As Donald Trump's brazenly chaotic and exhausting presidency comes to an end, he leaves behind this fundamental question:
Did his relentless attacks on our democracy make its festering problems even more malignant than he found them? Or did his unstoppable assault on civic institutions and governing norms succeed in highlighting the system's fragility while also tempering its resilience?
The nation's collective behavior in the years ahead will determine whether American democracy's metaphorical glass has been irreparably emptied or has a sufficient reservoir for survival. For now, the 45th president's infuriated yielding of power on Wednesday allows for a quick countdown of seven ways he rattled the republic the most. Such inventories are a necessary first step for those dedicated to fixing the system — so the next four years under Joe Biden don't come close to replicating the stress and anxiety of the Trump era.
7. He exposed the limits of governing without experience.
Ron Galella/Getty Images
Commander-in-chief is the only position of public trust Trump ever sought — or held. A real estate promoter and reality television star, he had never so much as served on a small-town zoning board until Jan. 20, 2017. All of his 44 predecessors had been leaders in federal or state government: governors, members of Congress, generals or Cabinet secretaries.
Fans saw his unique measure of inexperience as a badge or honor for the ultimate outsider committed to dismantling business as usual. But skeptics worried his total lack of familiarity with how governments operate, both mechanically and ethically, would be a debilitating if not dangerous liability.
At the start, much of Trump's norm-busting behavior and disregard for the rule of law came off as a form of willful ignorance that was a part of his unique brand of political theatrics.
But even Republican allies soon found themselves ascribing his most perplexing and outrageous conduct to someone "still growing" into the presidency's awesome requirements and limits. It was an excuse many kept citing almost to an end marked by his mismanagement of a crippling pandemic and the violence that flowed from his refusal to accept defeat. Those miseries, fueled by his inabilities on the job, will be more prominent parts of his legacy than the achievements for which he claims credit: installing three Supreme Court justices and 54 appeals court judges, pushing a substantial tax cut through Congress, and engineering expansive business and environmental deregulation.
6. He propelled political spending to unseen heights.
President Trump attends a 2018 fundraiser in South Dakota.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images
Trump claimed the White House in the second presidential election after the Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United decision effectively unlocked the last meaningful shackles impeding the flow of money in politics. He claimed to have spent $66 million of his own money, smashing the record for self-funding by a national candidate, and the grand total for candidate and outside group spending on presidential and congressional races topped $7 billion for the first time.
Four years later, those numbers seem almost quaint. The enormous potential business consequences from Trump's reelection or defeat combined with the political passions of millions of Americans — at all income levels and all along the ideological spectrum — pushed the campaign finance system into overdrive.
Two billionaires, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, each tapped many multiples of their fortunes more than Trump but gave up near the Democratic primary's starting gate.
More importantly, spending on all federal elections more than doubled, cresting $14 billion for 2020 — the size of West Virginia's budget, Instagram's revenue and Amazon's projected profit for the year. That was because small-dollar donations, contributions by business super PACs, and money from outside groups backed by billionaire donors and closely tied "dark money" groups all went through the roof.
Trump did not single handedly cause the cavalcade of cash, but neither did he make any effort to slow it or assure its minimal regulation was carried out. Most seats on the already weakened and gridlocked Federal Election Commission were kept vacant until the end of his presidency. Only at that point came Trump's unintended but potentially biggest contribution to the cause of campaign finance reform: the wave of companies closing their checkbooks indefinitely to Republicans who backed Trump's effort to overturn the election.
5. He toppled the boundaries of civil discourse.
The presidential bully pulpit has the ability to shape the national conversion, and Trump did so with a tone that was consistently hyperbolic, defiant, uncompromising — and largely free of facts. Civic educators, parents and politicians all agree his rhetorical legacy is making it more difficult for Americans to bridge their differences through conversation.
