MONEY IN ELECTIONS: What Is It Doing to America?

September 28, 2010

As midterm elections approach, three student readings, discussion questions, and suggestions for inquiry engage students in exploring the role of money in politics.

To the Teacher:

 
Most students probably know that government officials make decisions that affect the bottom lines of individuals and businesses. Probably they also know that politicians running for Congress in federal elections need money. But they probably know little about the consuming grind of raising campaign money and if the candidate seeks reelection, as most do, how never-ending that task becomes. Running for the Senate in Minnesota, Al Franken said, "I spend most of my time" on the phone or a computer, "making the ask." (www.huffingtonpost.com, 6/4/07)
 
"Making the ask" raises some obvious questions that often go unasked: What is the
relationship between asker and askee? Why is the contributor giving so much money? What might the contributor expect from the candidate in return? What are the consequences for the country?
 
The classroom lesson below begins with a brainstorming session on money in politics and the coming midterm elections, followed by a background reading, questions for discussion, and suggestions for question-asking and question-analysis to engage students in inquiry. A second lesson follows that includes two student readings on money in politics and suggestions for class discussion and inquiry.
 
See "Teaching Social Responsibility" for suggestions about student involvement in socially responsible action. Additional materials in the high school section of TeachableMoment bearing on money in politics include "Supreme Court Reject Limits on Corporate Political Spending" (the Citizens United case); "Money in Politics: Gifts, Earmarks & Revolving Doors" (also includes political money as a "systemic issue" and a description of the Dominican Republic beach house charges against Rep. Charles Rangel); "The (2008) Presidential Campaign: The Race for Money" (an inquiry-oriented approach that includes a list of Internet sources on presidential campaign fundraising). Also see "Teaching on Controversial Issues."
 
 

Introduction

 
Write on the chalkboard "What Is Money In Our Elections Doing To America?" and invite students to brainstorm whatever comes to mind when they see these words. Note responses on the board, perhaps in the form of a web, without comment. Ask questions only when they seem appropriate. Some that may be useful:
 
How do you know that?
  • What are you uncertain about?
  • How would you put that uncertainty into question form?
  • What points of view might there be about that?
  • To what extent are those points of view based on facts? On opinions? 
  • How do you tell the difference?
  • What don't you know about money in politics and government but would like to? How would you put that into question form?
A discussion of chalkboard notes
 
1. Which chalkboard items might raise additional questions?
 
2. What do students know about campaign fundraising in their own congressional district and how congressional candidates spend the money they raise? (See www.opensecrets.org for information.) 
 
Record student questions for possible inquiries after the class has read and discussed the background reading, which may generate additional questions.
 
 

Student Introductory Reading: 

Campaign Spending on the Rise

 
 
It is likely that "spending for the midterm election will break all records," the LA Times reports. "Campaign advertising has already soared to $153 million, almost twice the $77 million spent at this point in the last midterm election in 2006," said a researcher for the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
 
"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest collection point for corporate contributions, has increased its spending for the congressional election in November from $35 million in 2008 to a projected $75 million this year. Officials say it may go even higher."
 
Driving the spending in the congressional elections this year are a number of factors, including a recent Supreme Court ruling that for the first time gives free rein to corporate spending and widespread dissatisfaction with current officeholders. In addition, the financial crisis that began two years ago resulted in new corporate regulations that will affect major health, oil, and financial interests.
 
(Tom Hamburger, "Corporate Campaign Fundraising Picks Up Speed," www.latimes.com, 8/2/10)
 
 
Two key Supreme Court decisions
 
(1) In Buckley v. Valeo (1976) the Supreme Court ruled, in effect, that according to the First Amendment, freedom of speech includes the right to spend money to influence elections.
 
(2) In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Supreme Court decided that "the First Amendment stands against attempts to disfavor certain subjects or viewpoints or to distinguish among different speakers."
 
In short, the Court has ruled that corporations, trade associations, and unions that spend money to influence elections are speakers who are exercising their right to free speech.
 
