The Truth About Campaign Finance

February 4, 2007

fatcat.jpgI know, I know, two boring posts in one day? After reading this Salon article, though, I just couldn’t help myself. The article, which presents an “aww, how cute” discussion on how to fix campaign finance, reinforced a truth I learned a long time ago. Nobody knows anything worth a damn about campaign finance. People routinely cite the role of money in politics as one of the biggest problems facing our system. And maybe it is. From time to time, people (like the professors in the article) suggest all sorts of alternatives to supposedly clean up politics. This brings me to my second truth of the article: there is no constitutional way to keep money out of politics.

The fixes proposed in the Salon article would be nothing short of a disaster:

“The first part of the Ackerman-Ayres plan calls on the government to give every voter $50 to donate to candidates running for federal office. The second part will sound almost as crazy, until it sounds brilliant: Make all campaign donations secret, so that nobody — especially political candidates — knows where any citizen’s money is going. Anonymous giving means no quid pro quo.”

This plan is nothing more than a front runner’s insurance policy. Most voters don’t know anything politics. Close to half don’t bother to show up to vote and those that do are typically ill-informed. And that’s on Election Day. Now we’re expecting people to follow the elections closely enough well in advance of the primaries such that they’ll be able to name more than 1-2 people running? Think about it. If you were to institute this policy right now and ask every voter to allocate their money, who would they pick? Judging from the polls, it’d go mostly to Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani. People don’t know much about the other candidates yet to give them money. Such a system would guarantee that the front runners would end up with all the money; a serious downgrade from the current system that merely stacks the deck in favor of the front runners.

The second part of that proposal belies a serious misunderstanding about politics:

Myth: Candidates trade favors for cash

Any candidate who is doing so is, frankly, an idiot. Campaign finance records are very open (at the federal level, at least). It is very obvious who is giving money to whom. Any sort of quid pro quo would be pretty easy to prove. Rather, what is happening is that people with money are supporting candidates who already share their interests. You think George W. Bush is a shill for big oil because they gave him a ton of money? Bush was working for big oil long before his run for the White House (or the governor’s mansion). Those interests just know that Bush will back them and, consequently, they want to support his candidacy. the problem is not that the candidates are being bought off; it’s that the candidates getting elected are naturally more representative of monied interests. That may seem like a fine distinction, but it is an important one.

Furthermore, the amount of money any one person can give is inconsequential. Let’s say that Clinton plans to raise $500 million (which she is). A single donor can give her $4,600. 4,600/500,000,000 = .00092% of her total war chest. She would have to be an idiot to enact unpopular policies for that kind of chump change. Even with bundling, the influence of any one donor is not going to matter. But wait…

“The plan wouldn’t prevent you from giving a politician more than your government-issued $50. You could still make additional private contributions. Indeed, the professors call for raising significantly the current contribution limit of $2,300 per donor per candidate. The new caps would be $5,000 for House candidates, $32,000 for Senate candidates and $100,000 for presidential contenders (with a cumulative cap of $100,000 to all candidates).”

So money is a problem. And the answer is to allow individual donors to give 40 times as much to candidates? A lot of people can afford to give $4600 to a candidate, but it’s a pretty short list that could drop a cool $200,000 (donation caps are counted per election, so primary and general, hence the doubling). If we want to reduce the influence of the super elite in politics, then we should not be giving them more ways to use their money in the process.

The answer, according to the professors, is to institute anonymous giving. Donors write checks to the FEC who would then give money to the candidates. But how anonymous is it going to stay? Furthermore, such a system does nothing to attack the real problem. Kickbacks to specific donors are not the major problem of current campaign finance. The fact that it is largely candidates representing wealthy interests being elected is. Average Americans don’t have as much influence on the process as their elite counterparts. And this is not going to change. Even with anonymous donors, rich people are still going to give money to the people that will give them their damn tax cuts.

And this is really the ultimate truth. You cannot remove money from politics. Let’s say we went to full public financing of campaigns, no outside donations allowed. People are just going to fund the hell out of third party groups “not connected” (wink) with the campaigns, otherwise known as 527s. There is no good way to regulate these groups, either. Sure, we can pass all sorts of laws insisting that they be separate from the campaign committees, but there’s no way to possibly enforce that. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was not officially connected with Bush/Cheney nor did they likely coordinate with them. They didn’t have to. They just wanted to attack Kerry and they ran with it. So why not ban/limit 527s? Because that’s a pretty big no-no under the first amendment. Money may not be directly tantamount to speech, but limiting 527s is effectively curbing everyone’s political speech. We, as citizens, absolutely have the right to organize groups geared towards political education.

But even if we were to ban 527 organizations, the one thing I can guarantee is that those with money and a political interest will absolutely find a way to leverage their money into electoral success.

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