His pronouncements bore all the hallmarks of demagogues and autocrats, focused on delegitimizing all criticism and maintaining the allegiance of his loyalists. And his refusal to reflect subtlety or countenance compromise had a profound effect on magnifying the polarization of politics. Nuance is almost impossible in 280 characters, a point Trump underscored in the more than 60,000 tweets and retweets before both Twitter and Facebook locked him out this month. But in short bursts or meandering ramblings at rallies, Trump made little time for the truth: Fact checkers have come up with 30,000 as the consensus total of his presidential lies and falsehoods.
The only oddly saving grace was that his social media addiction and love of speechmaking produced a new sort of government transparency. Salted amid all the disinformation was a steady diet of policy pronouncements, personnel moves, shifting views and flat reversals — along with stream-of-consciousness insights into the complex mindset of the world's most powerful person.
4. He succeeded in expanding the swamp he vowed to empty.
President Trump plays a round of golf at his Virginia course in November.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
If one aspect of Trump's 2016 candidacy made democracy reformers happy, it was his repeated vow to "drain the swamp." But his disregard for that campaign pledge went way beyond shelving his own plans for tightening lobbying regulation, limiting campaign donations from foreign companies and setting congressional term limits.
Instead, he personally led an unprecedented presidential enhancement of influence for well-heeled private interests — starting with his own. The rasher of pardons at the end of his term, larded with clemency for his own political allies and favor-doers, was only the final example after four years of special and sometimes lucrative treatment for the people and institutions in his familial, financial, social and political orbits.
The government was compelled to spend millions at Trump's properties — the golf courses where he played most weekends, the D.C. hotel that became a de facto Oval Office waiting room, the Florida resort he made his weekend White House and the hotels around the world where his family stayed. His eponymous real estate business kept pursuing deals with both American allies and adversaries. He sidestepped anti-nepotism rules so his son-in-law Jared Kushner could have a top West Wing post. He used his office to promote companies run by supporters and to steer federal contracts and other government business to allies.
Beyond that, he named former lobbyists and corporate executives to jobs with oversight of the industries of their former clients, and four of "only the best people" in his original Cabinet were forced out under ethical clouds. He went to the Supreme Court to preserve, at least for his time in office, his distinction as the first president since the 1970s to keep his tax returns a secret.
Finally, on his last night in the Oval Office, he revoked an executive order, signed days after he took office, that had stopped his appointees' from spinning through the revolving door to lobby for five years after leaving the administration.
3. He sought to obliterate the balance of power.
President Trump meets with Democratic congressional leaders in December 2018.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
While intermittently attacking the independence of the federal judiciary, and more frequently the integrity and importance of a free press, Trump has reserved a special measure of substantive scorn for the powers and prerogatives of Congress. And the legislative branch — mostly under the control of Republicans the past four years and dysfunctional to the point of paralysis in any case — has essentially permitted itself to get bowled over by all the stiff arms.
All presidents have sought to recalibrate the system of checks and balances to the favor of executive power and the disadvantage of those who write the laws and conduct government oversight. But Trump stands out as the most aggressive and assertive in modern times. He invoked rarely used emergency powers to execute plans (construction of his border wall, most famously) that Congress explicitly rejected. He used money Congress appropriated for specific projects and spent it instead on proposals lawmakers rebuffed. He threatened government whistleblowers who revealed untoward administration behavior and dismissed inspectors general who did likewise, violating rules designed to protect their honesty and independence.
Most notably, perhaps, he consistently ordered his administration to slow-walk, challenge in court or flatly ignore congressional subpoenas — on matters ranging from the bureaucratically arcane to the underpinnings of Trump's first impeachment.
The silver lining here is that Democrats newly in charge on Capitol Hill have prepared a comprehensive package to realign the balance of power, even with Biden in the White House. And because the new president is a Democrat (and their own authority is on the line), Republicans may be willing to give the package a bipartisan stamp of approval.
2. He sowed unmatched distrust in the electoral system.
No other president has done so much to incubate distrust in the elemental acts of American democracy — the casting and tabulating of ballots for public office.
But the public consciousness is now saturated with Trump's more recent and even more insidious unprecedented assault on democracy, working to reverse the election he lost even to the point of fomenting a mob attack on the Capitol. And so his remarkable effort to undermine the electorate's faith in the security and reliability of voting has slipped to secondary consequence.
