The role of campaign finance in our ‘rigged’ political system 

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Eight years after Donald Trump escalated to power complaining about the “rigged system” and promising to “drain the swamp,” super PACs and government representatives like Ted Cruz are using loopholes and testing the limits of campaign finance laws.  

Trump is running again, but this time, he is less focused on draining the swamp and more on controlling it. Meanwhile, long-shot independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy has promised to launch a “drive across the states to pass a Constitutional Amendment to overrule the Citizens United case.” 

The issue of money in politics, which unites the left, right and middle, has a long history. The “rigged system” that Trump decries is a campaign finance system that allows wealthy individuals and corporations to conceal their support. The Swamp is the murky waters of dark money that influence our elections. The lack of transparency in election donations has persisted since the early 1900s. 

Draining the swamp requires legislation that provides transparency. Politics can’t survive without money, just like life can’t survive without water. The focus should not be on ridding money from politics but on cleaning the water and clarifying: Where does the money come from?  

In 1905, campaign finance became national news after an investigation found that New York Life Insurance Company made a $48,000 contribution to Teddy Roosevelt’s 1904 campaign. Further investigation found the company paid $235,000 to Andrew A. Hamilton of Albany, a lawyer whom few knew, and he paid the Republican committee. The money was paid with no accounting other than the verbal confirmation by the company’s president, John A. McCall.  

Much of the debate involved public vs. corporate interests and transparency of donations. McCall justified contributions, explaining they were spent supporting the gold standard and representing the best interests of their policyholders. George W. Perkins, chairman of the Financial Committee for New York Life Insurance, oversaw other payments made to the Republican committee. He believed the public should be aware of company expenditures and called for a transparency law.  

Roosevelt, famous for his trust-busting and balancing of labor and capital, insisted the contributions be returned. Then, in an address to Congress he called for “all contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law.” The result was the Tillman Act of 1907, which prohibited corporations from making financial contributions to federal candidates.  

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that restrictions on corporate campaign donations were unconstitutional. This resulted in the rise of political action committees (PACs) and super PACs — and a massive increase in political spending. It also led to a lack of transparency. 

American Promise explains, “Dark money is the term used to describe donations to some political nonprofits—primarily 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) organizations—and corporate entities such as limited liability companies that are not required to disclose their donors.” In 2022, OpenSecrets analysis found federal committees took in a midterm record $615 million from dark money groups.  

The lack of transparency threatens American democracy. The loopholes that allow dark money provide opportunities for corruption and foreign actors to funnel money into American elections. To protect American corporate and public interests, Congress must act to close these loopholes.  

It shouldn’t be about limiting donation amounts but limiting who donates to American citizens and corporations. Congress can accomplish this by writing a transparency bill to clarify the Citizens United ruling. The bill should recognize the corporation’s right to protect its interests while establishing a donor transparency system. Americans should know who is paying their representative’s campaign bills.  

The left, right, and middle unite around campaign finances because it’s so easy to see the results of the money’s corruption. The law cannot stop bad people from doing bad things but can encourage the virtuous among us in all classes, the fair opportunity that Roosevelt described in his “Square Deal.” A transparency bill would encourage the balance of good capital and bad capital by allowing people the transparent information they need before electing their representatives.  

So, while Donald Trump is sitting in a New York courtroom defending himself in a case where he is accused of using an intermediary to pay off a sex scandal, we should ask ourselves: Is he really interested in draining the swamp? Or is he just trying to rig the system for himself?  

Jeff Mayhugh is the founding editor of Politics and Parenting, president of East Coast Operations for No Cap Fund, and editor at large for Freemen News-Letter. 

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