I was chatting with Peter Overby at lunch on Wednesday (NPR’s Power, Money, & Influence Correspondent) and it got me back to thinking about what I see as the most fundamental threat to our representative democracy: the financing of campaigns.  I vetted this during another conversation on Thursday with someone who follows politics inside the beltway—basically to ensure I wasn’t pulling these things out of, to put it delicately, my hat (thanks CB!).  This will be the first of a two-part post on campaign finance where I vent a bit.

There have been several attempts to curb campaign spending, though most recently a key provision of the McCain-Feingold act was struck down by the Supreme Court allowing unlimited “soft” money to be spent on elections.  This, it is rightfully argued, will allow a greater flood of special interest money into our democratic process.  Why is this harmful? Because those special interest groups already reap disproportional rewards in our system, and it’s corporations—rather than citizens—that benefit the most.  For example, 12 major American companies have spent more than $1 billion dollars on campaigns over the past decade, and one of the benefits they’ve reaped is to have paid little or no taxes back to the government—despite making billions in profit.  What kind of corporations? Those involved with oil, banks, transportation, telecommunication and technology.  An illustrative case: Exxon made $19 billion in profits, paid no taxes in 2009, but instead received a $156 million refund.  Yeah, and the poor schmuck who makes $20,000 in taxable income per year had to pay $2500 (or more than 10%) to the same government.  What’s wrong with this picture?

Lobbyists are part of the problem as well.  How many senators worked on the first health care overhaul bill?  Twenty-two.  How many lobbyists were in the same room?  Take a look here (note: there’s 4 panels of photos to look through).  I don’t see Joe the Plumber there (and don’t hear him complaining, either).  This is a mostly hidden reality (to those outside the beltway) that the rest of the country seems to despise when light is shed on it.  But we still do nothing about it.  Let’s put it in even starker terms: 13,000 lobbyists were active in DC in 2010, spending some $3.5 billion.  That’s .004% of the population influencing our law makers on behalf of special interests.  Horrified yet?

Let’s look at Obama’s 2008 election expenditures breakdown.  He spent 56% of that money on media (some $427 million), and most of that was spent on broadcasting media.  Actual administrative and campaign expenses amounted to $248 million or less than 1/3 of the total cost of his campaign.

So to recap the situation: special interest groups spend billions of dollars to influence Congress (which they duly reciprocate), candidates spend most of their money on intensive (and often vapid) advertising, perpetual campaigning focuses politicians on fundraising rather than legislating or executive action, and the average citizen gets caught up in the machinery and spit out like the rinse water at a dentist’s office.

So what should we do about it?  Glad you asked. Rather than just complaining, I have some ideas about how we can try and fix things.  They’ll appear in the next post since this one is already long (and you probably need time to recover from the horror that the above revelations have induced).