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At $4 Billion, Midterm Elections Poised to Become Most Expensive Non-Presidential Vote in US History

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A new report says spending for the 2010 elections will break the previous record for a midterm vote by around $1 billion. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, total spending could reach as much as $4 billion this year. The report also says right-wing groups are spending more than double on advertisements than liberal organizations. We speak to the president of Common Cause, former Pennsylvania Congressman Bob Edgar. Common Cause is a nonprofit citizen’s lobby promoting an accountable and transparent government. [includes rush transcript]

Another recent report from the Public Action Campaign Fund estimates that outside groups raising money from secret donors are expected to end up spending over $400 million by Election Day.

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StoryOct 28, 2010“Free Speech for People” Coalition Calls for Constitutional Amendment to Overturn Citizens United Decision Allowing Unlimited Corporate Spending on Elections
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The midterm elections next week are poised to be the most expensive non-presidential contest on record. Total spending on this year’s election could reach as much as $4 billion, according to a new report by the Center for Responsive Politics. Conservative organizations are spending more than twice as much on advertisements and other communications as are liberal organizations, the report says.

As of Wednesday, House and Senate candidates had raised a combined $1.7 billion and spent $1.4 billion. Fundraising by parties and spending by outside groups brought the total dollar amount raised to $3.2 billion. While corporations are behind much of this money, the Center for Responsive Politics warns that many of the donating entities have nondescript names and don’t immediately, if ever, reveal who funds them.

AMY GOODMAN: Another recent report from the Public Action Campaign Fund estimates outside groups raising money from secret donors are expected to end up spending over $400 million by next week. Common Cause is a nonprofit citizen’s lobby promoting an accountable and transparent government. Their latest analysis of the spending numbers warns the race for campaign cash has a dangerous impact on democracy and says, quote, “When candidates are in a never-ending battle to raise campaign cash, the voters are the ones who lose. And when these candidates become elected officials, they know who they are accountable to — the big donors that helped them get elected.”

Well, for more on the role of money in the midterm elections, we’re joined here in New York by the president and CEO of Common Cause, former Pennsylvania Congressman Bob Edgar, who also happens to be a Methodist minister.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

BOB EDGAR: It’s great to be with you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, so, we are seeing a record amount of money flooding politics in this country. Four billion dollars could be the price tag on these elections?

BOB EDGAR: Well, this is the most expensive election. Money is actually going to buy our elected officials in this cycle. When I served in Congress from '75 to ’87, money was important, but the special interest groups came in with their talking points first and then came in with the money. Now they come with the money first. And because of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, where the Supreme Court, on a vote of five to four, gave corporations and labor unions the ability to dip into their personal corporate treasuries and spend those for and against particular candidates, we've seen an explosion of money into the political system.

And one of my concerns is not only the amount of money that’s being spent, but the threat of money that can be spent. If I’m the congressman from suburban Philadelphia and I represent Boeing Vertol, and they make Chinook helicopters, they perhaps don’t like the way I voted, they can come into my office and, without really saying anything, they can just look me in the eye and thank me for being a congressman and be concerned about a vote that I cast on healthcare or on the banking issues and simply say, “We haven’t been involved in your campaign, but if you don’t change your positions, we have that opportunity now, given Citizens United.” I think it’s outrageous, the amount of secrecy, the amount of money, the amount of foreign corporations that can invest for or against a particular candidate. I think we’re going to see over the course of time, if it’s not controlled, if it’s not — if we don’t find a way to put handles on this, we’re going to not only see more explosions of money, but you’re going to have a Congress made up of those supporting the energy companies, the healthcare industry and foreign corporations more than public citizens.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the explosion has been not just with these shadow organizations that have cropped up, but also in the direct contributions to the candidates. Congress in 2008, I think, spent about a little bit more than $900 million for their election. Now we’re talking about $1.3, $1.4 [billion], so you’re talking about a 50 percent increase in just two years in terms of the donations that the congressmen directly are receiving.

