by Steve Fair
After that source of “contributions” dried up, businesses such as banks, oil companies, steel firms, and railroad developers became the primary source of fund funding by candidates through corporate contributions. After his election in 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt encouraged Congress to ban corporate contributions.
In years following and during the Great Depression, WWII and the Korean War, political campaigns remained “grassroots” oriented and the big bucks didn’t enter the process until the 1960s.
By the end of the 1960s, the cost to run for Congress had skyrocketed to where only the wealthy or those closely aligned with the wealthy could run. In response, in 1971, Congress passed the FECA (Federal Election Campaign Act) that limited the amount of money a candidate could give to his or her own campaign and how much they could spend on TV advertising. The Act also provided a mechanism that required candidates to file reports on a quarterly basis on the source of their political contributions.
Proponents of the FECA expected the new regulations would stem the tide of money in politics. Not surprising Congress was again wrong. In 1968, before FECA, federal candidates spent $8.5 million collectively running for office. In 1972, under FECA, they spent $88.9 million- over ten times more.
In 2002, Senators John McCain, R, Arizona, and Russ Feingold, D, Wisconsin, sponsored BCRA (Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) to get slow down the money in politics, but in the seven years since it’s passage, the amount of money needed to mount a serious campaign for Congress has almost doubled. McCain/Feingold has created a series of loopholes that 523s have exploited and used to circumvent the process. There is now more money than ever in politics. A “shoestring” budget for a 21st century Congressional race is $500,000- for a job that pays $165,200 annually.
It would be easy to blame the candidates, big donors, campaign consultants and political hacks for the huge growth of money in politics, but to do that would be wrong. The real reason we have big money in politics is the lack of broad based financial involvement by average citizens.
With a limited amount of time to raise money for a campaign, candidates tend to take “the path of least resistance” and solicit big donors. If you need to raise $100,000 for a state legislative race, it’s easier to find twenty $5,000 donors than two hundred $50 contributors. Building a small donor base is hard work and takes patience and is often next to impossible to accomplish.
According to Massie Ritsch, communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics, “Less than one percent” of the American population make campaign contributions large enough to track.” That’s less than one in a hundred citizens care enough about a local, state, county, or federal election to give a penny to the process.
People complain about “all” the money that is in politics and how corrupt the process is, but yet they are unwilling to contribute one red dime to a candidate- even candidates they know personally and trust. They don’t put their money where their mouth is. Signs, bumper stickers, and t-shirts cost money, but often even the volunteers of candidates are unwilling to reimburse them for just the “cost” of those resources. By not contributing, they are perpetuating the “big donor/access” machine that pumps obscene amounts of money into the political process.
It’s obvious that not everyone can write a big check to a political candidate, but all can do something. If everyone would contribute some, the “big donor” money would be diluted and the process would reform itself, restoring the power to the grassroots.