See that evil-looking guy up there? That’s Sheldon Adelson, a right-wing casino mogul. He donated $70 million to various Republican campaign efforts in the 2012 season. In a fit of brilliance, he donated $20 million to Newt Gingrich. (How’d that work out for ya…?) The rest went to pro-Romney or anti-Obama SuperPACs. SuperPACs are organizations that, as a result of the 2010 US Supreme Court ruling Citizens United, are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advocacy without declaring their donors. So, according to current US law, someone like Adelson can donate $20 million to support a candidate, either openly or in secret. Then, when Adelson needs a favor to help his business interests… Well, you do the math.
Of course, after the results of this year’s US elections, it seems the SuperPACs had a bark worse than their bite. Many observers were suggesting that the flood of cash would favor Republicans; nonetheless, Obama was re-elected and the Democrats gained seats in both the Senate and the House. Some people think that this means SuperPACs are not so bad. I disagree; Eric Posner lays out a bunch of reasons why we should still be wary of them. Fundamentally, it is a problem for democracy when (a) rich people have disproportionate power to influence the outcomes of elections and (b) there is no legal way to limit either corruption or the appearance of corruption in politics. (The rationale behind the Citizens United decision is that free speech trumps these arguments, and that there is essentially no way to limit campaign spending without telling people they don’t have a right to spend their money to express their opinions.)
Citizens United thus seems to be an insurmountable barrier to any way to limit corruption and a disproportionate influence for the rich. If all political spending is protected as free speech, it seems nearly impossible to craft a law or regulations that would effectively limit the power of money in elections. So, here is an idea for how to get around this: Impose a progressive tax on political contributions.