How American Politicians Finance Campaigns

Public financing has long been debated as a solution to the problem of conflict of interest through private financing of US elections.

Sheila Krumholz, Executive Director, Center for Responsive Politics, has attributed the rapid increase of money flowing into the United States politics to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Citizens United versus Federal Commission in 2010, which allowed organizations that are normally independent from candidates to raise and spend unlimited sums from any source.

The Center for Responsive Politics, established in 1983 by two former senators, Frank Church, a Democrat of Idaho and Hugh Scott, a Republican, is an independent nonprofit that tracks and researches money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy.

Krumholz said “while the Supreme Court’s decision was based on the notion that the public can see where the money is coming from to deter from the possibility of corruption, this was not and is not true. In each cycle since then, tens or hundreds of millions of dollars flow in from secret sources to outside groups, including highly political non-disclosing nonprofits and Super Political Action Committee (PAC). This is what is known as dark money, because if we cannot see it, we are left in the dark.”

She said public financing has long been debated as a solution to the problem of conflict of interest through private financing of US elections.

Krumholz made the statement when speaking to journalists about campaign finance during a zoom meeting on “Elections 2020: Virtual Reporting Tour (VRT)”.   

American elections, according to Krumholz, have always been funded by private sources, mostly individuals and PACs; corporate and labor entities.

Krumholz said transparency is an essential pillar of democracy; that is why she agrees with the former Supreme Court Justice, the late Antonin Scalia, who said that campaigns should not be hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism because transparency also reassures the public of the integrity of the campaign finance laws in our political system.

“As you can see, there’s a bit more volatility on the Senate side, but generally there’s a fairly steady rise over the last 30 years until you get to 2018, when there’s a good jump in spending rising from one and a half million in 2016 to over US$2 million for winning House candidates and on the Senate side, jumping from US$12 million to US$16 million in 2018. So, that’s a lot of money. Personally, I would not know where to begin to raise that money if I were running for Congress. Some candidates are raising far more, candidates like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Altogether candidates running for his seat this year have raised US$86 million so far, the most of any race in this cycle. On the house side, the Louisiana 1st district race is the most expensive at nearly US$26 million, despite the fact that the money was raised entirely by just one candidate, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who has virtually no opposition yet still has raised US$26 million and spent nearly US$20 million already,” she said.

Krumholz said eventually all the money is from individual Americans who feel that there is such pressure on politicians to raise over US$2 million for a house member. They are passionate to host events, where they can gather these contributions, checks, from those willing to give, and who is able and willing to give to support the campaign progress.

“So there is a very clear system — a kind of symbiotic system of mutual benefit between the most interested donors and the political candidates seeking their support. And it’s up to the American public, ultimately, to pay attention to where candidates are getting their money. And then ultimately, if victorious, what they are doing in terms of policy, whether they are passing policy based on the merits of the argument or based on the national interest or the constituents’ interest, or whether they are passing policy that benefits their cash constituents,” must be subject to scrutiny.

Krumhoz said “although certain campaigns are more careless and are more likely to take in a lot of excessive contributions, in the end, the federal election commission historically has simply informed the campaign of the excessive funds and they have been discouraged to return to the donor. When the campaign tells them that they have made an excessive donation, the donation is often re-attributed to a spouse, if that spouse has not made a maximum contribution.”

The role of the Vice President

Joel K. Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law Emeritus, Saint Louis University School of Law, speaking in a separate presentation on the role of the Vice President, told journalists that in addition to the constitutional role that the vice president has, as standing first in line of presidential succession, the vice presidency has become an important part of the presidency, indicating that the vice president’s principal function and purpose is to provide high-level assistance to help make a presidency succeed.

Goldstein said “the description that I have just given of the vice president’s role is one that has developed in recent decades. It wasn’t always this way, but this has been more of the development of an evolutionary pattern that has taken place in American public life.”

“The vice presidency;” he said, “while it can be looked at as an office in and of itself, and a story in and of itself; it also is an example of the way in which American political and governmental institutions can evolve, and take on roles that are more consequential and different than what were perhaps initially intended.”

Goldstein said the constitution gives the vice presidency two roles which include the president of the Senate, and has a tie-breaking vote when the Senate is tied, adding that the vice president stands first in line of presidential succession.

