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How the Senate Empowers Big Money

David Callahan

There is a terrible beauty in how America's constitutional system seems designed to stop big changes from ever happening -- or, more specifically, stops the majority of ordinary people from ever getting their hands on real power.

Different choke points emerge at different historical moments to block reformers. In the late 19th century, the Senate was dominated by moneyed interests thanks in part to the then-constitutional rules that senators were appointed by state legislatures -- bodies, in turn, dominated by the Robber Barons. Progressive legislation routinely died when it reached the "millionaire's club" of the Senate, as famously chronicled by the muckraker David Graham Phillips in his article, "The Treason of the Senate." A few decades later, as public opinion and legislators turned more progressive, it was a conservative Supreme Court that blocked reform, and that was often the case through the New Deal era.

During the 1940s and into the 1960s, conservative lawmakers from the south wielded veto power over key areas of policy thanks to the committee seniority system in both houses of Congress.

Today, the Senate has again emerged as an obstacle to popular rule, and that is likely to get worse after this year's election, as Super PACs focus huge resources on knocking off Democratic senators like Sherrod Brown. (And moderate Republicans like Richard Lugar.)

Much has been written about how the structure and rules of the Senate work to undermine popular rule -- particularly by giving so much clout to thinly populated states that tend to be rural, white, and conservative. As well, of course, there is the filibuster and other obstructionistic tactics which are allowable under Senate rules.

Less obvious, though, is how the expense of state-wide Senate races makes money a bigger factor in who gets into the Senate and also how the six-year terms of senators ensures that deep pocketed donors get an extended return on their investment. Spend big to elect a senator and you'll have a friend in Congress's most elite chamber for over half a decade. 

The role of money in shaping the Senate was worrisome enough before the Citizens United ruling and the rise of Super PACs. But this year's election shows the truly alarming extent to which a flood of new money into politics may influence lawmaking for years to come. While much media coverage of Super PACs has focused on their role in the presidential primaries and general election, these entities may have their biggest impact in Senate contests.

Progressive Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, for example, is high on the Republican hit list and has already been pummeled by millions of dollars in Super PACs ads -- with the election still over four months away. Brown has reportedly been outspent nearly 3 to 1 on television advertising, with American Crossroads -- Karl Rove's outfit -- supplying much of the cash to batter him.  

As reported by Politico, GOP groups are likely to spend $1 billion in this section, with a good chunk of that money focused on House and Senate races. The Koch brothers and their network of donors alone are said to be planning to spend $400 million, more than twice what was anticipated.

The Republican financial plans are unlike anything seen before in American politics. If the GOP groups hit their targets, they likely could outspend their liberal adversaries by at least two-to-one, according to officials involved in the budgeting for outside groups on the right and left.

Given the Obama campaign's own fundraising prowess, taking out the president with this big money may not be an easy thing. But capturing the Senator for the GOP may be more in reach, and many conservative donors are excited by this prospect. As the New York Times reported last month:

The conservative groups that helped Republicans win the House in 2010 are pouring money this year into an aggressive campaign to capture the Senate, a goal that they consider just as vital as winning the White House. . . . The focus on the Senate reflects conservative hopes for a sweep of the White House and both branches of Congress, and frustration with the Senate’s role in blocking legislation passed by the Republican-controlled House, especially on the budget and fiscal issues that have come to dominate the debate in Washington.

Over a century ago, the titans of industry ensured their dominance over public policy through their de facto control of the Senate. Today, it seems, they are hoping to recreate that golden era. And they have the money to do it.

Thanks to Citizens United, they also have the legal right.