Campaign Finance: The Gateway Reform

By Russell King, 2L Staff Editor, Vermont Journal of Environmental Law

    Readers of this blog likely consider themselves environmentalists and are seeking environmental reform. The issues are effectively limitless: from restoring superfund to keeping coal ash out of our streams, from removing the petroleum industry’s categorical exemptions from NEPA to actually getting legislation to combat climate change. Consistently, politicians hostile to the environment—and hostile to anyone without great personal wealth—are elected. This leads to effectively limitless frustration for anyone seeking a healthier, cleaner environment (or any other issues that do not align with the interests of industry). Industry gets its way, and everyone else must fight tooth and nail for reform. There is another way; we do not have to keep fighting an uphill battle. This solution is campaign finance reform.

The Problem

The root of the problem is that running an effective campaign is astoundingly expensive. A candidate for the House of Representatives must raise about one million dollars to run a successful campaign. The Senate is even more expensive: candidates raised, on average, between six and eight million dollars. These are averages; there are outliers. Paul Ryan (R) raised $19 million. Senator Paul Toomey (R) raised $30 million. We cannot forget presidential races, of course. Presidential candidates raise around half a billion dollars in their quest for the Oval Office. These numbers do not include outside spending from PACs and individuals—these reflect only campaign contributions. Outside spending tacks on even more money. Large sums of money are not intrinsically problematic. It is the effect that this money has on elections and governing, and where this money comes from, that undermines environmental reform and protection.

First, the candidate that raises the most money usually wins—those who spend less and win are exceedingly rare. For example, in 2016, in only 12 of the 435 races for the House did the loser outspend the winner (and in most of those, by less than $200,000). In the 2016 Senate races, in only four races did the loser outspend the winner. Presidential campaigns (except for the most recent one) follow the same pattern—the winner raises and spends more than the loser. This money then spent on hiring staff, buying TV ads, and paying data collection and analysis firms to engineer an election. This is why candidates raise such enormous sums. Money buys the resources needed to win a campaign. Simply, money wins elections.

While the simple equation of “money equals victory” is worrisome, what is genuinely frightening is where this money comes from. These vast war chests do not come from the average, individual voter. Rather, 67.8% of it comes from large individual contributions, which are more than $200, and usually well above $200. There are not a whole lot of these donors, either—only 0.68% of adults give over $200, and only 0.1% give more than $2,700. Essentially, less than 1% of America funds most of these campaigns. This one half of one percent of America represents many of the interests opposed to environmental measures. For example, donors associated with Oil and Gas and the industry itself spent almost $60 million on campaigns and outside spending in 2016. (Unlike other stats used in this article, this one included super PAC spending.) What is more, these donations are partisan. Why do Republicans overwhelmingly oppose environmental protection and deny climate change? The top ten list of Republican donors by industry is essentially mining, oil and gas, and big agriculture. Oil and Gas alone spent more than $53 million out of its roughly $60 million total on Republican campaigns. What these stats tell us is simple: a few wealthy and powerful special interests fund our elections. Because politicians need so much money, and these interests have the money, only politicians that support industry can hope to win.

The Solutions

The problem is immense. Campaigns are expensive because the more money spent relative to the opponent, the more likely the candidate is to win. Only a few can and do contribute. Those that do contribute (especially to Republicans) represent interests opposed to environmental protection. Thus, if one seeks environmental protection and reform, there is a “gateway reform” needed first: campaign finance reform.

First, in the short term, play the game. Donate to causes and candidates that fight for the environment. As noted above, this may be too much to ask for some. It contributes to the problem, but “money equals victory” is the rule of the game. One cannot win a game if they do not play.

Second, support public financing. These are programs that provide public funds to candidates that forgo private donations. This insulates the candidate from needing to solicit funds from industry, and somewhat evens the playing field for candidates that industry opposes. Only a few states have these programs, so if you see it on the ballot (as an initiative or a progressive candidate), vote for it.

    Third, the above reforms will not address outside spending. In Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the Supreme Court decided that corporations are capable of having protected speech and that money is protected speech. (How much free speech is in your back account right now?) Thus, these special interests can influence elections so long as they do not coordinate directly with the campaign they support. Corporations, labor, and individuals can spend an unlimited amount of money through super PACs, and frequently outspend the campaigns of the candidates they support. This pernicious use of wealth to buy elections will likely require a constitutional amendment or a change in the court. The problem is serious, and the battle is not in our favor. But if we are to see any serious environmental reform, we first must take on the greatest barrier to political progress: campaign finance.