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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Through Music, ‘Money Is Speech’ Shows How Campaign Dollars Flow

A screenshot from the music video for “Money is Speech: A Musical History of Campaign Finance.”

This presidential race is expected to be the most expensive in history with President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney raising nearly $900 million between them. But that’s just what the campaigns have raised.

Super PACs have taken in another $870 million, and are spending their money mainly on attack ads. The influence of these Super PACs was made possible by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that struck down limits on corporate and union political spending.

President Obama has suggested a constitutional amendment to overturn that decision. Gov. Romney and other Republicans say it’s time to get rid of limits on how much money people can donate to candidates. They argue that will allow for transparency, and divert the money from super PACs and back to the candidates.

The non-profit news organization Pro Publica teamed up with Explainer Music to put the history of campaign finance reform to music. The tune illustrates how each time a new election law or rule is passed, the system finds a way around it.

Read and listen to previous Here & Now coverage of campaign finance:

Transcript: ‘Money Is Speech’

Act I: Brown Paper Bags

“I made my mistakes, but in all my years of public life, I have never profited [from
public service]. I’ve earned every cent.” (Richard Nixon)

“Money is speech.” (Jeff Greenfield)
“The more speech the better.” (Antonin Scalia)
“Money is speech.” (Jeff Greenfield)
“I’ve earned every cent.” (Richard Nixon)
“Money is speech.” (Jeff Greenfield)
“The more speech the better.” (Antonin Scalia)
“I don’t like all the influence of money in politics.” (Mitt Romney)

When people think of Watergate they think of a break-in
But they don’t mention the money that Nixon was taking
From wealthy donors to help him get reelected
Nixon paid them back in favors just like they expected

To battle corruption Congress passed a new law
Capping contributions to a candidate’s haul
The source of the donations had to be disclosed too
And the FEC was formed to enforce the new rules

Some who felt the law went against the Constitution sued
Saying limits on money limited free speech too
So the courts kept the cap on how much you can donate
But said spending was unlimited by an outside group or candidate

That meant no more spending limits to promote a cause
Or to point out a rival campaign’s flaws
So while candidates once snuck around with brown paper bags
From then on they raised money publicly or left it to PACs

“Money is speech.” (Jeff Greenfield)
“The more speech the better.” (Antonin Scalia)
“Money is speech.” (Jeff Greenfield)
“I’ve earned every cent.” (Richard Nixon)
“Money is speech.” (Jeff Greenfield)
“The more speech the better.” (Antonin Scalia)
“I don’t like all the influence of money in politics.” (Mitt Romney)

Act II: Soft Money

“We should also curb the role of big money in elections by capping the cost of
campaigns…” (Bill Clinton)

In the 80s and 90s, there was a new gimmick:
“Soft money” that’s disclosed but had no limits
It’s supposed to cover each party’s expenses
But guys like Clinton used it to help their election chances

There was just one problem, Clinton’s party was broke
So he asked for more money every time he spoke
And in return for the 100 million dollar cash-in
He let donors use the Lincoln Bedroom to crash in

Then the “scandal and reform” cycle happened again
And legislation was proposed by Feingold and McCain
It capped donations to parties, ending soft funds
And banned corporate/union issue ads right before elections

But with each new reform comes new loopholes
Tax exempt “527s” arose
Because they weren’t explicit about whom they supported
Many still raised money without limits to thwart them

“Money is speech.” (Jeff Greenfield)
“The more speech the better.” (Antonin Scalia)
“Money is speech.” (Jeff Greenfield)
“I’ve earned every cent.” (Richard Nixon)
“Money is speech.” (Jeff Greenfield)
“The more speech the better.” (Antonin Scalia)
“The rules are what they are…” (Jay Carney)

Act III: Super PACs and Non-Profits

“I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful
interests.” (Barack Obama)

But the most outside money was yet to be spent
Some argued spending limits broke the first amendment
“Corporations and unions are entitled to free speech”
They took it to court, the Supreme Court agreed.

