2010's Top 10 Money and Politics Stories

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By: David Donnelly and Adam Smith

Whether it was apologizing to BP, the Fair Elections Now Act passing out of a U.S. House committee, or the Supreme Court declaring that corporations were people when it comes to spending money in elections, 2010 was a big year for news about money in the political process. Here's our top ten list. Leave your suggestions in the comments.

1. In Citizens United, SCOTUS Gives Special Interests Free Rein, and Senate Republicans Roadblock Disclosure
Perhaps no other event changed the landscape when it came to political money than the Roberts Court’s long-awaited January decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission that gave corporations the same ability as individuals to spend money to directly influence elections. The sweeping language of both sides of the narrow five-to-four decision, the condemnatory response from the political and reform communities – including the unique denunciation by the President at the State of the Union – set the stage for the decision’s impact. Front groups, largely on the right, set up shop by the spring to add to the financial firepower already assembled by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others. The nearly $300 million in traceable independent, non-party spending set a new record for a midterm election. Despite opinion polls showing overwhelming opposition to the decision, the Mitch McConnell-led Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked the DISCLOSE Act from passage, and reaped the benefits of large amounts of secret money (see #4) in the election campaign.

2. Fair Elections Now Act Advances
In 2010, the Fair Elections Now Act, legislation that would allow candidates to run for office by relying on small donations from people back home, passed out of a House Committee and, according to supporters, had the votes to win a vote on the floor. A coalition of nearly 300 national and state organizations, led by Public Campaign and Common Cause, grew support in Congress from 56 House co-sponsors in the 110th Congress to 165 in the 111th. Efforts included a multi-million dollar paid media, grassroots, and lobbying campaign that led to a dramatic increase in support for the legislation. Everyone from political donors in New York City to grassroots supporters in Louisiana were calling Congress to tell them that it’s time to change our big money system. Election Day polling showed that 75 percent of voters see the money spent this year as a “real threat” to democracy and 64 percent support Fair Elections. Congress must take note--support for reform isn’t going away.

3. Tom DeLay: The Hammer Gets Nailed
It took five years, but disgraced former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was finally convicted by a jury of his peers, for conspiracy and money laundering connected to the funneling of corporate money into state elections in Texas. That DeLay’s conviction was front-paged across the country four-and-a-half years after he resigned from Congress was a testament to how synonymous with corruption and scandal his name had become. DeLay, though, had already paid mightily in the political arena. His fall from grace was the result of his own hubris and a concerted, multi-faceted 2004-2006 campaign spearheaded by Public Campaign Action Fund to force his resignation, make it clear to our elected officials that we’re watching, and underscore that the American people will hold corrupt politicians accountable for their actions. The DeLay story will hang over the new leadership like a bad stench: his sentencing hearing is scheduled for early January, just when the new Congress is sworn in. As everyone knows, the pay-to-play system he benefitted from remains firmly in place.

4. Super PACs, the Chamber of Commerce, and Secret Money
The predictions regarding the impact of Citizens United ranged from “Armageddon” to “tsunami” to “avalanche.” Whatever biblical or meteorological metaphor you use, the outside money spent on the 2010 elections shaped who got elected and, quite possibly, what they’ll do as Members of Congress. A significant portion of the $293 million in reported spending was from undisclosed sources, leading to coverage of secret and foreign money. In the end, the big bets by cash-flush front groups, including those run by Karl Rove, expanded the number of districts deemed competitive, spread Democratic party and candidate resources thin, and set the political narrative of a Republican resurgence. Whether we will ever know the source of the secret donations is somewhat beside the point – the Congress these big money front groups helped to elect will be more pro-Wall Street, more pro-Big Oil, and more pro-insurance company than the last. You can guess where the money came from.

5. Sen. Russ Feingold’s Loss
Sen. Russ Feingold’s (D-Wisc.) three-term tenure in the U.S. Senate as a champion of campaign finance reform came to an end at the hands of a multi-millionaire, Tea Party-backed, self-funded candidate named Ron Johnson. It’s a bitter irony that outside groups spent nearly $2.4 million to benefit Johnson, including three-quarters of a million dollars in attack ads by the U.S. Chamber. (Feingold has demanded for years that outside groups not spend money on his behalf.) But in the end, the outside campaign proved so decisive that Sen.-elect Johnson paid a “thank you” visit to his new bosses over at the Chamber in December. Feingold’s record on reform, though battered by the courts, will live on as an example of a long-standing elected official who served until the end by doing what he believed was right for his constituents and the nation. That type of courage and commitment to principles will be missed in Congress.

