2010 has been a bad year for campaign finance reformers. Independent groups spent millions on ads without disclosing their donors. Self-funders like Linda McMahon and Carly Fiorina spent millions on personal attacks that have done nothing to make our political system better.
The McCain-Feingold reforms of 2002 were supposed to be the bedrock for getting money out of the political system, but throughout the past eight years we have seen the legal system and opponents of campaign finance reform decimate the impact of the bill.
McCain-Feingold banned soft money contributions and limited the amount individuals and political action committees can give to candidates and national parties. It also banned corporations and unions from airing issue-based ads. Since 44 percent of the members of Congress are millionaires (compared to 1 percent of the American public), it contained the Millionaires' amendment. The amendment stated that if there is a self-financing House candidate that puts at least $350,000 of his or her own money (in the Senate, the limit varies by state population), their opponent can raise up to three times more than the limit from individuals.
Since 2002, we have seen courts remove the strongest provisions from McCain-Feingold. The Millionaires' amendment was struck down in 2008. Then, in January of this year, the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that corporations and unions could spend money directly to help or defeat candidates.
While independent groups who support Democrats have not taken full advantage of this nefarious decision, this election cycle conservative groups have spent more than $300 million to support Republicans. Democrats have already been hitting the narrative on the campaign trail. "Everything was going great and all of a sudden secret money from God knows where because they won't disclose it is pouring in," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a fundraiser, offering a sunny retelling of recent political history.
Congress attempted to set off these effects of Citizens United with the Disclose Act, which would have required these groups to disclose the names of their donors, but the bill failed to pass. It seems unlikely that the new Congress will take up the Disclose Act or pass the Fair Election Act, which would provide public financing to candidates who demonstrate a level of support from small donors.
Much of the anger and distrust of the political process is rooted in our broken campaign finance system. Year after year the money in politics gets worse and worse. 2010 isn't the last we have seen of secret money and unfettered influence. Maybe everyone should just be given $20 and a soapbox. Maybe then the American people will start trusting their elected officials again.
Reshma Saujani ran an unsuccessful campaign in the Democratic primary against Rep. Carolyn Maloney in New York's 14th district, which covers Manhattan and Western Queens. A community activist and a legal scholar, she is a graduate of the University of Illinois, received her Masters in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and her JD from Yale Law School.