Tag Archive: campaign finance reform

So I want to talk politics for a minute. Before you skim over the rest of this post assuming my usual take on the subject, let me assure you that this one is different from my usual fare.

There are good reasons why politics and religion are often barred from dinner conversation. Mostly, we get all hopped up on our point of view and that adrenaline or emotional overload can lead to the abandonment of what would otherwise be a reasonable conversation. But I would like to focus on the first of these taboo subjects, and why I believe our general misconception about the whole process is doing us more harm than good.

First, we’re all in this together; and by “we,” I do mean all humans, but let’s focus on the US for convenience’s sake. Wherever we land on the political spectrum (liberal through conservative), we all believe that our “side’s” way is the best way forward for our country. Otherwise, there would be little room for debate/discussion/arguments. We elect representatives that we think have our best interests at heart and will govern in a manner that will increase the prosperity (in all its facets) of the nation. And I’m sure some of the representatives believe they can do this, too.

But here’s the problem: the political machine (especially at the federal level) has become a nigh-immoveable object with the interests of only a few as its driving goals. These special interests are able to compete with each other since they have the resources (i.e. money) to be able to influence our two political parties, and consequently those parties’ candidates and representatives. Lobbyists from “K” street remain mostly hidden from public view, and yet spend billions of dollars influencing (and gaining access to) members of Congress. If you write a letter to your Congress person, and a lobbyist (who has donated millions of dollars to their campaign) writes a letter to that same Congress person, who do you think is going to get the meeting?

The other side of the problem is Gerrymandering: this entrenches one or the other party in their districts, making “free and fair” elections something of a misnomer. (Incidentally, a recent project has shown the ability of undergraduate to accurately and fairly draw districts to actually represent the people that live within those lines). The two parties have become so ubiquitous, that we, the citizenry, think that we can only have two choices in who governs us (even the Tea Party was subsumed under the Republican banner). This restriction to only two parties to address the many facets of our political issues is axiomatically (self-evidently) false. Sure each party tries to encompass a wide base (and thus range on any given issue), but that doesn’t mean that either one accurately represents its voting adherents. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; how many times have you heard someone vote for a candidate (or party) not because they believe in everything that choice stands for, but because it’s the lesser of two evils? That is not a good enough criterion to elect an effective government. Further, this dichotomy falsely divides our citizenry into two camps that hurl vitriolic invectives at each other, rather than seeing we’re all in this problem together. (Hence my opening quote by Hamilton in the first Federalist paper.)

Our current debt/budget crisis highlights the problems of our government. In a time when both sides should come together to do what is right and best for our country, they are not. There’s a blind adherence to party lines and castigation of the “other” side while we skate toward the edge of a disaster. In the midst of a global financial crisis (and all nations are financially interconnected), to have the US default on its loans would produce devastating consequences. And to use the threat of that as a bargaining chip in budget talks is abominable and in no way holds the citizenry’s interest at heart.

The bottom line is that our representatives have failed to effectively govern us. We were the most prosperous nation coming out of World War II and remained so for many decades. We had the opportunity to eliminate poverty and hunger in our own country. We did not. We had the opportunity to provide the best education and health care systems to our citizenry. We did not. We had the opportunity to create renewable energy sources and wean ourselves off the foreign-oil teat. We did not. And it’s not because we, the people, would not want these things. It’s because systems that were in place have broken down and have led to the stagnation of the public good at the expense of the self-interests of greed and power. Obviously there has been relative stability in the US, but stability is not the same as progress toward the good of all. We need to make some drastic changes to our system (campaign finance reform and Gerrymandering) and reclaim the voice of the “ordinary” people who bear the brunt of any hardships and crises that our nation faces.

So here, as I “pour my heart out,” I urge each of us to take a step back from our political views, and try looking at the larger picture. And not just for the next campaign or election cycle, but further down the road; for all seeds of our future solutions or disasters are being sown today, in these uncertain times. And we all need to do a better job of helping our country live up to those ideals (freedom, justice, progress) that it purports to represent.

“A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.” -Hamilton

This is the second part of my ideas on Campaign Finance Reform—the part where I offer some theoretical solutions to the problems mentioned in my last post.  These will seem rather radical (I imagine), but I don’t see a tweak or slight adjustment to the current system as a viable option.

First: no media ads 45 days before elections.  This will hopefully focus the electorate on issues rather than last minute attempts to sling mud at opponents.

Second: media time (TV and radio) available for advertising will be restricted.  Each viable candidate will receive a set number of minutes (on radio and television) paid for by a federal media-campaign fund.  Defining what a viable candidate will be is a bit tricky (reflection on this reform keeps leading to the ballooning of the issues and this post!).  We have to weigh the people’s desire for actual representation (resulting in multiple parties), against overwhelming the field with a plethora of candidates that dilute the field and make “choice” effectively meaningless.  Possible remedies: each party can put forth one or two candidates; or any potential candidate needs to gather a certain number of signatures on a campaign petition to make the ballot (the Internet makes this quite feasible in the 21st century).

Money for this fund will be re-appropriated from the defense budget ($2 billion for election years should do it—that’s like 1 stealth bomber).  These minutes will be apportioned as follow: 75% to be used as determined by the candidates themselves, and the remaining 25% will be available to his supporters (individuals, PACs, etc.).  In order to ensure fairness, each person or entity can apply for a “slot” of time (say, for simplicity’s sake, there are 25 total slots).  After all applications are in (by a deadline), the available slots will be filled by a random selection from the entire applicant pool.  Thus, Exxon will have the same chance to run an ad as Joe the Plumber.  The only restriction on these ads is that they must pertain to the election and/or candidates in some reasonable fashion.  This will eliminate the abuse of “soft money” and cut down on the mud-slinging, spin-doctoring, and outright lies that often are proliferated by these ads.  (I envision that the candidates will need to use their media advertising more constructively based on these limits).

Any money left over from this media fund will be moved to an educational slush fund focusing on the importance of civics in our society.

First Amendment concerns: it seems to me that the right to free speech is only fairly applied when equal access is guaranteed (at least as far as elections are concerned).  The need to raise money (and those who can provide it) dominate the process because it’s so expensive to advertise and these costs lock out the average citizen.  Anyone can take to a street corner to yell their political opinion, but I can’t afford 30 seconds on prime time (but wealthy patron-backed fringe groups can).

You’ll notice I’ve left the Internet alone—I have no interest (or, more accurately, no plan) to regulate the integrated network that will result in Skynet anyways.  I imagine that the internet will be used more prolifically if such reforms are enacted, but that’s the direction we’re inevitably heading as it is.  Certainly, those with obscene amounts of money will be able to buy more Internet resources, but users of the Net are much more able to self-filter the sites they see (as opposed to mainstream radio or TV).  Besides, everyone knows you can’t believe what you read on the Internet, right?

Third: individuals and PACs can still contribute to campaign funds; the money will simply (and necessarily) be channeled to other uses (like administrative and campaign expenditures).

Fourth: Damn this is hard.  Maybe it would be easier to emulate another country’s campaign finance system which doesn’t have our problems…

Possible side effects of these changes include: increased representative democracy.  The breaking of the stranglehold that Democrats and Republicans have on the political process.  Candidates paying increased attention to issues other than re-election.  Reduced influence of special interest groups and corporations on said political process.  Greater participation by the electorate (and a consequent increase in their dopamine flows due to investment and pride in their republic).

Now, some of these might sound crazy or unrealistic.  You might disagree with my proposed “solutions.”  That’s fine.  I hope you have other ideas and can come up with something better.  What I think is undeniable is that the current system is broken and poses a great threat to the representation of the average citizen and their interests.

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).