The Federal Election Commission announced last week that it estimates the 2012 presidential election cost about $7 billion, which makes it the most expensive presidential campaign in history. Significantly, 2008 at that time was the most expensive presidential election in history. And it isn’t just presidential elections that are becoming increasingly costly. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, spending on U.S. House campaigns also exceeded previous totals with over $1.11 billion, although Senate totals were slightly lower than 2010 but still higher than all previous years. By contrast, in 2002, House campaigns totaled $637 million.
That doesn’t even count the independent expenditures of super PACs, the organizations designed to allow wealthy individuals and corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in behalf of a favored candidate or in opposition to an un-favored one. In 2012, up until a month before the election, Super PACs had spent $536 million on campaigns. Mitt Romney was the biggest beneficiary of these independent expenditures. They spent nearly $18 million to support him, while Newt Gingrich received support to the tune of $13.5 million. Much of that money came from a single individual — Sheldon Adelson. Propublica, an independent research website, estimated that Adelson donated $155 million to candidate campaigns and super PACs during the 2012 presidential cycle.
Of course, it isn’t just the money that’s important. It is what the money buys. Politicians often claim the money buys nothing; public servants owe nothing to the groups that give them money. Former Rep. Barney Frank once admitted that’s not true. “[I]f that were the case, we’d be the only human beings in the history of the world who on a regular basis took significant amounts of money from perfect strangers and made sure that it had no effect on our behavior.” Is it likely that if Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich had become president, they would not have felt beholden to Sheldon Adelson for the amounts he spent to support them?
Frank’s statement is even more disturbing when we realize how desperate politicians are to get that money. Members of Congress today are continually on the phone begging for money. One senator admitted that “most Americans would be shocked if they knew how much time a U.S. Senator spends raising money.”
But the federal system isn’t the only problem. Some states do a poor job of regulating campaign finance. One of them is Utah. With no campaign finance contribution limits, corporations and individuals can give unlimited amounts of money to candidates. As a result, public officials who receive large campaign donations operate under an ethical cloud. They may claim the money makes no difference in their decisions, but it is difficult not to think otherwise. And when candidates become enmeshed in controversies involving large donors, an “appearance of evil” is hard to shake.
This is true in regards to John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff, who raised large amounts of money from people who could well be affected by the attorney general’s office, including Jeremy Johnson. But it also has an impact on Gary Herbert, who has raised tens of thousands of dollars from corporations who seek contracts with the state. Are these public officials affected by such donations? It is difficult to say, but it is clear there is an “appearance of evil” that should be removed from the state’s campaign finance system.
It is time to reform this system at the federal and state levels. At the federal level, President Obama needs to appoint a bipartisan commission of public officials and citizens to propose reforms to the way campaigns are financed. The fact that the president has no future election to face gives him the opportunity to lead out on this issue.
At the state level, the Utah Legislature must pass significant campaign finance reform limiting how much an individual or corporation can donate, banning large donations from regular contractors with the state, and creating an independent electoral commission to regulate campaign finance practices. Now is the time to act.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU. Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu.