Concern over the corrupting effect of money in politics is universal: Americans want a change.
But when Ohio’s congressional candidates were asked to address the public’s concern, there was an overwhelming silence. It’s the second time in two months that the majority of candidates for a federal office have not answered questions identified by the public as important.
The Ohio Media Project — a collaborative of broadcast, radio and print journalists — provided every Ohio Democrat and Republican running for Congress with the following Pew Research Center finding: “A large majority of Americans (76%) — including identical shares of Republicans and Democrats — say money has a greater role on politics than in the past. Moreover, large majorities of both Democrats (84%) and Republicans (72%) favor limiting the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on campaigns and issues.”
“Considering the historically high levels of angst among Americans, what solutions can you offer to ameliorate their concerns that money has corrupted politics and elections?” the media collaborative asked. “And what specifically can you do as a candidate or elected official to address this concern?”
All told, Democratic candidates were three times more likely than Republicans to respond.
Every Democratic, Republican, independent and Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate replied.
But most running for the U.S. House, especially those seeking to keep their jobs in Washington, ignored the question. Only four of the 15 House incumbents (three of them sitting Democrats) responded. These current lawmakers are subjected to campaign fund-raising quotas set by the powerful Republican National Congressional Committee or Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which collect the money to be spent in the most competitive races, few of which exist among Ohio’s gerrymandered congressional districts.
With the average cost of winning a House seat at $1.6 million and a Senate seat at $10.5 million, sitting lawmakers often begin collecting campaign donations in the first few months after taking office.
Some staffers, who work for House incumbents reluctant to answer the question, asked a reporter how the responses would be used before agreeing to pass the question along to their bosses. One press secretary, prodding for information, inquired about the response rate of lawmakers in nearby districts. A reporter asked why that would influence the decision to address an issue important to Americans. No answer came.
In March, when six presidential candidates were asked to address Ohio’s plunge over an economic cliff after 2000, only two did so by the deadline, and a third responded a day late.
Incumbent Senate Republican Rob Portman offered no solution: “I have no control over outside spending in this race… This is all part of campaigning in 2016.”
Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said he shares “the incredible frustration that Ohioans and Americans have about the role of money in politics. We should not allow the well-connected and ultra wealthy to hijack our democratic process and rig the system…”
Strickland drew a distinction between his support and Portman’s opposition to the DISCLOSE Act, “which would improve the reporting and disclosure of political spending in federal elections.” (DISCLOSE stands for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections.)
Strickland wants more transparency and searchability in the Federal Communications Commission’s public files for advertising expenditures. He supports the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, which would require electronic filing of Senate campaign finance documents as the House currently does. Portman has co-sponsored the act, introduced for a third time since 2011. The bill never leaves a committee.
Independent candidate Scott Rupert, a truck-driving, small-government constitutionalist who also ran in 2012, criticized the high cost of congressional races. “It is true,” he said. “Money has corrupted electoral politics … And I would argue that asking corrupt politicians to solve the problem of corruption in politics is somewhat silly.”
Candidate Joseph DeMare of the Green Party rejects corporate donations and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 to uncap them. “Money is not speech,” Demare said. “We will only take donations from actual human beings.”
Thomas Connors, another independent candidate who practices civil law in Canton, suggested that, instead of limiting free speech in a slippery slope that could cramp media and communications, small campaign donations (up to $500) should be exempt from disclosure and applied at the end of the year to reduce the donor’s federal tax bill. This, he said, would level the playing field between mega donors and everyday citizens.
A quiet House divided
Only 40 percent of House candidates responded.
Respondents included 63 percent of Democratic candidates and 19 percent of Republican.
Solutions, too, fell along party lines.
The only Republican incumbent to address the public’s concern, Rep. Steve Chabot, who represents suburban Cincinnati and Warren County, said he gets the people’s frustration, especially with the flood of ads in a presidential election year, “and it is not always clear who is paying for those commercials.”
The Supreme Court might not agree with a legislative fix, though. “That is what happened in Citizens United, and the result has been the increased spending we are seeing today,” he said.
Lawmakers could amend the U.S. Constitution, from which the high court bases its opinions. But “frankly, that doesn’t appear likely to happen anytime soon,” Chabot said of the tedious process of altering the country’s founding document.
Warren Davidson, running in ousted House Speaker John Boehner’s district, which surrounds Dayton on three sides, beat 14 Republicans in the most expensive U.S. House primary race in the nation. Club for Growth Action, a Super PAC, pumped $1.1 million into rural eastern Ohio airwaves to help Davidson to victory.
“Warren understands the concerns about this issue,” said Davidson spokesman Adam Hewitt. “The best cure for money in politics is transparency. … Further restricting contributions would be restricting free speech.”
Democratic challengers said big-money politics have priced many of them out of launching viable campaigns.
Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, representing parts of Summit and Portage counties, took issue with the rise of billionaire-class donors, like those that fed Club for Growth.
“Why should we be perpetuating a system in which millionaires and billionaires can single-handedly change the outcome of an American election?” he asked. “We cannot continue down this path of increasing disparity between who can participate in our democracy and to what extent. It is time we stand up as elected officials and do the right thing.”