That campaign began seven months before Election Day, perversely a part of his effort to simultaneously leverage and downplay national anxiety about how the burgeoning coronavirus was going to upend every aspect of American life.
"Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they're cheaters," he told reporters at a briefing April 7. "There's a lot of dishonesty going along with mail-in voting."
It was the first of more than 150 false or misleading claims, catalogued by the Washington Post during the campaign, concerning fraudulent ballots or the alleged dangers of absentee voting — inconsistently focused on states that proactively deliver vote-by-mail packets to all registered voters. And that does not include the burst of wholly inaccurate claims in the summer that he had the power to postpone the election if he decided unilaterally it was not going to be on the up-and-up.
The crusade ended up backfiring. Either because of political pressure or as a consequence of the most litigated election ever, two-thirds of states made it easier to cast a ballot in 2020, mostly by making it easier to vote by mail. By highlighting the states' control and other aspects of the election system that generally get overlooked, Trump ended up ensuring the public was better informed than ever about voting mechanics.
That, and Trump's polarizing nature, prompted 67 percent of those eligible to cast a ballot — the highest turnout in 120 years. Two-fifths of the votes came in envelopes, up from one-quarter in the previous two elections. There was no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities, prompting Trump's own administration to declare it the most secure election in history. And, ultimately, the president's own strategy worked decisively against him by producing a "red mirage" on election night: His dominance of that day's volume at the polls disappeared when mailed votes were counted and went decisively for Biden, the candidate who did not declare them untrustworthy.
1. He fomented an insurrection against his government.
President Trump rallies his supporters before they storm the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
No other president has been impeached twice, and Trump would not have been — and just a week before leaving office — but for the shocking seriousness and palpable validity of the alleged offense. The Senate will soon try him on the House's charge of "inciting violence against the government of the United States" in his quest to overturn Biden's election.
Whether formally convicted or not, and then barred from seeking the presidency again, on his last full day in office he heard Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell affix the blame for the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. "The mob was fed lies," he said. "They were provoked by the president."
The damage and injury wrought by the thousands of violent insurrectionists who heard his rhetoric that day as a call to arms, to disrupt the tabulating of the Electoral College results that sealed his defeat, will almost certainly stand as the most tangible evidence of his assault-on-democracy-itself legacy. The memory has been lastingly seared on the global consciousness.
The riot was quelled and the election result was finalized — albeit with two out of three House Republicans, and one in six GOP senators, voting with the ousted president and against the election that ousted him.
So does Wednesday's inauguration — a peaceful transfer of power, perhaps, only because 25,000 troops are belatedly standing guard — mean democracy has survived or only that its fragility has been magnified? Are the politicians' fresh declarations after the riot — "This is not who we are" because "We are better than this" — viable exhortations for a recommitment to longstanding virtues or only naive bromides about a past that has rarely been as venerable as described?
Probably it means the system has proved itself both resilient and more threadbare than ever before.
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Earlier this year, I tried to explain to Congress how today's special-interest-controlled pay-to-play campaign finance system is hostile to the conservative agenda.
It puts Republicans at an electoral disadvantage, I testified. It floods swing races with torrents of out-of-state negative advertising dollars. It guts federalism and the 10th Amendment. Crony capitalism now dominates our economy. Alarming to conservatives, young voters subjected to this rigged and corrupt economic system prefer socialism over free markets.
Support for campaign finance reform in Congress remains nonetheless deeply partisan. But what may finally compel conservatives to action is the grave threat to national security posed by the status quo.
Pay-to-play crony capitalism is much more profitable than the rough-and-tumble, generally incremental gains of market competition. Companies can generate a stunning 760-to-1 return on lobbying and campaign contributions in the form of no-bid supply contracts, regulatory favors, loan guarantees, bailouts and tax loopholes. Monopolies and market concentration are up. Innovation and new business startups are down. This is why we have the world's highest drug prices, way too many broadband and cellular dead zones and ethanol in our gasoline.
National security cannot be walled off from our corrupt and corrupting political money system.