Super PACs can raise as much money as they want
They can also use union and corporate funds
The only rule is they cannot coordinate
With a specific party or a specific candidate

But reform opponents weren’t quite done yet
They found new uses for 501(c)(4) non-profits
Which are a lot like Super PACs with more mystery
They haven’t had to disclose donors ever in history

Whether Republican or Democrat you might believe
That spending limits jeopardize our freedom of speech
But with each new cycle of deregulation
More money is being injected into our elections

Transcript and video provided by Pro Publica.


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  • Solarguy

    My approach would be not to try to stem the flow of money, but rather to divert the flow to something useful.  In the article, you mentioned matching funds for small donations — I would reverse that and instead tax larger donations.

    So, I propose that all contributions for political purposes be taxed.  And I further propose that the tax rate should be strongly progressive and cumulative.  For example, a simple formula might be 1/log10(donation)  for the net amount that would go to the organization.

    So, if you gave a candidate, party, superPAC, or 501c4 a donation of $10, there would be no tax;  a donation of $100, it would be taxed $50;  $1000 it would be taxed $667;  $100,000 it would be taxed $80,000;  $1,000,000 it would be taxed at $833,333; etc.  As you can see, the incremental amount from larger donations would get smaller and smaller. 

    By cumulative, I mean that if a person gave $1000 to a 501c4 that gave the money to a party that then gave the money to a candidate’s campaign, it should be taxed at each step of the way, based on the amount of the aggregated contribution at each step.  So, an aggregated group of ten $10 donations would be taxed $50 when it was passed up the line, for instance.

    I would further restrict that all of the money collected as taxes would be dedicated solely to reducing the US National Debt.  In this way, we could let corporations and superPACs donate as much as they wanted to for political purposes and we, the people of the United States, would at least get some direct benefit from their influence over our elections.

    • charles

      Nice idea but the Supreme Court would never let that fly.
      The argument would be that if money is speech, this would be a tax on one’s right of free speech.  

      We simply need to get rid of that idiotic principle equating money with speech.  
      It’s nowhere to be found in the constitution and was created from whole cloth by the Catholic Faction of the court.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    The rich will find a way around any law that prevents them from disproportionately affecting elections just as they always find a way around any change to the tax codes meant to limit their ability to pay morally indefensibly low tax rates. 

  • Goodlifegardens

    I would propose that there be a constitutional amendment that would limit the money to a specific amount per vote in the previous election for that office—starting at $1.  It is totally crazy to spend many multiple dollars per vote cast. 

    But the real reform would be to re-institute the “Fairness Doctrine”.  The elimination  is where the real breakdown in the system occurred.  This is the cause of the split in the nation being so deep.  Aristotle said that the first person to speak always sounds correct until someone stands to oppose him. But today we have a great number of people who are voluntarily ignorant. They never hear the person who would stand  to oppose so they are perfectly happy with half truth and lies that agree with what they WANT to believe.  And they take it as the “whole truth?”. 

    What makes this worse is the information they get is based on anger, fear, and hate. And they become addicted as with a drug.  There are those that actually go through withdrawal if they don’t get a daily fix  of survival chemicals running through them. Such chemically induced reptilian decision making is sending the nation into decline.  The only solution is to encourage the people to listen to the ideas that stand to oppose their predecided thoughts.

    The obvious solution is to require all media to be more balanced. That was why we were a nation under the Fairness Doctrine.   And why we are divided today.

  • okitaris

    The workers spend there lives making rich men richer.     And money is power and when an individual controls great amounts of power it is called a dictatorship.      What is it called when one buys something it is called making an ORDER.     Who gives orders?   Dictators     If we are going to have a real democracy we need to control how much money an individual may own.       Making so many so very rich is ruining our environment and our future.       End the dollar dictatorship!

  • Joneden

    Why not tax campaign spending (over a certain amount) at its source–a way to see large contributions come to a screeching halt. If not, the gov could always use the extra revenue.

  • http://www.sage.ch/ wealth management software

    Nice tutor.You have explained each & everything so nicely.Good post.Keep it updates.

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