Opinions

Institutional corruption erodes representative government

Alaska Legislature, Capitol, Juneau

Should Alaska enforce its current law limiting contributions to SuperPACs on a par with limits on individual contributions to candidates’ campaigns?

The Alaska Public Offices Commission stopped enforcing that part of the law in 2012 in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, reasoning that since the political expenditures of SuperPACs are independent of candidate campaigns, they do not raise the prospect of corruption. Between 2008 and 2018, unregulated independent expenditures increased from 3% to 36% of campaign spending in our state, and two-thirds of this new money was from Outside donors. Including the ballot measures, independent expenditures for the 2020 election exceeded $23 million! This flood of big money into Alaska elections should alarm every Alaskan. We are sick and tired of Outside interests telling us how to run our affairs, and we are exhausted by the bombardment of negative ads and mailers. This is an issue for Alaskans across the political spectrum, conservatives and liberals alike. Big Union and Big Tech contributions are just as problematic as Big Oil or Koch Industries contributions.

Three Alaskan plaintiffs filed a legal challenge to APOC’s interpretation that is working its way through the courts; the case is now pending before the Alaska Supreme Court. What makes this iteration of the case particularly interesting is a novel interpretation of “corruption” under Constitutional law. Their legal team at Equal Citizens is advancing an “originalist” interpretation that should appeal to the most conservative wing of the U.S. Supreme Court. They argue that the founding fathers, in drafting the architecture of the US Constitution, were centrally concerned with protecting our new republic not just from bribery of individual elected officials, but especially from “institutional corruption” that erodes the connection between our elected representatives and the people that elect them. Institutional corruption “occurs when the institutions of our government — like the Congress or state legislatures — become overly dependent on a narrow class of citizens at the expense of the electorate at large.” The principle was eloquently stated by James Madison: Congress should be dependent “upon the people alone… (n)ot the rich more than the poor.”

I expect this resonates with Americans everywhere, as we all see the rich and powerful getting richer and more powerful. The vast majority of the growth in political contributions nationally between 2012 and 2016 was from the 400 biggest donors, who increased their contributions from $772 million to $1.3 billion: that’s an average of $3.25 million each. Research shows that politicians are more responsive to donors than to ordinary constituents. On average, members of Congress spend more than 20 hours a week fundraising, when they should be doing the work we sent them to do. Our Alaska members of Congress collect 55% to 85% of their campaign war chests from Outside donors.

But winning this one case in the state and federal Supreme Courts will not be enough to restore our democracy of by and for all the people. To reclaim our rights, we will need to overrule the U.S. Supreme Court in a whole string of decisions that have incrementally eroded the natural rights of citizens to self-govern. We can do this because it is up to us to decide and tell the courts what our Constitution will mean. We can do this by passing an Amendment to the Constitution that clarifies for the courts that money is not speech: We have delegated to our legislative bodies the authority to limit campaign contributions to promote political equality among citizens. Furthermore, SuperPACS and other artificial entities are not persons with natural rights under the Constitution: They are entities we have organized under state corporate codes to serve our various purposes, and they are subject to the limitations, privileges and protections we choose to grant them.

Alaskans already went on record in support of such an amendment when we passed Ballot Measure 2 last November, with its prohibitions on dark money; we are the 21st state to take similar action. The next step is for our delegation in Congress to sign on as cosponsors for the We the People Amendment. The Alaska Legislature can amplify our message by passing a state resolution of support.

The Alaska Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in APOC v. Patrick on Jan. 20.

Sharman Haley is an economist and retired professor of economics and public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is an active member of Alaska Move to Amend.

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