Crony capitalism is why we have failed weapons systems like the trillion dollar fleet of F-35 fighters, the $30 billion Littoral Combat Ship and $85 billion in redundant ground-based nuclear weapons. All are designed more to spread pork and campaign money into almost every congressional district than to enhance our defense.
It has also been made weaker by the industrial concentration wrought by crony capitalism. The Center for Strategic and International Studies found there was no "effective competition" for more than half of military procurement four years ago — and only one viable recipient for 80 percent of the aircraft dollars. And the big five suppliers — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics — are claiming most new contracts, leaving competition "at extremely low levels."
Under "crony cap," in other words, weapons makers have militarized American foreign policy to grow revenue — and the result is a more destabilized world. Since 9/11, with crony cap military policy in full flower, the United States has engaged in a series of quagmire wars lacking defined missions or exit strategies. We have lost every one.
Today, we are flying military drones in the airspace of 17 nations and dropping bombs on seven. Silenced into submission by rivers of campaign money from the weapons industry, revolving door sinecures and a fog of think tank opinion-shaping, Congress has abandoned its non-delegable and sole constitutional authority to declare war. This summer, a bipartisan House Armed Services Committee majority memorialized its neutering of Article I, Section 8, voting to kill a measure to block war against Iran without congressional approval.
Republicans in Congress have ceased even pretending to be fiscal conservatives. The $1.2 trillion spent in the past year on national security got just added to our nation's record-shattering credit card balance. Our economy is only temporarily being insulated by the Federal Reserve's easy money policy. Most of the cost of this debt accretion and monetary distortion is dumped on our kids and grandkids. Of the world's 25 economically "advanced" nations, the United States has by far the largest national debt growth forecast. It's gotten so bad we are fast approaching a time when the U.S. dollar will lose its status as the world's reserve currency. Admiral Mike Mullen, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, ranks this credit-card patriotism as the single greatest threat to our national security.
Most unbearable, though, is the abuse of our armed forces by crony-driven military policy. During this generation of failed wars without defensible security objectives, our troops and their families have suffered over 300,000 deaths and injuries and record rates of active-duty suicide and PTSD. But most policy-makers are insulated from this suffering because neither they nor their family members have worn a uniform.
Money-equals-speech conservatives must confront yet another threat to national security. Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the door to unlimited campaign spending, and McDonnell v. U.S., which legalized most quid pro quo public corruption, have eliminated most of the guardrails in the political money system that Congress and states raised in the previous century in the wake of intolerable corruption.
The hawkish Alliance for Securing Democracy has issued a report cataloguing how Iran, China and Russia use our loophole-ridden system against us to influence our elections and foreign and military policies.
Our overseas enemies use unrestricted money to finance online political ads and web publishers. These hostile acts are concealed using in-kind contributions, favorable terms on loans from state-controlled banks, untraceable shell companies, American subsidiaries of foreign companies, nonprofit organizations, think tanks and "dark money" political groups. It's also likely software-based bots are pouring millions of untraceable cash into campaigns through straw donors giving $200 or less, the cutoff for remaining anonymous.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Sarah Chayes makes the case that all this "weaponized corruption" is possible only because we soiled our own nest first — by allowing domestic crony capitalists to corrupt our political money system.
The solution is reform so candidates and elected officials are motivated to serve citizens rather than big businesses and our adversaries. Foremost among these reforms is to amend our Constitution to restore power to Congress and the states to impose reasonable limits on campaign money. Conservatives must confront the reality that our corrupt campaign finance system is dangerously weakening our ability to protect ourselves from foreign enemies.
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Since New Mexico enacted a new disclosure law last year, more than $800,000 in political spending has been publicly reported by nonprofit groups that in the past would have remained largely hidden.
It's a change that Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver calls "a huge victory." But Austin Graham of the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for tighter regulation of money in politics, is more reserved: "What's on the books in New Mexico is not the most cutting edge, but it's undoubtedly a big improvement from the last decade."
The New Mexico experience illustrates that improving the transparency of how campaigns are financed can be done, but making progress often requires incremental steps that take a lot of time. What has happened in New Mexico is an example of what states across the country must grapple with when they seek to slow the influence of money over their own politics, at a time when federal regulation of presidential and congressional elections has shriveled.