BOB EDGAR: Yeah. When I ran for the United States Senate in Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter raised $6 million, I raised $4 million. This was back in 1986. Just three years ago, when two candidates were running in Pennsylvania, they raised $37.5 million. All you have to do is calculate how much that is per day that they have to raise. They’re spending 70, 80 percent of their time on the phone or in fundraising events begging for money. It’s just gotten out of hand.

Common Cause is working on a citizens-owned election process called public financing. We installed it in Arizona, in Connecticut, in Maine, for statewide elections, and it’s working. In the ’08 election, 74 percent of the candidates in Connecticut used a voluntary public financing system. Eighty-one percent of them got elected, took no special interest money. And I think Connecticut is better off because of it. Maine is better off, and Arizona is better off. We hope that that good virus spreads all across the country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What do you think was the impact of President Obama in his race for the presidency deciding not to go the public finance route of his election, in terms of the liberal — the reform efforts on campaign financing?

BOB EDGAR: Well, we think it’s a mistake, but we have to remember that the presidential public financing system was broken in '07 and ’08. And we're calling on the President to hold a reform White House conference and to come out and work with Senator McCain and other senators on a bipartisan basis to fix the presidential public financing system for the next go-around. In the last go-around, the amount of money was too low, and the timing was too late. No money changed hands until March of ’08, as opposed to a timing that was reflective of the primaries. So most of the candidates were in fact out of the presidential race before any money was provided to the candidates. The presidential public financing system worked for a long time. It simply was outdated and needs to be fixed.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you talked to President Obama? What promises has he made?

BOB EDGAR: He made a written promise that while he didn’t take the presidential public financing system, that he would work in his first administration to fix it. And we’re going to hold him to that promise. We’ve talked to the White House. We’ve talked to the staff there. And there’s pretty good indication — there’s a bill before the House and Senate to fix the presidential system.

AMY GOODMAN: You just celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Common Cause, and we want to play a clip of the veteran broadcaster, journalist Bill Moyers speaking at the event and talking also about John Gardner, who founded Common Cause.

BILL MOYERS: Your founding father was a prophet who saw the dagger of money directed directly at the heart of America. Like his fellow Republicans, Teddy Roosevelt, he opposed the naked robbery of the public trust. And as Roosevelt said a century ago in one of the greatest of all American political speeches, “It is not a partisan issue we are talking about. It is more than a political issue. It is a great moral issue. If,” Roosevelt said, “we condone political theft, if we do not resent the kinds of wrong and injustice that injuriously affect the whole nation, not merely our democratic form of government, but our civilization itself cannot endure.”

Democracy in America has been a long series of narrow escapes. And we may be running out of time and luck. The most widely shared assumption of our journey as Americans has been the belief in progress, the conviction that the present is better than the past and the future will be better than the present. No matter the debacle — Watergate, Vietnam — no matter what has befallen us, we have kept insisting the system works. But listen. All bets are off. We have reached a parting of the ways, and we’re choosing the wrong path. The great American experiment in creating a different future together has come down to the worship of individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power, with both of our political parties cravenly subservient to Big Money. As a journalist, I can tell you what you know: a profound sense of betrayal and loss pervades the country between the coasts — even despair, even loss of hope in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Bill Moyers, a very familiar voice on public television, just retired this past year. Bill Moyers speaking at the fortieth anniversary of Common Cause. Bob Edgar is the head of it. As we talk about money, David Brooks wrote a column in the New York Times where he says, “Don’t follow the money,” arguing that big spending candidates often lose to lesser-funded challengers. Your response, Bob Edgar?

BOB EDGAR: Well, I think that Brooks, his op-ed piece in the New York Times, was just off base. It is true that some candidates with large pocketbooks and spending large amounts of money often don’t win, but it’s also true that all of the money that’s flooding into campaigns now give candidates an advantage. If you start a campaign with four or five million dollars for a House race, you can overwhelm not just the incumbent, but you can overwhelm the system. And we think that candidates are now using secret money. They’re using foreign money. They’re using money that’s —

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you have examples of this?