 
Getting around campaign finance laws
 
The job of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is "administrating and enforcing Federal campaign finance laws." (www.fec.gov) One way to get around these laws is to form a tax-exempt group under Section 527 of the tax code with an innocuous sounding name like Americans for Democracy. Because 527 groups may not directly campaign to support or oppose the election of a candidate, they avoid FEC regulation. However, they can still spend all the money they want to present a view supported by a candidate they favor or to attack a candidate they oppose.
 
The Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United gives a First Amendment right to corporations, trade associations, and unions to spend all they want on commercials, newspaper ads, direct mailings, and the like for or against a candidate. They can also run the commercial under a name created to conceal the true source of the money paying for it.
 
According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, about $2.6 billion was raised by candidates for the House and Senate in 2006. During the current 2010 election cycle, that amount was already spent by July, three months before Election Day. (www.opensecrets.org)
 
FEC regulations limit contributions in various ways. However, donors can greatly increase the amount they contribute to a campaign by giving not only to the individual candidate , but to his or her national party committee, a political action committee (PAC), or a 527 group that supports the candidate. In this way, wealthy donors, corporations, and other special interests listed by the Center for Responsive Politics can give millions to a campaign.
 
 
For discussion
 
1. What questions do students have about the reading?
 
2. Why do you think there has been an increase in political spending during the 2010 congressional election cycle? How might you learn more?
 
3. Consider each of two key Supreme Court rulings described in the reading. Specifically, what does the First Amendment say about freedom of speech? How has the Court applied this statement in two rulings?
 
4. What are some ways in which contributors to political campaigns avoid FEC campaign finance laws?
 
 

To the Teacher:

"Questions are instruments of perception"

 
"The nature of a question (its form and assumptions) "determine the nature of its answer."
—Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching As a Subversive Activity
 
The form of a question tells us what kind of answer to give—factual, judgmental, reasoned, explanatory, predictive. The question may contain assumptions that are faulty. And if it does, then the question will likely lead to faulty conclusions—or lead nowhere. Such questions as the following aim to help people forumulate good questions—that is, questions, which if answered well, will lead to fuller and better understanding of the role of money in the 2010 elections, elections generally and politics.
 
See "Thinking Is Questioning" in the high school section of TeachableMoment for specific suggestions about guiding students through a question-analysis process based on questions they have raised. 
 
 
Questions for question-analysis
 
1. Is the question clear? If not, how might it be clarified?
 
2. Do any words need defining? Why? How?
 
3. Does the question include any assumptions? If so, are they reasonable? If not, how might the question be reworded?
 
4. What kinds of information will satisfy the question? Facts? Whose? From what source(s)? How might a source be tested for reliability? Opinions? Whose? If experts, what makes a person an expert? Might an expert be biased? How would you know? If there is reason to suspect bias, such as a conflict of interest, does this mean the source is useless? Why or why not?
 
5. Can the question be answered with certainty? With some degree of certainty? In either case, with what evidence?
 
6. What does the nature of the question tell you about how to answer it? 
 
7. Will the question, if answered well, lead to better understanding of the role of money, politics and the 2010 elections? Why or why not?
 
The question-asking, question-analysis process will generate additional questions about money, politics, and the 2010 elections. Consider these questions as subjects for later student inquiry.
 
See "Ideas and Essays" for "The Plagiarism Perplex," a discussion of the Internet and plagiarism as well as an outline for teacher organization and conduct of student inquiries. See also Trip Gabriel's "For Students in Internet Age, No Shame in Copy and Paste," www.nytimes.com, 8/2/10.
 
The following two student readings may fuel a class-wide discussion or be used as reference for individuals or small groups of students pursing an inquiry. They might also raise additional questions for inquiry.
 
 
 

Student Reading 1: 

Fundraising, earmarks and PAC campaign contributions

A fundraising event and a vote
 
On December 10, 2009, Representative Joseph Crowley (D, NY) left a House debate on the financial regulatory bill. According the New York Times, he went to "a fundraising event for him hosted by a lobbyist at her nearby Capital Hill town house that featured Wall Street financial firms, along with other donors. After collecting thousands of dollars in checks, Mr. Crowley returned to the floor of the House just in time to vote against a series of amendments that would have imposed tougher restrictions on Wall Street."
 
In November and December, Crowley collected $74,500 in contributions from financial companies, $23,500 of it ten days before the vote. Congressman Jeb Hensaring (R, TX) did even better, taking in $89,050 from big banks and other financial institutions, $30,900 of it ten days before the vote.
 
