NC’s US Senate race will show need for finance reform

March 1, 2014 

With every campaign season, the voices of special interests are ever more amplified by ever more money. It’s going to be very loud indeed in North Carolina in 2014 as Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan faces a tough re-election battle. The race here will possibly be the most expensive in the nation.

Hagan is a good money-raiser, and any number of PACs and individuals representing a broad number of self-interested industries have been happy to help. Pharmaceutical companies, concerned about the effect of changes in health care laws, banks, tech firms and mega-media companies like Comcast with mergers and potential mergers on the line want to be heard by lawmakers.

These special interests call their contributions not the purchase of influence but merely the way to “get a seat at the table.” That’s benign code for, “When our interests are involved, we want to make sure those whom we supported will listen to us.” Money talks, in other words.

Now, cash flows

It has always been so in politics, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United in 2010 has allowed corporate interests and unions to turn up the money pitcher and pour to their hearts’ content. And now independent groups, with unidentified donors, can spend whatever they want on advertising as long as they’re not endorsing a specific candidate. Their strategy instead is to create “issues ads” clearly attacking a candidate they don’t like.

For Hagan, all the loose rules on money mean that in addition to the Republican on the other side of the ballot, she’ll be up against Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that has so far spent more than $8 million in ads against her, notably critical of the Affordable Care Act, which she supported.

AFP is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, conservatives who oppose all things associated with President Obama. It’s all legal, though it represents a gaping hole in federal election law.

Hagan will get support from groups with anonymous donors, but many of the contributors she has drawn so far are public, special interests included. Transparency is helpful in terms of informing the public what those special interests are doing, and the truly interested voter can connect the dots between those contributions and legislation that might be proposed or pending.

Good steps

To her credit, Hagan has co-sponsored legislation requiring more disclosure rules for corporations, unions and other special interests. And Rep. David Price of North Carolina’s 4th District has sponsored a measure that would provide public funds to match those of small donors, up to $250, in presidential and congressional campaigns.

Americans are not naive. They know that the banks and the media companies and the drug industry aren’t kicking in purely out of patriotism. They’re investing in access, period. That seat at the table. The problem is that there are only so many seats, and as they fill up, average Americans wind up in the kitchen.

Because of the high cost of campaigning and getting name recognition, those average folks rarely stand a chance of running for office. That brings us a long way from “of, by and for the people” and the still-noble idea that members of Congress are public servants.

Better laws that would stand up against a Supreme Court challenge are part of the answer. But so is the public’s responsibility to pay attention to who is paying for what. When North Carolinians see all these ads bought by outsiders who are trying to defeat a senator they elected, they need to pay attention, to inform themselves, to go in that voting booth fully aware of the forces that tried to influence them.

The preservation of democracy, after all, begins at home.

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