Citizens United & the United Citizens of America

Alexis de Tocqueville made the observation 200 years ago that Americans have bad tendency of  forgetting lessons from the recent past.  Indeed, old habits are hard to break.  This is similarly true to campaign finance reform and Citizens United vs The FEC.Despite all the hoopla around Citizens United, it does not change much in the grand scheme of political fundraising.  Yes, it is true, it is a watershed that may very well be the straw the broke the camel’s back, but unfortunately for Americans, there aren’t too many camels out there in the great plains.What Citizens United achieved was an elimination on previously enshrined restrictions on freedom of speech, in effect, allowing greater breadth of access to political fundraising by corporations and unions to 501C3’s, and ‘Super PACs.’  Unfortunately, provisions administering proper identification and collection of contribution sources did not come along with the new legal mandate.  Something akin to giving everyone the right to drive a vehicle, but eliminating the requirement of a drivers license for the newly minted drivers.

Yet, we’ve seen this movie before.  The Watergate Scandals of 1974 lead to the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) requiring broad disclosure of campaign finance and the establishment of the Federal Election Committee.  At the time, political fundraising across Federal, State, and Municipal governments was an estimated $1 billion.   Twenty seven years later, the industry grew to over $3 billion in annual contributions, and the passage of yet another campaign finance reform: The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), also known as the McCain-Feingold bill, limiting soft money contributions but raising hard money limitations.  This piece of legislature came as a result of a less acute crisis than Watergate, but a recognition in Congress that the 1994 and 1998 presidential elections witnessed an unprecedented use of 24/7 television and internet advertisements.

Today, the industry is estimated to bring in $10 billion  in 2012.  Adjusting for inflation, it still represents a nearly 3X growth in size.  While we are not certain what the dollar figure implications of Citizens United will be, it is estimated that $700 million in political fundraising inflows will be as a direct result of its passage.

Yet, Citizens United detracts from the central theme: the issue of money influencing politics (be it through political fundraising or lobbying), has been a central tenant of our democratic system since the election of the populist Andrew Jackson.

Even if the Supreme Court reverses its ruling on Citizens United within the short-term, the impact on political fundraising would be negligible.  This industry is deeply ingrained in Federal, State and Municipal government.
The solution to realigning the role of political contributions in government must stem from greater transparency in campaign contributions.  And by greater transparency, I do not refer to an arbitrary list of demographic information collected from the donor, but rather, a living, breathing profile that the donor maintains in the clouds in perpetuity.

As Co-founder at AngelPolitics, I have had the pleasure of helping drive this vision: the creation of America’s Donor Genome.  By giving every individual, super donors down to sub $200 donors the ability to activate their own piece of virtual donor real estate, they can begin discovering candidates across America, and across federal, state, and municipal government that share geographic, demographic, or issue-based affinities.   Similarly, a platform like this would be open to PACs, 527s, Labor Unions, Parties and other political groups.  By helping create a personal link among every voter and donor in America through a virtual social network, we as a society can for the first time ever, be empowered to access greater intelligence about the rationale for campaign contributions, and their impacts.

Fundamentally, money is a means to an end.  The flow of funds into political campaigns can be justified in a variety of weights (enshrined in our constitutional rights, or otherwise).  That they are spent in a constructive manner is another issue.  Most political analysts would agree that the majority of campaign dollars go to fund negative advertisements.  Yet, the purpose of negative advertising is to capitalize on an asymmetry of information between candidates and voters/donors.  Technology is one resource available, to us, as citizens, for building awareness of the political issues at hand and their implications for society.

 

By Jesse R. Sandoval

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