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Evan Feeney’s Blog

Ceaseless Waves: The Erosion of the U.S. Electoral System

Evan Feeney

Posted April 7, 2014

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Exxon’s report from Monday, March 31st, “Energy and Carbon – Managing the Risks” flatly states, “We do not anticipate society being able to supplant traditional carbon-based forms of energy with other energy forms, such as renewables, to the extent needed to meet this carbon budget.”  And with the way our electoral system is deteriorating it is no wonder that they, among other fossil fuel companies, are so assured of that belief: Every rollback of campaign finance laws and suppression of the vote increases their stranglehold on our government, and increases their ability to prevent the action needed to meet the carbon budget.

This was underscored by Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling in the case of McCutcheon vs. FEC with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of McCutcheon (an Alabama Republican activist who has made his fortune as the CEO of a coal company). The ruling tore down the aggregate donation restriction established under the Federal Election Campaign Act. Going forward, donors like McCutcheon can donate up to $3.5 million directly to candidates per cycle, instead of the $123,000 cap that was previously established for the 2013 and 2014 cycle. (Note: Donors can only give up to $3.5 million directly to candidates because they can still only give $5,200 directly to each candidate. So if they give the maximum direct contribution to every candidate of one party, it would cost that donor $3.5 million.)

Demos no cap correct total difference.jpg

Photo credit: Demos. Between the 2014 and 2020 election cycles, fewer than 2,800 donors are expected to contribute more than $1 Billion in additional campaign contributions now that the aggregate limit has been removed.

In a political system already drowning in money – a situation made decidedly worse by the 2010 Citizens United case – this new ruling further opens avenues for mega-donors like the Koch brothers to gain an even tighter grip on our elected officials. They will use their wealth to ensure that pro-fossil fuel candidates continue to get elected; that candidates who oppose the National Environmental Policy Act, which allows the public to have a say in federal projects such as oil drilling on public lands, are elected; that climate denying candidates are elected; that candidates who support the fossil fuel industries’ multi-billion dollar subsidies are elected; and that candidates who oppose clean energy policies are elected.

This is why Exxon and other fossil fuel companies believe that governments will not be able to act to meet the carbon budget and seriously address climate change; because right now, they hold too many of the keys to elected office.

But even as the Supreme Court moved on Wednesday to remove even more limits on campaign donations, the public remains broadly supportive of reducing the role of money in politics. 8 in 10 Americans are in favor of keeping aggregate donation restrictions and more than 90% want elected officials to "reduce the influence of money in political elections." It is this broad public support that cuts across partisan lines that give us hope. If we can organize grassroots movements calling for public financing that levels the playing field and lifts up the voices of small donors, more and more Americans will demand initiatives that address runaway political financing. Together we will prove Exxon’s report wrong.

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AlexApr 7 2014 01:02 PM

Thank you for highlighting the link between misguided campaign finance rules and our continued inaction on climate change. If we're going to get at the root of this problem (among so many others), we have to stem the tide of influence that money has on our political process.

John LiffeeApr 7 2014 02:11 PM

I second that, Alex. It's heartening to see NRDC — a mainstream environmental group that historically has sought to win by playing within the system — beginning to recognize that it can't carry out its mission if that system is so thoroughly corrupted by money.

As Nobel-laureate economist Joe Stiglitz famously said, what we have is government of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%. And until that changes, there's no steering public policy in directions that threaten the interests of those plutocrats.

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