Supreme Court Ruling Important Step in Curbing Pay-to-Play Political System

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court took an important step in the right direction in reducing the influence of special interest money in our court system. Caperton v. Massey called into question whether a $3 million independent expenditure from Massey CEO Don Blankenship in support of Brent Benjamin in his race for state Supreme Court Justice should have led to his recusal from a case involving the overruling of a previous verdict against Massey. This case reveals how the current system of political fundraising can lead to a quid pro quo from deep-pocketed interests in exchange for decisions in their favor.

“We applaud the Supreme Court’s decision today, which will help set the precedent that we need to end the pay-to-play culture that dominates America’s political system,” said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause. “Despite today’s victory, the fact remains that members of Congress continue to take money from a variety of interests that will be directly affected by the laws formed in Congress. If a large expenditure from a party in a case creates a conflict of interest for a judge, the same holds true for members of Congress who take large contributions from industries having a financial stake in legislation they must vote on.

“Nothing less than the public’s faith in their government lies at stake here,” Edgar said. A recent nonpartisan poll found that 60 percent of voters believe that Congress puts the interests of campaign contributors over constituents, and 79 percent are worried that dependence on large campaign contributions will prevent Congress from tackling the important issues facing America today (Lake Research Partners and the Tarrance Group, February 2009).

“The Caperton case illuminates why we need comprehensive reform to the way be pay for political campaigns from the courts to Congress. We need public funding for judicial campaigns and, to help stop the money chase in Washington, we need to pass the Fair Elections Now Act.”

Just weeks ago, as the Energy & Commerce Committee started hearings on climate change legislation, Common Cause released an analysis of contributions from the energy industry to members on that committee. The analysis revealed that major energy interests contributed more than twice as much to Energy and Commerce Committee members’ campaigns, on average, than to other members of Congress. Another recent study by Common Cause found that just the 18 members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense obtained $355.5 million in earmarks to the 2008 defense spending bill for campaign contributors who gave their sponsors more than $1.3 million. These reports highlight the perception that campaign contributions buy influence and the need for to get our elected officials out of the fundraising game and let them do the job we elected them to do.