Our $4 billion election: Big money tightens its grip on American politics

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  • Dale Eisman

WASHINGTON, DC — A $4 billion mid-term election campaign has produced a Congress more beholden than ever to special interests and raises the specter of a 2012 presidential contest in which the voices of everyday Americans may be completely overwhelmed, Common Cause warned today.

“The flood of money unleashed by the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United and other recent cases is transforming our politics – and not for the better,” said Bob Edgar, Common Cause’s president and CEO. “Its real effect will become clear in coming months as we learn more about what the campaign’s secret donors expect from the new Congress in return for their investments.”

Edgar’s comments came as Common Cause hosted a forum at the National Press Club in Washington DC, “What Follows the Money?” to examine the impact of unbridled corporate, trade group, labor union and other special interest donations on the election and their implications for future campaigns.

“The biggest spenders don’t always win, and we saw that again this year in the defeat of self-financed candidates like Meg Whitman in California and Linda McMahon in Connecticut,” said Charlie Cook, publisher of The Cook Political Report, and a forum presenter. “At some point, voters either reach a saturation point from one candidate, the law of diminishing returns kicks in, or voters just say ‘no mas’ and turn on the wealthier, bigger spending candidates.”

Outside money was also in play. It helped fuel a 40 percent increase in campaign spending over the 2006 mid-term, “pushing the brass ring that much further away for small donors looking to play a meaningful role in elections,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. “After an election, especially one as expensive as this, comes payback time,” Krumholz added. “Citizens should be prepared to ‘follow the money’ for the next Congress back to the special interests that paid their way.”

One former member of Congress on the panel, Butler Derrick, said the rush of money is certain to affect the new Congress. “Having spent 20 years in the U.S. House, I know that this much money from corporations and wealthy individuals will have an impact on the making of public policy, and it’s not going to be in the public’s interest,” said Derrick, now a partner at the law firm of Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough.

Americans understand what’s happening here.

“Election Eve polling by Common Cause found that three out of four voters think the amount of money spent on campaigns is a real threat to our democracy and Congress’ ability to act in the public interest,” said Arn Pearson, Common Cause’s vice president for programs. “Congress must do two things to put voters first: Pass the DISCLOSE Act immediately, so we know who is trying to influence our elections and why, and change the way we pay for political campaigns with passage of the Fair Elections Now Act so voters – not Wall Street – come first.”