Hillary Clinton has been an international celebrity for a quarter-century, and since Bill Clinton left office, the two of them have monetized their worldwide renown to a mind-boggling extent. In her last official filing for the State Department, Clinton listed her net worth as between $5 and
$25 million. Last year, Bloomberg News reported that she earned at least $12 million in her first 16 months after leaving public office.
Yet Clinton wants to be the “champion” of “everyday Americans.” How on earth can she pull off that trick?
One pitch is identity politics: Women should vote for Clinton because she is a woman. Another is class warfare; Clinton is already talking about “toppling” the 1 percent, whatever that means. But in addition, expect campaign finance reform to be a constant theme of her campaign, especially an attack on Citizens United.
That is the 2010 Supreme Court decision lifting restrictions on independent campaign expenditures by outside groups. In Iowa earlier this month, Clinton said she wanted “to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment.”
Conservatives are wont to scoff at this pledge, especially considering just how unseemly the financing of Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign was, not to mention the unapologetic courting of donations from foreign governments by the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. Nevertheless, it behooves the right to take seriously the left’s complaint about the corrupting influence of money in politics.
Money does corrupt our political process when it serves as the medium for untoward transactions between politicians and interests. The politician uses his public authority to aid some private faction, which in turn confers a private benefit upon the pol or his allies. The benefit can take innumerable forms. It might be a campaign contribution, information, the promise of a job after politics, a contribution to a politician’s charity, and so on. The limits on direct contributions to a candidate’s campaign are fairly strict: Last year, individuals could give up to $2,600 per candidate per election, while political action committees were limited to $5,000. There are lots of ways around these limits, such as charitable contributions (a Clinton specialty) and bundling of donations from people with similar agendas. Indeed, these donations are best understood as the foundation for a much larger architecture of favoritism and influence-peddling that should be of concern to citizens whatever their political views.
That said, complaints about Citizens United itself are mostly a red herring. True, the decision allows unlimited spending, but coordination between outside groups and candidates is forbidden. Also, the advocacy takes place entirely in the public square. All of this limits the ability of such money to buy influence.
Suppose a billionaire wants a certain policy enacted and hopes to influence a politician. Under Citizens United, while he can spend as much as he likes, he cannot tell the politician directly how much he intends to spend, how he will spend it, or why he is spending it. Moreover, since he wants to use this money to buy influence, he will have to spend an extraordinary sum in order to claim credibly that his effort made the difference between victory and defeat. As multiple groups on both sides join the fray, the cost of the race goes up, so he must spend even more in order to take credit for a win. And, of course, the candidate might lose. Even if the candidate wins, the billionaire still has to hope that, once in office, he will actually aid the cause. The politician could very well “cheat” on the agreement, especially if the constituents back home oppose the policy. And even if the politician does not cheat, there is no guarantee that the policy will ever become law. After all, the whole effort was dedicated to securing a single vote in Congress.
At best, this is a terribly inefficient way to influence public policy. There are much easier ways to buy a piece of the government. Such methods have been fine-tuned over decades—long before unlimited independent expenditures were allowed. In fact, the biggest donors since Citizens United—the Koch Brothers on the right and Tom Steyer on the left—come across more as patricians than influence-peddlers. They are citizens with an ideological and partisan vision of the good life who choose to promote their public-spirited agenda with their