“There are two things that are important in politics,” Mark Hanna, the great Republican kingmaker of the late 19th century, once said. “The first thing is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”
What was true in Hanna’s century remained true in the next, and since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, Congress has imposed stricter regulations on money in politics. Advocates of those rules argue that they rein in corruption and increase public trust in government.
But after more than three decades, has the system made a difference?
The question took on new urgency last week as the Supreme Court threw out regulations that prohibited corporations from buying campaign commercials that explicitly advocate the election or defeat of candidates. Democrats called the ruling a threat to democracy; Republicans cheered it as a victory for free speech.
Legal scholars and social scientists say the evidence is meager, at best, that the post-Watergate campaign finance system has accomplished the broad goals its supporters asserted.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted in his opinion that no evidence was marshaled in 100,000 pages of legal briefs to show that unrestricted campaign money ever bought a lawmaker’s vote. And even after Congress further tightened the rules with the landmark McCain-Feingold law in 2002, banning hundreds of millions of dollars in unlimited contributions to the political parties, public trust in government fell to new lows, according to polls.
And what about the corporations that contributed so much of that money? A review of the biggest corporate donors found that their stock prices were unaffected after they stopped giving to the parties. The results suggest that those companies did not lose their influence and may have been giving “because they were shaken down by politicians,” said Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Columbia Law School who has studied the law’s impact.
“There is no evidence that stricter campaign finance rules reduce corruption or raise positive assessments of government,” said Kenneth Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It seems like such an obvious relationship but it has proven impossible to prove.”
One hopes that the next time the President and Congressional Democrats take an opportunity to demagogue the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, the utter lack of evidence that corporate money has somehow corrupted the political process will be cited. Maybe some reporters on the White House beat could begin the process by challenging Barack Obama to respond to David Kirkpatrick’s excellent column.