Following the money at the Lower Bucks Campus

Following the money at the Lower Bucks Campus

Anthony Dimattia, Centurion Staff

On April 3 the Lower Bucks campus in Bristol hosted “Follow the Money: Campaign Financing in American Politics,” an open panel discussion highlighting the hot button topic of campaign finance in America.

Organized by Bucks’ Department of Social and Behavior Science, the event was held to help bring awareness to the public of the extraordinary amounts of money candidates are raising for elections as well as who is funding them. With about 90 people in attendance ranging from students to local community members, the forum included opinions and facts from experts in the field of campaign finance.

“Campaign finance is a complicated issue, and there are no simple answers, but we have an obligation to heighten our understanding and share a dialogue on the topic,” said William Pezza, professor of social & behavioral science at Bucks.

The panel included speeches from Connie Borichevsky, co-president of the Bucks County League of Women Voters; James Browning, regional state director of Common Cause; Bill Brady, a former lobbyist for PECO and political action committees; and Jeff Garton, Esq., of the law firm Begley Carlin, who spoke about the United States Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission.

“As a citizen I would like to know how much money is out there and where it is going,” said Pezza, highlighting the general theme of the forum.

The key issue focused on by the panel was the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, which shielded corporations and unions under the First Amendment against any political expenditure restrictions.

As a result, campaigns have raised record donation numbers in recent elections, with much of the money being funneled to candidates indirectly through Political Action Committees (PAC) or Super PACs.

“I’ll believe that a corporation is a person when they execute one,” said Borichevsky sternly, referencing the Supreme Court’s ruling which essentially equated corporations to people.

Many argue that because of the influence of these committees and their ability to donate unlimited amounts to candidates, election outcomes may be swayed by the wealthy corporations and unions. “Our system has allowed a process that has drowned out the individual,” said Pezza, who highlighted the importance of the public’s awareness of these types of issues.

According to Pezza, President Barack Obama has raised over $160 million in donations for the upcoming 2012 presidential election with his Republican counterparts raising a combined $200 million in the primaries alone. This is not limited to the federal level, as over $44 million was spent between Governor Tom Corbett and challenger Dan Onorato in the last Pennsylvania governor’s race.

This is a continuing trend that has seen election dollars skyrocket the past decade with spending on federal elections including the presidency, senate and congressional seats exceeding $5.3 billion in 2008. That number doubled from 2004 elections and triple from 2000 elections according to Pezza.

With the deep pockets of PACs and Super PACs Browning warned that outside interest groups have also begun to influence local elections, especially in Pennsylvania where the nature gas industry has set up nature gas tapping across the state. According to commoncause.org, “A faction of the natural gas industry has invested more than $747 million as part of a 10-year lobbying and political spending campaign to persuade federal authorities to ignore the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a rapidly expanding but poorly regulated method of tapping gas reserves.”

Browning also stated that Pennsylvania has no limits on campaign contributions as well as being the only state in the country yet to adopt a lobbyist restriction law. “This along with the Citizens United ruling is very dangerous,” said Browning, stating how the process effects even those at state and local government levels.

Both Borichevsky and Browning argued that to prevent donations from swaying elections, campaign reform must be enacted to insure that the individual voter’s voice may still be heard. An appeal of the Citizens United ruling would be a major step towards reforming the current system, which according to Browning might take an amendment to the constitution.

Also, Borichevsky stated that the League of Women Voters supported the DISCLOSE Act of 2012, which would provide the public with additional information regarding corporations and unions donating to PACs.

“Unfortunately very few loud voices overtake individuals,” stated Borichevsky, who emphasized the individual’s right to have their voices heard.

Along with the students and members of the community, representatives for Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick and Rep. McIlhinney were in attendance. Appearing in person was Keith Pacheco, an independent who plans to run for Fitzpatrick’s 8th District seat in November.

Pacheco sees the abuse of PACs as an important issue to voters and the main reason he has decided to run for office. Also, Pacheco went as far to equate the donations of corporations as kings ruling over the republic.

When asked by a participant from the audience what other measures could be taken to evoke change, each member of the panel gave a different answer. Borichevksy encouraged citizens to contribute to grassroots efforts to overturn the Citizens United decision while Garton suggested term limits for representatives to help bring the cost of campaign contributions down.

Brady on the other hand emphasized that individuals need to vote to allow their voices to be heard. “Elected officials want to listen but individuals don’t participate, that’s the key,” said Brady.

This forum was one of a series of events the social and behavior science department has held, including a congressional debate between Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick and Patrick Murphy, immigration reform, and student veterans. Pezza credited Bucks students Jackie Liney, Ish Olson, Jake Packlaian, and Chris Loftus for organizing the event.

“We try to raise the concerns of students and community members while also striving to provide a politically balanced discussion,” said Pezza who indicated the department’s interest in not only the student body but the community as a whole.