Public opinion polls consistently show Americans are frustrated with the disproportionate influence large corporations and extremely wealthy individuals have on our government and political process.
In a September poll from the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of respondents said the policies of the federal government following the 2008 financial crisis and recession were designed to benefit large corporations, and 59 percent said those policies were intended to aid the wealthy. At the same time, broad majorities indicated the government had done little or nothing to help the poor — 72 percent — or the middle class — 71 percent.
Americans’ perception of their government as being run for the benefit of corporate America is validated by current public policy. Following the financial crisis in 2008, the U.S. federal government disbursed about $4.76 trillion to various entities, with almost all those funds going to the country’s largest banks and financial institutions.
Congress and the rest of the federal government approved these bailouts for Wall Street but chose not to enact stronger financial regulations that might help prevent a similar crisis in the future. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a piece of financial reform that was passed in the aftermath of the recession, has generally been deemed unlikely to help prevent a future meltdown of the financial sector.
Gary Rivlin of The Nation wrote that the bill requires the cooperation of federal regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission, bureaucratic agencies that “failed so miserably at protecting the public interest in the run-up to the 2008 crash.”
One explanation for public policy emerging from Washington that consistently favors the rich and powerful over the middle and lower classes is the ever-increasing amount of campaign contributions wealthy interests donate to candidates for federal office.
In 2010, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that overturned previous restrictions on so-called “independent expenditures,” money spent by corporations, labor unions and other associations on political advertising. Although the ruling did not address the issue of direct contributions by corporations to political campaigns, which remain illegal under federal law, the decision was viewed as the first step toward dismantling existing campaign finance laws.
Now, the Supreme Court is taking up a case, McCutcheon v. FEC, that could completely eliminate all limits on campaign contributions. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a longtime opponent of campaign finance restrictions, will testify before the Supreme Court in favor of dismantling the few remaining regulations that restrict the flow of money into political campaigns.
It should come as no surprise that Sen. McConnell has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of corporate political donations. According to opensecrets.org, a website that tracks political contributions, McConnell has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from large corporations in just the last five years. Employees of Citigroup Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. — institutions that received bailout funds passed with McConnell’s support — have donated about $160,000 to his most recent re-election campaigns.
Even with the campaign finance laws that currently exist, our political system essentially incorporates a form of legalized bribery. The system of private campaign donations ensures those with the most financial resources are those whose interests and issues the government prioritizes. Rather than loosening campaign finance laws, private campaign contributions should be banned entirely in favor of a system of taxpayer-financed campaigns.
Such a system would root out a great deal of corruption in the American government by preventing corporations and wealthy Americans from influencing politicians with their dollars. Additionally, members of Congress will focus more on policies that benefit their constituents, who are mostly poor and middle-class voters, and less on the wealthy’s interests that currently have a stranglehold on public policy.
Elliot Levy is a UF political science and public relations junior. His column runs on Wednesdays. A version of this column ran on page 7 on 10/9/2013 under the headline "SCOTUS case could increase corruption"