An ocean of money still floats through the state's elections while remaining out of public view — it's spent on mailers and advertising that blanket television, radio and social media as elections near — because the new law didn't strengthen donor disclosure requirements for political action committees.
More than $4.8 million in spending on campaigns across the state this year came from PACs whose donations are very difficult if not impossible to trace to their original source, according to an analysis by New Mexico In Depth and The Fulcrum. That's because their donors often are nonprofit groups or other PACs, so the only way to learn where the money originally came from is to find out the contributors to those other groups.
Finding out who gives to nonprofit organizations — so-called "dark money groups" — can be next to impossible, because for the most part they aren't required to identify their own donors.
But identifying who is giving to groups registered as political action committees in Santa Fe is difficult, too, it turns out. Sifting and sorting through multiple layers of public reports that PACs must file might lead to original sources of their money, but more often it comes to a dead end.
Welcome to the world of "gray money" — when PACs give to other PACs.
One salient example in New Mexico this year was the almost $1 million spent by two groups to promote a ballot measure, passed with 56 percent support, that will make the state's Public Regulation Commission an appointed rather than elected body. The Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers reported spending $269,000 but didn't disclose its donors. Vote Yes to Reform the New Mexico PRC spent $689,600 and reported that its donors were five other groups — one based in New Mexico and the others in Washington, D.C., or New York.
Creating a system with far greater transparency about who's seeking to influence elections may be daunting, but other states have done it and offer models for drawing back the curtain on political giving. Several campaign finance experts point to California in particular. For nearly five decades, its robust campaign finance system has been successful in promoting transparency in one of the largest political spending markets in the country.
Awash in gray as well as dark money
Since the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC lifted restraints a decade ago on political money spent independently of candidates, secretive spending has only become more entrenched in American elections. The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal public policy institute at New York University Law School, found that just four years after the decision, only 29 percent of outside spending in state races across the country was transparent — plummeting from 76 percent four years before the ruling.
In a 2016 report, the center described dark and gray money as especially harmful in state elections because special interests can spend far less than they would at the federal level and still have a substantial influence on the outcome.
"For candidates used to modest budgets and low-key campaigning, dark money can prove an unfair and expensive obstacle, possibly discouraging potential candidates from deciding to compete," it concluded.
Six years ago, two-thirds of contributions to political committees nationally came from other PACs. And such gray money has only become more pervasive in state and local elections since, said Chisun Lee, one of the authors of the Brennan report.
"Gray money is a convenient and too often legal way to conceal the identity of the true giver of the money for political spending," she said. "Why wouldn't political donors take that route if they're able?"
New Mexico In Depth analyzed every contribution made to a political action committee in the state during the 2018 and 2020 campaigns, focusing on transactions of $500 or more. Based on these contributions, we identified 11 funded mostly with dark money from nonprofits and 25 that received most contributions with gray money from other PACs. All together, these PACs spent almost $13 million over the last two elections, roughly a third of all PAC expenditures in the state.
The biggest of them, the Verde Voters Fund of Conservation Voters New Mexico, paid more than $2.5 million primarily to communications and political consulting firms. But the source of the cash that came from its largest donor, the League of Conservation Voters, is permitted to remain a mystery.
Perhaps most clearly emblematic of gray money, though, is a PAC called Better Future for New Mexico, which funneled $1.6 million to other PACs operating in the state. It reported raising $2.7 million, almost entirely from three nonprofits: State Victory Action, Grove Action Fund and Civic Participation Action Fund. Two of them don't have to report their donors, and they didn't.
California goes deep on disclosure
Had those contributions been given to groups in California for political activity, those groups would have likely had to file their own reports with that state. California is seen as a model for how other states could implement disclosure laws geared toward identifying the original source of campaign finance dollars.
Even though campaigning and lobbying in the nation's most populous state is a billion-dollar industry, Sacramento has kept dark and gray money spending at bay.
California requires groups to disclose the source of the money they use to influence elections, and goes a step further by requiring donors themselves to file reports if they give generously enough.
