to political parties, groups, their financial representatives, or associations.
Notice the term there: "legal entity". In the vernacular and - as it applies to American politics - that would generally translate to "corporation". So businesses in general are prohibited from contributing to campaigns. There's no silly idea that "corporations are people, my friend".
In Germany, the political parties receive government funding for their campaigns
. Although private funds can be collected as well, they are to the party, not individual candidates:
In Germany, the political parties are tightly run organizations that finance election campaigns, nominate candidates, exact membership dues from their members, and subject members in Parliament to strict caucus rules. The parties receive government funds and are subject to some not very onerous disclosure requirements. The individual candidates or members of Parliament are minor players in these systems.
The length of election campaigns is not defined by federal law. State and local laws limit campaign billboards to a few weeks before the election. State laws limit campaign advertising in radio and television to a few spots that are allotted in the month preceding the election. By an agreement among the states, the political parties may not purchase any advertising time on radio or television, and are thereby limited to the few officially granted campaign spots.
In Germany, private funding of political parties is encouraged, as a counterweight to heavy government funding. The law is silent on donations to individual representatives for their own political use, yet these are permissible and parliamentary rules provide disclosure rules and limits for these donations that are similar to the statutory rules governing donations to the parties. They are, however, of lesser practical importance, and the statutory provisions presume that the donation is given to the individual in his role as a representative of the party, by obligating this individual to turn party donations over to the party as soon as possible.
The common wisdom in the U.S. is that He With The Most Money Wins. While there are naturally exceptions to the axiom (e.g.: the heavily-funded whack-job Tea Party Candidates), the reality is that those with money (particularly large piles of money) have a louder voice in the political process. The Constitution states "We the People", not "We the Monied". Karl Rove's blatant power grab using money from wealthy donors as a bludgeon to influence election results should be an embarrassment to any patriotic American.
This is likely to get worse before it gets better. Congress cannot get even the most basic functions accomplished with the partisan bickering. How likely is it that they will vote for (much less pass) a constitutional amendment to limit the funding and duration of election campaigns?
Tea Partiers decry the type of heavy-handed top-down governing present in many western European democracies as "socialism". Yet it is that same strong government that prevents the likes of Karl Rove from steamrolling candidates like the Tea Partiers. Deep pocket financial donors are a fickle lot, and if the Tea Party wants to survive, they (along with the rest of America) need to realize that getting that kind of private money out of the electoral process is necessary for our democracy to remain vibrant.