Money has always been, to quote Lyndon Johnson, “the mother’s milk of politics.” In the last 40 years it has traveled a steadily upward path to becoming the appetizer, entree, and dessert as well.
It all started in the wake of the Watergate scandal when the reformers who targeted the abuses by the Republican Party’s Maurice Stans inadvertently opened the Pandora’s box of campaign funding.
They did this by creating an additional route for contributions called political action committees (PACs). This, unexpectedly, was a contributor's dream. For years political contributions had mostly flowed through the political parties which recruited, slated, funded and managed candidate campaigns. What contributors got with PACs was a direct route to candidates themselves. What the parties, who the esteemed Ody Fish labeled “a kinder mistress,” got was bypassed and a lesser role in the election process.
Nobody who had suffered through the party era was particularly sorry to see them eviscerated. Until the unintended consequences appeared. The people who had run the parties because they were powerful and important quickly left and turned these disemboweled organizations over to the zealots and extremists who had always been bit players when the parties were the main and often the only route to electoral victories and power.
The first group to react to the shift in power to the PACs were the savvy legislative leaders whose influence over PAC-funded entrepreneurial candidates was seriously eroded.
They set up legislative campaign committees as a money funnel and power protector. This worked for a time but was undermined by a series of scandals which sent overly powered legislative leaders to jail or oblivion. At the same time, the once-again-restrained moneyed interests weren’t restrained for long. They began to bypass everyone by taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s centuries-long love affair with free speech by funding parallel campaigns for and against candidates.
The reform move to blunt this turn of events was based on inserting public money into campaigns and adding spending limits to those candidates who took the money.
Not all did or even wanted to. Taking public money to gain office was scorned as welfare for politicians for one thing, and the amount of public money needed to provide offsets for money being put into parallel campaigns threatened to break the public money bank.
To illustrate the weakness of the incumbents’ appetite for this kind of reform, there was no rush to the only free speech suppressant allowed (actually encouraged) by the Supreme Court. This was a clear sign that candidates were ambivalent at best about the participation of third-party parallel campaign spending. They were understandably frightened by the prospect of high spending attacks from these independent sources that didn’t like them. But they weren’t frightened enough to mandate full disclosure of donors and other measures to inhibit the effectiveness of third-party campaigns, because these would shut down the third-party participants who were friendly to them.
Reform, regulation, spending limits, and disclosure proposals by reform organizations never had a chance. They didn’t have any money for one thing. They didn’t have a cause that empowered them the way the light spending but politically terrifying National Rifle Association does. And when they did get a sponsoring legislator or governor’s support, legislative timidity and divisiveness derailed their proposals.
When public money was rejected by candidate Obama the steam pretty much went out of what seemed to be the most promising money containment strategy.
In the meantime the PACs went on steroids and became "super" PACs and more powerful than ever. The traditional power centers like public unions and business organizations were defanged or outspent and outshone.
The money was fully and completely in command.
Feeling less important? Me too.
Looking for a way to fix the heretofore unfixable? Stay tuned. Chapter two is coming.
Office: Common Cause Wisconsin