Groups involved in elections must report donors who give $100 or more for political purposes. But when such money doesn't account for a group's entire spending in an election, it must start identifying donors whose gifts weren't earmarked for political activity — starting with the most recent, until the total donated matches the total spent.
But what combats gray money secrecy in California the most is its major donor rule.
PACs taking a gift above $5,000 must notify those donors they might be required to file their own report with the state — which they have to do once their cumulative campaign donations top $10,000. And if those major donors, in turn, have raised money to fuel their political giving, they must register as a political committee under California law and send similar disclosure notices to their own generous donors. This process continues until all the original donors are identified.
Hiding behind a corporate identity is not allowed; the $10,000 threshold combines money from individuals and businesses or groups they control. And failure to disclose the "true source" of a campaign's money can be prosecuted by the state as money laundering.
Beyond the reporting requirements, California puts donor information in front of the public when they're confronted with a political ad — in print, on social media, or on TV or radio. In some cases, the "paid for by" messages must list the sponsor's three most generous donors at $50,000 or more.
Then there is the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. Established 46 years ago in response to the Watergate scandal, the bipartisan watchdog agency is independent from the state government.
Last year the panel responded to more than 14,200 phone and email inquiries, hosted 44 workshops about state campaign finance law and resolved almost 1,500 enforcement cases, including 343 settlements that produced almost $800,000 in fines. It also has the power to set new money-in-politics rules, including one that took effect in August requiring some businesses to name the person primarily responsible for approving political activity.
"While the amount of dollars spent is an issue for some people, our main concern is that the public gets to see where the money is coming from," said Jay Wierenga, a commission spokesperson.
Making change in New Mexico
Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico's chief elections official as secretary of state, said she supports further bolstering of the state's campaign finance disclosures because it's important information for the public is making voting decisions. "It's something that I absolutely will be talking to our legislators about as we prepare for the next legislative session," she said.
The 2021 session of the Democratic-majority Legislature convenes in January for its regular annual session. But Toulouse Oliver expressed trepidation, saying she didn't want to see New Mexico's laws voided by the courts again, after a decade during which the state's Campaign Reporting Act was unenforceable. And she said a push for new rules would likely be an uphill effort.
"It's something that I anticipate having a lot of pushback on from every entity or organization that does this kind of political activity, because it will mean that they have to dedicate more resources to keeping their books straight in terms of where the money is coming from," she said.
Both the Brennan Center report and New Mexico reform advocates point to evidence the public wants greater disclosure. In a poll last year by the Campaign Legal Center, 85 percent of Democrats and 81 percent of Republicans supported changing the rules to require public disclosure of contributions to all organizations that spend money on elections — effectively ending the world of dark money. And a poll last year by Common Cause New Mexico found 94 percent support statewide for enhancing campaign finance disclosures.
But the Brennan Center report also warns that states should set reasonable parameters and not make disclosure laws unduly burdensome on the free speech rights of political groups or their benefactors.
"The idea is not to force transparency against everyone and their neighbor who is participating, but rather common-sense disclosure laws so voters can be informed about substantial donors and who is influencing public discourse," said Lee of the Brennan Center.
One possible reason that reforming New Mexico campaign finance law has taken so long is that citizen-initiated ballot measures are not allowed — so changing the rules is up to legislators, for whom ease in raising campaign money is top of mind.
Dede Feldman, who retired after 16 years as a Democratic state senator, during which she championed a law imposing campaign contribution limits, said the possibility of changing such rules presents legislators with a tough choice: Protect themselves and their odds of getting re-elected or do what's best for the public?
"When you come to power with one system, you are reluctant to give that up," she said.
Metzger is a reporting fellow at New Mexico In Depth. This story was written and edited in collaboration with that nonprofit news site.
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Clements is the president of American Promise, which advocates for amending the Constitution to allow more federal and state regulation of money in politics. He was previously an assistant Massachusetts attorney general.
A federal grand jury has indicted the Republican speaker of the Ohio House in a $60 million bribery scheme. Meanwhile in Illinois, the Democratic speaker of the House has been implicated in a multimillion-dollar pay-to-play corruption scheme. Different parties, same game.
