Financial support for U.S. political parties and campaigns comes mainly from private sources, including large corporations which, according to critics, gain a lot of power over the electoral process and put voters at a disadvantage, radicalizing the U.S. political scene.
“… I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me,” stated Donald Trump in the GOP debate, participating alongside nine other Republican 2016 presidential candidates.
The populist billionaire claims that most of his current rivals, including Hillary Clinton (as well as Bill Clinton), received financial support from him in the past. He also said that being as rich as he is means he does not need any financial support, which would make him a better and more independent president than the other candidates.
This statement from Trump is relevant to the ongoing debate in the U.S. regarding the financing of electoral campaigns. Jonathan Rauch, an expert from the Brookings Institution and author of “Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy” (2015), claims that many Americans would like the laws on campaign financing from independent sources to be stricter, but restrictions are difficult to impose because of the constitutional system. In a 2010 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there are no restrictions on campaign financing, as they would be in conflict with the constitutional protection of freedom of speech.
Unlike in Europe, political parties in the U.S. are mainly focused on organizing campaigns on a massive scale (there are no party member subscription fees or declarations), and therefore party financing rules are mainly about campaign financing. Financial support comes mainly from private funds. Public financing is available, but only for presidential elections. The number of those accepting public financing has been consistently decreasing because of rigorous eligibility requirements and the limits that public funding would impose on spending private funds. It simply does not pay, considering that the number of billionaires and large corporations engaging in the election process is constantly rising. Campaign law from 1996 prohibits candidates from accepting funds from foreign sources or foreign countries.
There are two types of campaign contributions. Voters can contribute up to $2,700 per person directly to an individual candidate’s election committee, or donate to political action committees or PACs, which also receive donations from corporations, unions and other organizations.
PACs are external organizations, often formed by former associates of the candidates. In contrast to election committees, PACs actively promote ideas and the views of the candidate they support. The role of PACs in campaign financing has increased significantly since the famous 2010 case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, when the Supreme Court, siding with Republican arguments, abolished the law preventing corporations and unions from financing PACs. Three years later, the Supreme Court went even further and abolished the law imposing limits on the amount of campaign spending during a single election cycle. The justification for both decisions was the need to protect the constitutional freedom of speech and the right to decide on the amount of money contributed toward a campaign.
However, critics claim that the new rules allow lobbyists and special interest groups to use large capital as an instrument for political pressure, disadvantaging voters, whose support matters less against the support of several extremely rich individuals.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been the leading recipient of contributions from the richest Americans and special interest groups during the ongoing 2016 presidential campaign. Right to Rise, the PAC supporting Bush, received more than $100 million within just the first 100 days of the campaign, which was a record in the history of Republican campaigns.
The most generous Republican sponsors are billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who made their money in the oil industry. Media speculation is that the brothers plan to raise $889 million for the 2016 election using their own funds, as well as by collecting contributions from other rich Americans.
Democrats also have their own rich supporters, such as financier George Soros, who spent $27 million on John Kerry’s campaign back in 2004. During his 2008 campaign, President Barack Obama avoided corporate financing, but thanks to the massive and thorough effort of his supporters, he managed to get $750 million from individual voters. “You now have the potential of 200 people deciding who ends up being elected president every single time. Unless things change dramatically,” Obama predicted, “I may be the last presidential candidate who could win the way I won, which was coming out without a lot of special-interest support, without a handful of big corporate supporters.”
As Kenneth Vogel wrote in his 2014 book, ”Big Money: $2.5 Billion, One Suspicious Vehicle and a Pimp – On the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics,” the increasing amounts of funds invested in American politics is only one of the issues, the other being the decisions on how to spend them, which are made by independent PACs without party input. “The parties are losing the ability to pick their candidates and set their agendas, as fewer and fewer politicians rely on the financial support of their party to win. In fact, it can be preferable to have the backing of a sugar-daddy donor or a group with deeper pockets willing to spend unlimited cash to fight the party,” writes Vogel.
Rauch claims that the U.S. political scene has become increasingly radicalized because of the rising input from independent financing sources. One of the examples of this is the fact that many of the ultra-conservative politicians from the tea party, financed by the Koch brothers, won seats in Congress, often defeating moderate Republicans supported by party leaders. The Polish Press Agency said that once such radical candidates have been chosen, it is much harder to keep them disciplined within a party and to force them to compromise. “This is because they are more bothered if they act in the interest of those who paid for their campaigns, rather than to serve their party well,” PAP concluded.