"Congressman Crowley has always complied with the letter and spirit of all rules regarding fund-raising and standards of conduct," said a Crowley aide. Meanwhile, write Times reporters Eric Lipton and Eric Lichtblau,"the practice of soliciting donations in the midst of legislative debates remains common." ("Fund-Raising Before House Vote on a Financial Overhaul Draws Scrutiny," New York Times, 7/15/10)
 
"Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money," writes George Packer in the New Yorker. "Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, said, 'Of any free time you have, I would say fifty per cent, maybe even more,' is spent on fundraising. Ina addition to financing their own campaigns, senators participate at least once a week in the Power Hour, during which they make obligatory calls on behalf of the Party...Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican, insisted that the donations are never sufficient to actually buy a vote, but he added, 'It sucks up time that a senator ought to be spending getting to know other senators, working on issues.'"
(George Packer, "The Empty Chamber: Just how broken is the Senate?" The New Yorker, 8/9/10)
 
A new rule for earmarks
 
The House of Representatives recently prohibited earmarks to benefit profit-making companies "because their requests...tended to be more questionable than those sought by nonprofit groups, which include charities, local governments and educational institutions." Earmarks are add-ons to bills that usually have little or nothing to with the purpose of the bill. An example:
 
Representative Marcy Kaptur (D, OH) recently included in a House bill a $10.4 million earmark to sell metal spheres for body armor—even though the Defense Department has little interest in this item. The money will go to the Great Lakes Research Center, a nonprofit organization set up to get around the House ban; it specializes in the kind of work done by a small Ohio defense contracting firm. The nonprofit was created by Victoria Kurtz, the firm's marketing vice president. (Eric Lipton and Ron Nixon, "Companies Find Ways to Bypass Ban on Earmarks," New York Times, 7/4/10)
 
A February report of the House ethics committee (made up of five Democrats and five Republicans) concluded: "Simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not, on those two facts alone, support a claim that a member's actions are being influenced by campaign contributors."
 
In an interview, Representative Jeff Flake (D, AZ), a longtime critic of earmarks, said, "This will embolden members. In essence, unless you're caught on the phone with a lobbyist saying 'Contribute or else you don't get an earmark,' then you're fine. That's the clear message here." (Eric Lichtblau, "Earmarks Abuse Feared After Ethics Panel Ruling," New York Times, 3/5/10)
 
Defense spending and campaign contributions
 
Corporations have financed university endowments for a number of current officeholders.For instance, the New York Times reported, an endowment at the University of Louisville intended as a tribute to Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell (the Republican minority leader) received hundreds of thousands in contributions from a military contractor. This contractor later got a $12 million earmark sponsored by Senator McConnell. A McConnell spokesman said the earmark had nothing to do with the donation. (Eric Lipton, "Lawmakers Linked to Centers Endowed by Corporate Money," New York Times, 8/6/10)
 
Lockheed Martin and other military contractors, worried that Congress will cut their contracts, have jacked up their political spending to both Democrats and Republicans. The Lockheed Political Action Committee "has maxed out its contributions to Reps. Ike Skelton (D, MO), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; Buck McKeon (R, CA), Armed Service's ranking member; Patrick Murphy (D, PA), a new member of the House Appropriations Committee;..." As of July, Lockheed had already contributed $2,352,950 to these and other lawmakers as well as party committees, reports The Hill.
 
"Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, said that there is an expectation from lawmakers that companies and their affiliated interests 'pony up" the campaign contributions. She added that history has already proven that the Washington strategy based on campaign contributions and lobbying 'offers a fantastic return on investment for those who play the game.'" (Roxana Tiron, "Defense Industry PACs Hike Giving," www.thehill.com, whose sources are the Center for Responsive Politics and CQ MoneyLine)
 
 
For discussion
 
What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
 
For inquiry
 
Students might research one of three current Congressional ethics investigations—of Rep. Charles Rangel (D, NY); Rep. Maxine Waters (D, CA); and Senator John Ensign (R, NV). Two government websites are useful: the Committee on Ethics (ethics.house.gov/) and the Office of Congressional Ethics (www.oce.house.gov)
 
Students might also inquire into public funding for elections. Two nonpartisan groups supporting campaign finance reform are: Public Citizen (www.citizen.org) and Common Cause (www.commoncause.org).
 
