Wolfe: As midterm elections near, take a deeper look at harmful campaign finance laws

Michael Wolfe, Columnist

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As we enter 2018, Congressional midterm elections are fast approaching. Stakes are enormous: The entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for re-election. November will either show Americans voting to limit President Trump’s ability to pass legislation, or to empower Republicans to further their agenda. With yet another election cycle, it is crucial that we reconsider the merits of our current electoral system.

The 2016 election cycle was the most expensive in American history, exceeding $6.5 billion in spending. As money continues to dominate American politics, a legislative trend has developed. The Tax Policy Center’s latest study found that, by 2027, 83 percent of the Trump administration’s recent tax bill’s benefits would go to the top 1 percent of income earners. We must ask ourselves once again: With our current electoral system, who are our elected officials truly representing?

It was just eight years ago that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision resulted in a disastrous environment of money-dominated politics. Modern campaign finance laws have enabled unrestricted monetary contributions to election campaigns. As these laws stand today, they have left the wealthy and special interest groups with inordinate influence. Following Citizens United, courts decided that contributions to groups that solely make independent expenditures could not corrupt the political system. As a result, “independent expenditure-only committees,” otherwise known as super PACs, were created. It is no surprise, then, that a Brennan Center for Justice analysis showed that outside spending has “exploded” during the three federal election cycles since the Citizens United ruling. Super PACs spending has exceeded $1 billion since 2010. Astonishingly, over $600 million of that spending power came from just 195 donors.

With spending increasing at an alarming rate, monetary support can, now more than ever, buy access to influential members of Congress. Money has become the focal point of our democracy. This environment has pressured elected officials, with re-election as their main priority, to become reliant on the donor class of a select few individuals and interest groups. As a study by Martin Gilens and Northwestern political science Prof. Benjamin Page confirms, policymakers have become significantly more responsive to the upper class; a pattern has developed in representing the preferences of donors, not the majority opinion of citizens.

The pharmaceutical industry epitomizes this. American citizens today continue to pay some of the highest prices for pharmaceutical drugs in the world. EpiPen, which over 3.5 million Americans use for allergies, costs almost $600 dollars per unit for some; this is almost eight times higher than British prices for the same product. Moreover, according to a 2016 Kaiser Health poll, 77 percent of the country believes that prescription drug costs are unreasonable. The oligarchy of the United States Congress is to blame for this predicament.

The pharmaceutical industry pays more than any other industry to influence politicians in the United States. A 2017 Washington Post report highlighted that the pharmaceutical industry succeeded in lobbying Congress to pass legislation, that, in 2016, enabled drug distribution companies to continue supplying corrupt distributors who pushed narcotics into the black market. It removed the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to freeze drug distributors for suspicious sales of pills, thus protecting billions in drug sales. This was only accomplished because of campaign contributions and lobbying; super PACs representing the pharmaceutical industry contributed $1.5 million to the re-election of 23 lawmakers who co-sponsored the bill.

While money in politics limits policymakers responsiveness to constituents, it also restricts who can become a policymaker in the first place. The big money system filters out candidates who may be qualified and credible, but do not have access to large donor bases. For example, in 2014, Kelly Westlund challenged an incumbent in Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District. After approaching the Democratic Party to express her intent to run, they essentially responded with “raise a quarter of a million dollars in three weeks” or “you’re not viable.”

With large, established donor networks constantly fueling high campaign costs for incumbents or well-connected candidates, elections have transformed into a process of classism. Hence, without an affluent network, willing and able to donate, candidates like Westlund — a self-described “working class person” with a network made up of “waitresses and teachers” — face microscopic chances of victory.

For successful Congressional candidates, raising money continues to consume a sizable amount of their time. With increased election spending, more money is required to compete with opponents. In the House, for instance, rather than remaining focused on accommodating constituent needs or new legislation, members are concerned with gathering resources to be re-elected two years later. The Hill found in 2011 that House members can spend up to 50 percent of their time fundraising. Taxpayers are not paying a $174,000 salary to every House member so that, instead of legislating, they can call potential donors. It is unfortunate when congressmen such as Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) confess that, prior to voting, they did not read meaningful bills like the proposed May 2017 Obamacare repeal bill, considering that many hours of his day were likely instead spent fundraising.

Our campaign finance system entails numerous hazards that limit the effectiveness of our democracy in representing all constituents equally; they provide well-connected, affluent individuals and corporations with critical advantages. Fortunately, several bills have been sponsored in Congress to develop a more equitable system.

Former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.) introduced the “Stop Act” to address the constant focus of congressmen and congresswomen on raising campaign funds by eliminating requirements to raise funds for parties’ political committees, thereby freeing up time for policymakers to focus on constituent issues. Commitments from other politicians, including 2016 Democratic primary candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have helped promote a grassroots movement to educate the public about the campaign finance problem.

Beginning on college campuses, we must inform one another of a need for change. Most importantly, come November, remember to vote for those who you believe will truly represent all constituents, not just those with the wallets to re-elect them.

Michael Wolfe is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at michaelwolfe2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.