He said for most of the 19th century, and for the first half of the 20th century, the vice president was really a legislative officer indicating “Vice presidents from John Adams, our first vice president, to Alvin Barkley, who was Harry Truman’s vice president from 1949 to 1953, spent most of their time presiding over the Senate. They took on really little or no function in the executive branch.”

Goldstein said Vice presidents during this period, up until the middle of the 19th century, middle of the 20th century, were typically chosen by party leaders for the national ticket giving the presidential candidates little or no influence in choosing their running mates. As a consequence, the president and vice president often were not compatible, either personally or politically.

He said there were no bonds of loyalty that ran between the president and VP, resulting to the pair often representing different ideological points of view.

“From most of the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century, many vice presidents were pretty undistinguished figures. Many of the vice presidents who were selected were in poor health when they were chosen. From 1812, when James Madison was our fourth president, up until 1912, when William Howard Taft was our 27th president, seven of the vice presidents chosen during that period died in office,” he said

During said period Goldstein told participating journalists that the vice presidency was not viewed as an attractive position for somebody who was politically ambitious.

Goldstein “when Daniel Webster, who was one of our great statesmen in the first part of the 19th century; the former senator from Massachusetts and secretary of state; when he was offered the chance to be the vice presidential candidate on the ticket in 1848 with Zachary Taylor, he declined, saying, quote, ‘I do not propose to be buried until I am dead,’ and on four occasions in the 19th century, vice presidents succeeded to the presidency when the president died. But in none of those cases was the vice president elected, or even nominated, for a term of their own.”

He said the vice presidency during this period, up until the early 1950s, was pretty much a political dead end; it was not seen as a springboard to the presidency, a situation which began to change in the 20th century, and particularly with the vice presidency of Richard Nixon in 1953.

Goldstein said in the mid-20th century, the vice presidency moved from the legislative branch into the executive branch, noting that Vice President Nixon was the first vice president who spent little time presiding over the Senate, and spent much more of his time taking on assignments from President.

The reason for the change that began, according to Goldstein, was that the Nixon vice presidency really related to larger changes in American life with the New Deal and World War II, when the national government became more important.

 “The presidency became more important with the Cold War,” Goldstein continued. “It became important for the United States to compete with the Soviet Union for influence abroad in an atomic age. It became important that the presidential successor to be somebody who was informed and who was well thought of. Technology changed as well, and that created possibilities for foreign travel, for media exposure, and so forth.”

Goldstein said the office of the vice president has developed not because of the successor role, but really in part because the focus of the office has not been on succession but trying to make the president in office successful.

He said the successor role remains a constitutional role of the vice president.The US has had 45 presidents, nine of which, or 20% of them, were vice presidents before they became president. But only eight of them became president when their predecessor died. In one case, in 1974, Vice President Gerald Ford succeded President Richard Nixon, who resigned from office.

 The African American Vote

Dr. Lorenzo Morris, Distinguished Professor and Chair Emeritus of Political Science at Howard University said one of the things that is often overlooked about the African American vote (black vote as more commonly called), is that across space and across time, since the 1960s, it has been a stable and constant contributor to the development of national and local American politics.

Morris said, “in spite of the disappointment exhibited by many commentators after the 2016 election, in which they said the vote declined, I want to argue basically that it did not decline, it simply stabilized. That may be illustrated by the fact that since the Voting Rights Act occurred, which was a singular moment, black voting has continually gone up or stabilized.”

Morris said many people celebrate the fact that finally in 2012, after so many years, the black vote reached and surpassed, in terms of turnout, the overall general American vote and then it abruptly declined in the last election.

“We must remember that the hardest things to do are to tell what black voting actually looks like because polling, which is the only basis of identifying it since racial identification is not directly linked to voting or census in terms of voting, has been fairly inconsistent. A group with which I am involved is the only group that actually did a national poll of black voters,” he disclosed.

Morris said “since World War Two, no Democrat, except for Lyndon Baines Johnson, has won the presidency without the black vote. This is to say no Democrat, except for Johnson has won the white vote. In this stellar moment for black voter achievement, 2012, in terms of turnout, everyone celebrates the contribution of the overall American electorate to the election of Obama and is disappointed with what happened with [Hillary] Clinton.”


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