This latest Midwest swamp fest has all the features of American campaigns today: super PACs funded by a few corporate interests; dark money front groups; politicians strong-arming business people who need legislation; legislators who don't "go along" getting pushed aside; a revolving door between politicians and lobbyists; false attack ads and propaganda; crony capitalism; and utter contempt for the voters and taxpayers who get stuck with the bill.
In 2016, electric utility company First Energy had two failing nuclear power plants in Ohio. Company executives considered what they called a "legislative solution" — what the rest of us would call a "bailout."
Meanwhile, Householder wanted to make a comeback from an earlier scandal and reclaim the gavel he'd wielded in Columbus two decades earlier. In January 2017 he visited with First Energy. After a trip on the company's private jet, the deal was done.
Householder, his aides and lobbyists set up Generation Now, a tax-exempt organization (under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code) "to promote energy independence and economic development."
First Energy began making millions of dollars in "contributions" to Generation Now — and it started funding the campaigns of Householder and the legislators who then gave him the votes to be House speaker again.
Householder then introduced a bill to have Ohio ratepayers send an additional $1.3 billion to First Energy, keeping the nuclear plants open. In the face of balking legislators, First Energy ran millions of dollars more through Generation Now for "pressure campaigns" against wavering legislators. It worked: The bailout passed in two months.
Outraged and unhappy voters in Ohio responded by collecting 265,000 signatures to force a ballot referendum to repeal the bailout. At which point Generation Now and other front groups funneled $38 million from First Energy into misleading ads and tactics — defeating the ballot measure and keeping the bailout.
The bottom line: First Energy successfully turned a $60 million investment in campaigns into $1.3 billion in assured revenue at Ohians' expense.
In many ways, it's just another normal tale about the sway cash has over politics in recent decades, since the Supreme Court struck down multiple state and federal campaign finance laws using a new theory of money as speech protected by the First Amendment.
What is most surprising, perhaps, is that any investigation or indictments happened at all. It's true Householder and his allies got sloppy and greedy. They used some of the money for personal gain. They failed to comply with farcical non-coordination rules that magically transform dark money into "independent" free speech. So the indictments may well be rock-solid.
But this humiliation of American democracy in Ohio has all of the everyday features of our broken political system.
When reporters and analysts pressed the utility about the alleged bribery scheme, a "perturbed" CEO Chuck Jones insisted that the company acted "ethically." Complaining about the tone of the questions, Jones said, "It would be really nice if we get to actually talk about the great quarter we had."
In a sense, you can't blame him. Using a multimillion-dollar political spending scheme to secure subsidies, tax breaks and competitive advantage is common practice. It is not corruption or undue influence — it is "free speech." Using a "general welfare" nonprofit to hide the source of the money is not evasion of contribution limits — it is an "independent expenditure." A shake-down from, or a privileged back-door to, the speaker of the House is not corruption — it is "ingratiation" and "access."
Or so says the Supreme Court in decisions such as, most famously, Citizens United v. FEC a decade ago. That's why billions of dollars from corporations, unions, and extremely wealthy people flow into campaigns using the same mechanisms that were used in Ohio.
In the face of this systemic corruption, signs of reform and renewal are growing rapidly. Last year Americans named political corruption the No. 1 crisis facing our nation.
Millions across partisan lines have voted for a constitutional amendment to end unlimited election spending and secure free speech and representation for all. Other nonpartisan reforms such as ranked-choice voting, and end to partisan gerrymandering and full disclosure are gaining ground to put voters first.
This summer, a panel convened by the 200-year-old American Academy of Arts and Sciences completed a two-year study and 50 town halls with Americans around the nation. Its report, "Our Common Purpose," cites the "urgent threat to our democratic way of life" — and provides a detailed agenda for renewing the system by July 4, 2026, the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The indictments and investigations in Ohio and Illinois may well send a few people to jail. The question is whether the rest of us can muster the national will to fix the crime that is killing our national promise of equal rights, representation and government of we, the people.
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