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Three Weeks to Go

By PAM BERNS
In 23 days, Americans will vote for candidates they believe represent their best interests for the next four years. Never before has so much money influenced an election. And never has there been so much at stake.
   
There are four Supreme Court justices who will soon be 70 or older: Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. And there is a strong possibility that the president of the United States who will be elected this fall will be nominating future members of the Supreme Court. There isn’t a more important decision a president can make—except to request Congress to declare war. Many of us will not live as long as some of the current justices and those who might be nominated in the near future. A lop-sided court could determine what laws we will all be held to in the years to come.
   
One decision that the Supreme Court recently made is affecting this election. Many of us cannot see the wisdom of the decision of Citizens United, which permits unlimited amounts of money to influence elections in the name of free speech.

Big Money in this Election
Super PACs are permitted to raise unlimited donations from associations, individuals, corporations and unions. According to The Atlantic, in 2008, $5.3 billion was spent in Federal Elections. We don’t know how much this election will end up costing us. Whatever it turns out to be, it’s too much.
   
The influence of Big Money in politics through the Super PACs has resulted in an escalating no-win game with, of course, donations many think are tied to expected favors or given by those who are dealing with government regulations that affect their bottom line. Donations given to Super PACs cannot be given directly to candidates. However, the Federal Election Commission has ignored the “uncoordinated” cooperation between the candidates and the campaigns, as information is transmitted through the press. (Some groups accept donations via 501(c) “social welfare” groups who then turn around and donate to Super PACs.) Super PACs are supposed to disclose donations, but some are delaying disclosure.
   
One of these Super PACs is Crossroads GPS, giving millions of dollars to Republican candidates. They refuse to disclose their donors.
  
Movie stars and labor unions have traditionally been large donors to Democrats. Hollywood has backed Obama this year too, with the exception of Clint Eastwood and his chair.
   
Last month, billionaire George Soros committed to giving Priorities USA Action, a Democratic Super PAC a $1 million donation and he promised another $500,000 to other Super PACs that back Congressional Democrats. According to the New York Times, Soros had been fed up with the Citizens United debacle and was not expected to donate large amounts to the Democrats this year. His commitment is expected to open the door to other wealthy donors’ participation before the election.
   
One of the largest donors to a very large Super PAC has been willing to spend $100 million to defeat the Democrats and win control of the Senate this year, reported Bloomberg. In 2008, the donor’s company was found to be responsible for bribery of foreign officials.
   
Another Super PAC donor told the New York Times he is donating tens of millions of dollars for “self-defense” relating to an investigation by the Justice Department into his business practices. If Romney wins, this donor says he may be looking forward to a $2 billion tax cut.
  
The Citizens United decision has made it impossible for underfinanced candidates to compete. Our electoral system is now dependent on the good graces of a handful of donors. The amount of money donated in this election illustrates how out-of-control this problem has become. How will this end? How far will democracy be stretched to satisfy the agendas of a handful of individuals, businesses, unions and other groups?
  
Are we all really content letting well-financed industries influence climate change? Issues this important can be affected when donations facilitate unusual access to decision-makers who then have a personal stake in maintaining the status quo. Environmental regulations are critically important to controlling global warming and preventing exposure to toxic substances that cause illnesses. Yet, a number of U.S. companies manufacture untested substances that may make the companies vulnerable to losses if new environmental regulations are enacted.
   
A few weeks ago a study linked a hard plastic used in bottles and other containers to childhood obesity. We now have another example illustrating how regulations are critical to our health and welfare. We may have been working too hard on the wrong end of the obesity problem. Maybe our children have just been
poisoned.
   
The biggest players in our country now have the ability to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to impact elections that may directly affect their profits. When an individual donates $1,000 to a campaign, he probably has few expectations of influencing legislation. When the donation is hundreds of millions of dollars, the expectations of a decision-maker of an entity with tens of thousands of employees or shareholders may be very different. This is a factor that the Supreme Court may not have anticipated in its ruling.
    
The media profits yielded from the expenditures of campaign advertising are enormous. CBS is expected to have $180 million more in profits this year due to advertising revenue, according to The Atlantic. You likely won’t hear much about the problems inherent in so much Super PAC money in this election on television. There are a lot of winners in this game.

Published: October 13, 2012
Issue: November 2012 Issue