 

Student Reading 2: 

Oil addiction, tax deductions, the revolving door, lobbying

Oil addiction and tax deductions
 
"America is addicted to oil," said President Bush in his State of the Union address on January 31, 2006. "Oil addiction" became a widely used, catchy phrase.
 
But the addiction—and government support for the oil industry—continues despite all the talk. Every year, oil companies receive some $4 billion in federal tax deductions that include their expenses for searching for oil, renting land, drilling expenses, well depletion, and special methods to extract oil that requires special techniques. They also receive government subsidies for extracting oil for products made in the U.S. and for oil produced from certain types of wells, such as those producing heavy oil.
 
President Obama's 2011 budget would slash all of these, which would save the federal government about $45 billion during the next ten years—if Congress approves the cuts. (Sima J. Gandhi, "Eliminating Tax Subsidies for Oil Companies," www.americanprogress.org, 5/13/10)
 
Oil industry campaign contributions may affect Congress's decision. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, "BP spent more than $3.5 million (on lobbying) in just the first three months of 2010...and nearly $16 million in 2009. All told, BP has spent nearly $61 million on lobbying the federal government since 1999." (www.opensecrets.org)
 
Oil companies argue that the federal tax breaks "are vital to robust domestic production and that both investment and employment would fall if they were eliminated. These arguments, which may have made sense years ago, are much less compelling when oil prices are hovering near $80 a barrel and oil companies—including BP—have been racking up huge profits." (New York Times editorial, 7/11/10)
 
Before the April 20, 2010, disaster that sent oil gushing into the Gulf, BP's profits for January-March of this year doubled from the same period in 2009 to $6.1 billion.
 
The revolving door
 
A Washington Post analysis found that three of every four lobbyists who represent oil and gas companies passed through what has become known as "the revolving door": After working in the federal government, they exited to work for oil and gas companies.
 
The revolving door is an entrenched feature of the U.S. government. Often, after years of government service, an aide, official, or legislator leaves the government for a job in industry. It may be the same industry over which the employee once had regulatory responsibilities. Now they are in a position to enlist their friends and contacts in government to help their new employer.
 
The Post investigation found that the lobbyists oil and gas companies hired "include 18 former members of Congress and dozens of former presidential appointees. For other senior management positions, the industry employs two former directors of the Minerals Management Service, the since-renamed agency that regulates the industry, and several top officials from the Bush White House. Federal inspectors once assigned to monitor oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico have landed jobs with the companies they regulated."
 
Lobbying
 
The oil industry has more than 600 lobbyists working for it in Washington. These lobbyists get results. "Proposals to enact new restrictions or curb oil use have stalled amid concerted Republican opposition and strong objections from Democrats in oil-producing states," write Dan Eggen and Kimberly Kindy in the Washington Post.
 
"The Post analysis found that BP and other companies involved in the gulf disaster employ as lobbyists more than three dozen former lawmakers, congressional staffers and bureaucrats. BP alone has hired at least 31 internal and external lobbyists with government experience, records show..." (www.washingtonpost.com, 7/22/10)
 
Lobbying government officials is a huge business. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks such matters, calculated that in 2008, $3.3 billion was spent on lobbying; in 2009, that figure increased to about $3.47 billion. (www.opensecrets.org
 
 
For discussion
 
What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
 

After students have completed their inquiries and reports, the class might discuss the following.
 
1. What do students think they have learned about an inquiry process? 
 
2. What problems have they confronted? How did they respond to each? What lessons do they think they have learned? 
 
3. What specific ideas do they have for improving their inquiry work next time?
 
4. What are the effects on our political process and government of constant campaign fundraising, lobbying, earmarking, revolving dooring, and special interest spending of huge amounts to influence lawmakers? What evidence supports your answer?
 
5. What do students think they have learned about money in politics? What questions do they still have? How might they be answered?
 
See "Teaching Social Responsibility" in the high school section of TeachableMoment for suggestions on engaging students as citizens, inside and outside their school.
 
 
 
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org