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What a Waste

Six billion dollars. Six billion dollars.

That’s the amount spent on the 2012 election campaign, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data by the Center for Responsive Politics. It is by far the most money spent on an election in American history — probably in human history — and that is thanks in large part to the nearly $1 billion raised and spent by the newly-sanctioned, supposedly independent organizations known as super-PAC’s this year.

Nearly $80 million was spent by two former governors of Virginia vying for the Senate; more than $70 million in the Massachusetts Senate race. The battle over a single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida cost $23.6 million.

Why, even House Speaker John Boehner spent $20 million in Ohio — and he ran unopposed.

“In the new campaign finance landscape post-Citizens United, we’re seeing historic spending levels spurred by outside groups dominated by a small number of individuals and organizations making exceptional contributions,” said Sheila Krumholz, CRP’s executive director.

Not only has this obscene amount of spending perverted the democratic process by giving those “exceptional” contributors an inordinate amount of power and influence, it also has done something else more quietly but just as insidiously: It has taken money away from charities and projects that would truly help the public good.

There may be a few political contributors out there for whom a mega-donation is just a rounding error — Sheldon Adelson comes to mind — but for many other donors, raising and giving large sums of money to politics has come at the expense of giving to something else. And this is where campaign spending farce turns into civic tragedy.

Just think of what $6 billion will buy. Not just 30 million iPhone 5s or 15,503 Lamborghini Aventadors, as one website cheekily noted. Serious stuff. Life-saving stuff.

A sea barrier of the type that protects major cities in Europe could have prevented superstorm Sandy from destroying lives and property in New York. Its cost? Engineers have estimated $6 billion.

An accelerated availability of antiretroviral drugs could prevent 7.4 million people from dying of AIDS, and another 12.2 million from contracting HIV, by 2020. The cost? Scientists have estimated $6 billion.

A millennium vaccine fund could commit to purchasing an effective malaria vaccine for each of Africa’s 25 million newborn children, thereby preventing untold deaths and suffering. Its cost? Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs puts it at $3 billion.

There’d be another $3 billion to spare. With that, we could buy nearly 500 new public elementary schools, or build 225 small hospitals.

This need not be wishful thinking. Serious campaign finance reform is possible if the public demands. But it will take an enormous civic effort. And the cost of maintaining the new status quo? Priceless.

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