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A group of young people parody U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s last name by intentionally misspelling it as R-MONEY as they march in a Fourth of July parade in Takoma Park, Md., on July 4, 2012. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
A group of young people parody U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s last name by intentionally misspelling it as R-MONEY as they march in a Fourth of July parade in Takoma Park, Md., on July 4, 2012. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Jeffrey Simpson

U.S. politics has become a disgusting race for money Add to ...

“Oh, the obscenity, the obscenity,” my colleague Roy MacGregor wrote this week, properly scorning the money heaped on hockey’s free agents. Parroting the line from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (“the horror, the horror”), Mr. MacGregor, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, has forgotten more about that sport than any of us have ever learned.

In the obscenity sweepstakes, however, the money that U.S. hockey franchises are throwing at free agents pales in comparison with the money being thrown at the U.S. presidential election and hundreds of other races across the Great Republic, where the big-name hockey free agents have signed.

U.S. politics is now a disgusting race for money. President Barack Obama has been attending at least three fundraising events per week since the beginning of the year, only to find that in May, with his nomination assured, Republican Mitt Romney raised more than the President in that month: $77-million to $60-million.

If you think those sums are large, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Money donated to presidential campaigns represents only one outlet for contributing. There are also fundraising efforts by parties and, of greater significance, political action committees.

Just wait until the summer political conventions and the fall campaign. Then the fundraising efforts will move to an even higher gear as will, of course, the spending. To be a politician in the United States now, Democrat or Republican, is to be a full-time pursuer of cash.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 1971, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act that tried to put limits on spending and contributions. In exchange for these limits, public financing was introduced for presidential campaigns.

But in the first of what has become an endless game of Whac-A-Mole, the Supreme Court (in the famous, or infamous, Buckley v. Valeo case) struck down any limits on spending as abridging the First Amendment’s admonition against restrictions on free speech.

Since then, candidates and parties have easily avoided any restrictions on contributions. The law offered an inducement: Keep spending under a certain limit and receive public subsidies. Mr. Obama blew past that limit in 2008. The same will happen in 2012 for him and Mr. Romney.

On the contribution side, money streams into party coffers and into so-called Super PACs. Again, courtesy of a Supreme Court ruling, no limits exist for contributions from individuals, corporations, unions or other institutions.

These Super PACs are created by party activists and make no bones about which party and causes the PACs support. So Mr. Obama has his Priorities USA; Mr. Romney his Restore Our Future. (There are many smaller PACs too.) Mr. Romney already has 50 donors who have given at least $300,000 each to Restore Our Future, which has in turn already raised $61.5-million.

Contrast this race for cash with Canada. Here, the Conservatives are considered a well-oiled fundraising machine, which explains in part why they have used their political majority in Parliament to wipe out subsidies for political parties.

The latest report shows they raised $23-million in 2011, more than twice the sum for the Liberals. (The NDP has not yet reported.) By Canadian standards, $23-million is a mighty amount. Using the 10-to-1 U.S.-Canada comparison, a comparable sum for a political party in the U.S. would be around $230-million.

President Obama, by contrast, had raised $257.7-million in the first five months of this year, according to the Federal Election Commission. And this didn’t include huge sums raised by the party and the PACs.

Money can have a deeply corrupting influence on politics, not just because of the expectation of favour for money received, but because it diverts so much attention away from governing to seeking cash. The U.S. Supreme Court has been complicit in the corrupting influence of money on U.S. politics and government.

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