The Battle Between Small Donors And Big Spenders

Our guest blogger is Lisa Gilbert, a Democracy Advocate for U.S. PIRG.

hillarymovie Do corporate special interests really have too little power in America? Does it seem like the electoral playing field is slanted against them?

Unbelievably, that’s the question the U.S. Supreme Court will take up this fall. In fact, the justices considered it so important that they cut their vacations short by a month to deliberate.

According to the most recent data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, oil and gas related PACs and individuals gave $35 million to 2008 congressional candidates, insurance interests gave $46 million, and securities firms gave a whopping $156 million. Tom Donahue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently pledged to spend $100 million in order to fight lawmakers’ efforts to rein in Wall Street excesses, curb global warming pollution and reform health care.

However, in spite of this type of big spending, this September, the Supreme Court will rehear Citizens United V. FEC to determine if corporate money should have still further influence on our political system. In fact, determining whether the Court’s past rulings on campaign finance reform should be thrown aside will be one of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s first tasks – “a potentially monumental decision that could reverse a century of congressional restrictions on election spending.”

The case concerns a documentary targeting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, produced by a non-profit group called Citizens United. The group used corporate treasury funds to make the film and wished to air it right before the primary elections on cable TV, in violation of the longstanding ban on corporate contributions to federal campaigns.

By coming back early to rehear this case, it is clear that activist judges on the Court are considering rolling back decades of established law limiting corporate spending in elections. At stake is whether corporations will be able to spend unlimited funds to impact elections, and whether this ability will allow them to influence candidates for office with millions of dollars in advertisements opposing or supporting their races.

An additional influx of spending by wealthy corporations could raise the volume of corporate voices while decreasing the importance of new and small donors to candidates, and as a result, their enthusiasm to participate.

Elections are opportunities for citizens to be heard – to decide who should be elected and which policy choices should be made. In the 2008 election cycle, small dollar donors played a crucial role in funding candidates. Unlimited corporate giving in elections could easily overwhelm individual giving.

Advocates and politicians in Washington have been moving forward building momentum for the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA). This bill would create a system of small donor public financing of Congressional campaigns, and offer a realistic alternative to our current corrosive system for those who seek a Congressional seat. The act would be a step forward for campaign financing, designed to bolster the participation of regular citizens and limit the power of special interests.

In the battle between small donors and big spenders, a decision in the Citizens United case to turn back the clock and increase the power of corporations would be the wrong one. Million of voters were encouraged by the small donor revolution in the 2008 election cycle—let’s do all we can to keep their voices loud in the years to come.