This Is What Democracy Looks Like? The $2 Billion+ Election

October 24, 2012; Source: Alaska Dispatch (ProPublica)

Think about this: The current presidential election between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has surpassed the $2 billion mark in spending by the two campaigns and related PACs and (c)(4)s. Imagine how much more money will be spent between now and November 6th. Imagine how much more money is being devoted to congressional and gubernatorial campaigns around the country. Imagine the infinitely more productive, edifying, socially beneficial uses that could have benefited from these dollars.

Having raised $1 billion toward his reelection, President Obama pronounced the amount of money going toward the presidential campaign “ridiculous.” Regardless of whether you support the president’s reelection or not, you know he’s right on that point. With millions of people in this country unemployed and with budget cuts just around the corner, it is truly ridiculous that this nation could spend billions financing the full employment program for political consultants.

So if this amount of money spent on intellectually insulting campaign ads is ridiculous—and we imagine that businessman Mitt Romney might have a similar opinion about a more productive purpose for billions of dollars—what do Obama and Romney plan to do about this situation, particularly the flow of secret money into politics through 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations? That’s the Citizens United issue, though Citizens United is hardly the sole cause and fixing or undoing Citizens United is hardly a sufficient answer. The problem and the solution are both bigger and more complex.

President Obama has talked about legislation (the DISCLOSE Act) to compel the disclosure of donors to “dark money” nonprofits and has even broached the notion of a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United, but neither idea has gone anywhere. But ProPublica notes, “Obama hasn’t even instituted campaign finance measures that he could do on his own using executive power.“ From Romney, we’ve seen even less talk of campaign finance reform. ProPublica reports that Romney’s campaign wouldn’t answer questions about the issue to explain his prior opaque comments about contribution limits to candidates or donor disclosure.   His only specific seems to have been getting teachers’ unions’ money out of political campaigns, and his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), has contended that the DISCLOSE Act is unconstitutional.

While Romney is a candidate with a chance to be president come November, Obama has been president for the last four years and has a track record that we can evaluate on this issue. The director of Congress Watch at Public Citizen, Lisa Gilbert, tells ProPublica that the president could have done a lot of “tangible” things, but he didn’t. She points to a draft executive order from the Obama White House that would have required government contractors to reveal their political spending, but the administration didn’t push and eventually abandoned it. For all the weaknesses and shortcomings in the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Obama administration has yet to offer nominations for five of the six FEC commissioners whose terms have expired, leaving the FEC stuck in dysfunctional deadlock.

The bottom line is that the Obama administration hasn’t really acted much to back up its stated concerns, and the Romney opposition camp hasn’t really even spoken to the issue. If the nonprofit sector cares about what might be a better repurposing of this $2 billion, it might want to speak to the two campaigns to remind them about alternative approaches to the financing of presidential and congressional elections.—Rick Cohen