Lawrence Lessig, an advocate of real campaign finance reform, has an article in The Atlantic showing just how bad things have gotten in terms of the massive influence of the filthy rich on our elections. These numbers are pretty staggering:
That disease is just this: because of the way we fund the campaigns that determine our elections, we give the tiniest fraction of America the power to veto any meaningful policy change. Not just change on the left but also change on the right. Because of the structure of influence that we have allowed to develop, the tiniest fraction of the one percent have the effective power to block reform desired by the 99-plus percent.
Yet by “the tiniest fraction of the one percent” I don’t necessarily mean the rich. I mean instead the fraction of Americans who are willing to spend their money to influence congressional campaigns for their own interest. That fraction is different depending upon the reform at issue: a different group rallies to block health-care reform than rallies to block global warming legislation. But the key is that under the system we’ve allowed to evolve, a tiny number (with resources at least) has the power to block reform they don’t like.
A tiny number of Americans — .26 percent — give more than $200 to a congressional campaign. .05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. .01 percent give more than $10,000 in any election cycle. And .000063 percent — 196 Americans — have given more than 80 percent of the super-PAC money spent in the presidential elections so far.
These few don’t exercise their power directly. None can simply buy a congressman, or dictate the results they want. But because they are the source of the funds that fuel elections, their influence operates as a filter on which policies are likely to survive. It is as if America ran two elections every cycle, one a money election and one a voting election. To get to the second, you need to win the first. But to win the first, you must keep that tiniest fraction of the one percent happy. Just a couple thousand of them banding together is enough to assure that any reform gets stopped.
If anything, he’s a bit naive here. Yes they can simply buy a congressman, or at least buy their vote, not so much by giving them money but by threatening to use their money against them in the next campaign. A single person funding a single SuperPAC or C4 organization can throw millions of dollars into “issues ads” in a given congressional district or state (for Senate levels races) and effectively kill someone’s chances of being reelected (don’t believe me? Ask Mark Schauer here in Michigan); that is a very powerful threat when a lobbyist walks into a legislator’s office and demands that they vote a certain way on a bill that could threaten (or improve) their profits.