Money in Politics: The Problem

A series of damaging Supreme Court decisions have led to an influx of political spending and prevented elected officials from setting common-sense limits on money in politics.

Citizens United v. FEC is only one of several Supreme Court decisions that have opened the floodgates for big money in our elections. Other decisions to know include:

  • Buckley v. Valeo (1976): In this decision, although the Supreme Court upheld several of the protections against big money in politics that Congress had just established in the wake of the Watergate scandal, it also struck down some critically important ones. Equating money spent in elections with speech, the Court struck down limits on how much a wealthy candidate can give to their own campaign, as well as limits on how much a donor can spend in support of, or against, a candidate when they are not directly coordinating with the campaign (called “independent expenditures”). This ruling made it much harder for our country to fight big money’s dominance in our politics, and it laid the groundwork for extremely damaging rulings in more recent years.
  • Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett (2011): Decided one year after Citizens United, the same Supreme Court majority showed how far it was willing to go to protect moneyed interests. At issue in this case was a part of Arizona’s clean elections system which made participating candidates eligible for additional, limited funding if they faced outsized spending by a wealthy, privately-financed candidate or outside groups. It was a modest effort to better level the playing field between publicly-funded candidates and wealthy opponents—but even this modest effort was struck down by the Supreme Court.
  • McCutcheon v. FEC (2014): In this decision, the same conservative Supreme Court majority eroded our campaign finance laws even further. They ruled that the long-standing limits on the overall total that wealthy donors can give to candidates, parties, and PACs are unconstitutional. This increased the maximum overall amount that a single individual could contribute in any election cycle from $123,000 to $3.5 million, handing increased influence to big donors.

With our current campaign finance landscape, wealthy special interests can set the political agenda: an agenda that’s not good for ordinary Americans.

When corporations and Wall Street billionaires can set the political agenda, it’s not likely to be an agenda that benefits everyday Americans. Rather, it’s likely to be an agenda that helps line the pockets of corporate executives at the expense of the rest of us.

Research shows, for example, that the wealthy often have fundamentally different political priorities than those of ordinary Americans on issues like the minimum wage, taxes, education, and unemployment—and that the wealthy wield significantly greater influence over policy outcomes. This is especially true when it comes to issues of economic justice, making it all but impossible to pass reforms that benefit the poor and working class as long as corporations and the super-rich are dominating our political system.

Our big money system—which is dominated by a tiny segment of the population who tend to be wealthy white men—disproportionately harms women, racial minorities, and low-income people.

Data shows that the vast majority of the big donors bankrolling our elections are white and wealthy. Our campaign finance landscape, which hands enormous power to this tiny slice of the population, makes it less likely that those in office will focus on the priorities of lower income people and people of color. It also contributes to the lack of racial diversity among elected officials, since candidates of color who may not have access to rich donors, who are predominantly white, face a much steeper climb to raise the money needed to become a viable candidate.

There is a similar picture for women in politics. Women are seriously underrepresented among elected officials, but many women serving in office say that money is the biggest barrier they would face if they ran for higher office. Meanwhile, wealthy donors who want to halt progress on women’s equality or turn back the clock on reproductive rights can spend unlimited sums of money supporting their chosen candidates.