Institutional Corruption and the Influence of Money and Politics on People’s Lives

Fountain Pen and SignThis morning, I was scanning Tweets that came into my Twitter account. One of the Tweets said,

“Why the phrase ‘Supreme Court to hear campaign-finance case’ should scare you.”

It contained a link to an article in the Daily Beast. This article said that the US Supreme Court has decided to take another look at campaign financing in a case from the United States District Court in DC called McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. I read the article.

And yes this case scares me. McCutcheon argues that there should be no limits at all on campaign financing.  It scares me because I believe that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of McCutchen, there will be more influence and therefore more institutional corruption on our public policy.  This will then allow the creation of more holes in the safety net for people’s lives due to the corrupting influence of big money. For clarification, institutional corruption is defined as:

[T]he consequence of an influence within an economy of influence that illegitimately weakens the effectiveness of an institution especially by weakening the public trust of the institution.

Why? Because I do not trust the members of the current Supreme Court to openly and fairly take into account that elected officials need to answer to their constituents and not to the people and companies and lobbyists that influence them by throwing lots of money and offering consulting jobs to these elected officials (a form of “money”) once they leave office.

My mistrust results from their decision in the 2009 Citizens’ United case.  They held that the First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the government from restricting independent political campaign expenditures from corporations and unions.  The aftermath of this decision has been devastating. Immediately after this decision, the DC Circuit Court (which handles cases involving federal regulations) ruled that

“individuals could make unlimited contributions to so-called Super PACs, which supported individual candidates.”

And what did we see?  In the 2010 elections, Super PACs—mostly funded by the mega-rich—assisted conservative Tea Party candidates at all levels of government to win seats that they would not have otherwise been able to win.  This resulted in a lot of gerrymandering around the country for the incumbents’ self-interest.  And in 2012, $6.2 billion was spent on elections; over $10 million of these funds were given to a small number of Super Pacs by a very small number of mega-wealthy individuals—including the Koch brothers—to influence the outcome of the elections.

If this case overturns what few limits on campaign financing are left, the doors for institutional corruption will be thrown wide open.  Candidates will spend even more time chasing money, mostly soliciting funds from large, non-constituent individuals and corporations.  Most of these individuals are heads of corporations whose special interest is their bottom-line profits and not the interests of the “47%.”

Fred Wertheimer is President of Democracy 21. It is a non-partisan group that works to eliminate the undue influence of big money in the public arena.  He agrees with me that big money corrupts our public institutions. In a press statement on February 19, he said that the

“[A]ggregate limit on contributions by individuals is necessary to prevent circumvention of the limits on contributions to candidates and political parties and the prohibition on federal officeholders soliciting huge corrupting contributions.”

And further, if the Supreme Court either completely guts or weakens campaign financing, this decision

“…would open the door to $1 million and $2 million dollar contributions from an individual buying corrupting influence with a powerful officeholder soliciting these contributions, and with the political party and federal candidates benefiting from these seven figure contributions.”

I believe that it is the local constituent who should be influencing their representatives.  Not corporations. Not big money. And not the 1% at the top of the income ladder who do not live or experience the lives of the people who live in each of our communities.

I am one of the 85% of Americans who view Congress unfavorably because of what they have NOT been doing for people’s lives. Like allowing funds for critical domestic programs to be cut due to the budgetary stalling and delays of the Fiscal Cliff and Hurricane Sandy debates and resulting Sequestration that now looks like it will become reality this coming Friday. Like delaying passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) from being reauthorized for over two years (which, may change tomorrow when and if the House FINALLY votes on the Senate-passed VAWA Act of 2013).  Like talking about but not taking any comprehensive action, so far, to deal with violence and gun safety (for more information on this gun safety issue, read my blogs here and here).

No, I don’t trust the US Supreme Court.  And no, I do not trust Congress. All because of the influence of money on the decisions the do and do not make.

Institutional Corruption is a problem.  We need to reduce that corruption.  We need to empower the small donors.  New York City, as well as Los Angeles and San Francisco have done this.  And in a plan put together by Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and Democracy 21, we could do the same thing as well across the country. Look at the plan and then lobby your legislator, even if you don’t trust him or her. Vote for candidates in the future who pledge to listen to their constituents and not to big money.

This will take a long time.  But it is necessary. Then and only then do I believe that we can and will be able to trust our elected officials to truly represent us and our concerns.

For More Information on Institutional Corruption

For more information, watch the video below. In this 2009 presentation, Lawrence Lessig defines institutional corruption.  He then discusses the probable effects of this undue influence of money (broadly defined) not only on elected officials but its effect on other institutions, such as the EPA and medical research.

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