BOB EDGAR: They’re using money that’s not disclosed. The Supreme Court decision just simply opened the campaign coffers for a flood of money. And you’re not only seeing an exponential increase in money in this campaign, but wait 'til 2012. I mean, you could have a rogue corporation come in on the 2012 campaign and put a billion dollars on the table. And who is to stop them? Because the Supreme Court said that money is speech, that corporations are persons. My wife, who is an operating room nurse, says that she'll believe corporations are persons the day after they have a colonoscopy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the growing trend in both the Democratic and Republican parties for wealthy individuals to finance their own campaigns. I mean, of course, in New York City we have the premier example of Michael Bloomberg himself, but Meg Whitman, Jon Corzine, all of these folks who literally were not known in the political realm until they agreed to put huge amounts of their own personal money on the line to win.

BOB EDGAR: There are very few poor people represented in the House and Senate. I was a Protestant chaplain before I got elected, and I was making $11,000 a year. And I got elected, and in those days, 1975, congressmen were making $44,000. Several of the senior congressmen came to me very early and wanted increase in their wages. I think, you know, many of the people who get elected, who have $100 million to invest in a campaign, have very little experience about the average working poor, the people who are living on a minimum wage. Just recently, someone getting minimum wage, working fifty-two weeks a year, was making below the poverty level. And Congress — it took a long time to convince Congress, if you’re going to move from welfare to workfare, you’ve got to pay an adequate wage for persons.

And one of the points that our new chair, Robert Reich, who was former labor secretary, is making is that the economic trauma that we’re facing right now is how the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and the rich, who are funding many of these campaigns, are institutionalizing that income gap. And that’s causing great trauma to our economic system.

AMY GOODMAN: You represented the area of Pennsylvania that Joe Sestak was a congressman from. Now he’s in a hotly contested race against Republican Toomey for the Senate. Can you talk about this race?

BOB EDGAR: Yes. Joe Sestak has been in Congress for the last four years, and he successfully beat Arlen Specter, who switched parties to become a Democrat because he couldn’t win in the Republican primary.

AMY GOODMAN: You ran against Specter.

BOB EDGAR: I ran against Arlen Specter in 1986. Specter calls me his favorite opponent in these days. Joe stepped forward against Obama, against Eddie Rendell, the governor, and decided to run, because he believed that it’s not bad for someone to change parties, but it’s bad for the reasons that Arlen Specter changed parties: simply because he couldn’t win in his own party. If he changed because of ideological reasons, it would have been different. So he risked himself in the primary. He is in a very tight race with Toomey. And I think it’s going to come down to the wire.

There are two things that I think we ought to be concerned about. One is if it’s as close as some people say it is, I’m hopeful that the election machinery is in place where you can have an honest recount. Common Cause is concerned that all over the country, in places like Pennsylvania and New York and other places, they have bad election machines, some of which are computers and can’t have an adequate recount. A couple years ago, when Franken won, Senator Franken won in Minnesota, it took six months to figure out who actually won the election. The good news about Minnesota —

AMY GOODMAN: A number of European countries are going to written ballots, back to written ballots. They’re saying you cannot trust computers anymore.

BOB EDGAR: Right. Well, in Minnesota, people think that was a failed or a flawed election. Actually, it was a very good one. The secretary of state was a good secretary of state. The machines were good. You could do a recount. There were eleven judicial decisions; all agreed with the outcome of election night. If that same election had been held in many other states, we still wouldn’t know who adequately won the election. We would have been in the same kind of problem that Florida was in in 2000. So, my hope is that in these very close elections all over the country, that the election administrators will be very careful to make sure that the count is accurate. And unfortunately, it’s too late to change the machinery, but it’s not too late to make sure that the recounts that will take place are done fairly and adequately in a bipartisan, nonpartisan way.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Edgar, we want to thank you very much for being with us, president and CEO of Common Cause, former Pennsylvania congressman and Methodist minister. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to talk more about Citizens United, about this decision, and this whole issue of corporations being treated as people. Stay with us.

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“Free Speech for People” Coalition Calls for Constitutional Amendment to Overturn Citizens United Decision Allowing Unlimited Corporate Spending on Elections

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