6. Quotes that Warmed the Hearts of Special Interests Everywhere
Perhaps one of the most striking examples of money in politics this year was the extent to which some lawmakers blatantly stated their fealty to big corporate interests. “I apologize,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) to the CEO of BP during a televised hearing on the Gulf Coast oil calamity. Barton has received $1.5 million from oil and gas interests during his time in Congress. Then there was incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) who told Wall Street donors that they must have “buyer’s remorse” for funding Democrats and then seeing the party forge ahead with Wall Street reform. Was the message that Republicans will stay bought? Lastly, just this month, incoming House Financial Services Chairman Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) acknowledged what many Americans have come to believe: Washington’s work is to “serve the banks.” Bachus has been rewarded for that “service” so far, with $2.8 million in Big Bank contributions.

7. House Spending and Fundraising Reaches $1 Billion
On October 26, Public Campaign Action Fund’s Campaign Money Watch predicted that the battle for the U.S. House would reach $1 billion for the first time in history—and we were right. 2010 spending equals a 30 percent increase from 2008, a dramatic difference from a presidential election to a midterm election. These record-shattering totals showed that all the focus on outside spending missed the larger issue—this spending was also fueling candidates’ own need to raise money. And the more time these candidates have to spend raising money, the less time they have to talk with voters and address our nation’s challenges.

8. Self-funders Spend Big To Lose (Mostly)
The 2010 election cycle saw a big new wave of ultra-rich self-funders willing to spend their significant fortunes for elected office. Former Ebay CEO Meg Whitman spent more than $160 million in her unsuccessful bid for California Governor and wrestling executive Linda McMahon spent $50 million to lose the Connecticut Senate race. Candidates spent more than $4.5 million of their own money to lose Senate races in West Virginia and California, and the governor’s race in Connecticut. The truth is, money can buy you airtime and media attention—but it can’t fix a flawed candidate. While there are always exceptions, self-funders historically don’t fare well at the ballot box. As the cost of running for office continues to rise, however, party insiders will look even more at those able to fund their own races further making our elections about money over ideas.

9. Two “Clean Elections” Governors Elected
This might have been the year of outside special interests and outsized campaign fundraising at the federal level, but Arizona and Connecticut showed that there is another way. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) and Connecticut Governor-elect Dan Malloy (D) became the second and third governors elected under Fair Elections-style public financing systems. Gov. Brewer, who used the system in previous runs for statewide office, replaced another Clean Elections governor in 2009, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Gov.-elect Malloy, who beat the wealthy self-funding Republican Tom Foley, is the first Fair Elections-funded governor elected in Connecticut. Brewer and Malloy are just two of the hundreds of Clean Elections candidates elected in states across the country in 2010.

10. Advocates Beat Back Repeal of Arizona Clean Elections
For years, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry has worked with its allies in the state legislature on efforts to repeal the voter-approved Clean Elections system. With the Courts throwing the stability of the system into question last year (see honorable mention below), repeal looked imminent, but state advocates like the Arizona Advocacy Network and national partners like Public Campaign led an all out assault on Clean Elections foes and staved off repeal—a big win for everyday Arizonans in a year where big money special interests seemed to get all the victories.

Honorable Mentions
There was a lot of news this year and we can’t fit everything in, but these stories below are worthy of a few sentences.

Arizona and Connecticut “Triggered” Matching Funds. While advocates may have staved off repeal in the legislature, opponents of small donor-driven elections are also trying their hand in the Court. Clean Elections matching funds that allow a publicly-financed candidate to keep pace with well-financed opponents and battle back against outside money attacks are currently on hold in Arizona and Connecticut pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision expected in June 2011.

Kevin Spacey Nominated for Casino Jack. Nothing crystallized for the American people the problem of our political system like the Jack Abramoff scandal and now they can live through it all again. Kevin Spacey stars as Jack Abramoff in Casino Jack, a feature film opening across the country this month. Spacey recently received a Golden Globe Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of the corrupt former lobbyist.

Wall Street Reform. A mother lode of campaign contributions comes from is the financial sector. That made the wrangling over the outlines – and the details – of this year’s Wall Street reform bill a special interest goldmine for lawmakers who a) sided with the industry, or b) softened the bill’s biggest punches.

Ethics. While tangentially related to campaign money, the ethics trial and conviction of Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and still-pending trial of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) show the importance of a robust and powerful ethics process in the U.S. House. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who faced a year of bad press over his affair with a staffer, was recently let off the hook by the Federal Elections Commission and the Department of Justice, but still faces investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee.

What did we miss? What was your favorite (or worst) money in politics story of 2010?