Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Campaign Finance Reform

    Our federal legislature is utterly dysfunctional at the moment. This is a widely accepted fact, including by most of the members of the federal legislature. There are a multitude of reasons for this, varying from political self sorting (the tendency for voters to chose to live in places where they feel they belong, thus creating radicalized districts and radicalized representatives with strong disincentives to compromise) to the compartmentalization of news, whereby voters opt to get their news from sources which generally espouse views they agree with. All of this has led to a rush for the wings in both political parties (with the Republican's leading the way, as might be expected from the party in the weaker position, but with Democrats increasingly responding with more calls for extreme liberalism.) Many of these problems are integral to our system of representative democracy, and are therefore very difficult to address.

    One major aspect of our political system, however, one which is broken so severely that it impacts nearly every step of the political process, is our campaign finance system. Every 4 years now BILLIONS of dollars are spent in the presidential election, along with the thousands of other smaller elections, some of them still involving many millions of dollars in ad buys. This money has many consequences for the American political system. The first, and most widely focused on is that it gives far too much power to the people and organizations supplying the money. This problem has been vastly exaggerated in the wake of Citizen's United and other related rollbacks of campaign finance restrictions. The power is wielded in several ways. The most direct of these is organizations like the Heritage Foundation spending huge sums on negative ad campaigns against politicians who go against their will, and bankrolling those they think will. With this kind of money legitimate candidates can essentially be shouted down and out of the race. Even small errors, or fallacious ones, can be repeated, reinforced, embellished upon, and repeated again until a candidate is widely known by that perceived "error" without that candidate being able to respond unless xe too has a large war chest to purchase counter ads, and ads which attack the opposition in order to change the tone of the campaign. Without that, almost inevitably, that candidate will lose. The fickleness of the average voter is well known, as are the effective methods for influencing them through advertizing.

     This leads to the next, and far less well known, problem caused by such tremendous amounts of money in politics. Time is money, and therefore money is time. Politicians have to spend a significant portion of their time and energy raising funds rather than working on policy. The parties have quotas for more senior and powerful legislators, money they're expected to raise in order for the party to back less senior and therefore more vulnerable candidates, and to keep on hand in case the opposing side tries to flood an election at the last minute, or other such maneuvers. Politicians have to put together dinners, call major donors, and, increasingly, woo lobbyists.

     Ah yes, lobbyists, the third major problem caused by the money. People often see lobbyists as the active pursuers of legislators, offering money, threatening to bankroll opponents, generally trying to get legislators (in particular) to do their will, a combination of bribery and extortion, all sanctioned by law. The reality is more nuanced, but in large part flipped. Legislators seek out lobbyists for many reasons, including funding.  Mostly lobbyists, as I understand them, are just political insiders who have been hired to be, more or less, private politicians. They study issues related to their employer's business or personal interests, work on policy, and draft legislation. They attend all the same events, move in the same circles as the elected officials, and they will be consulted by politicians from both sides of the aisle both for their expertise, and in order to determine how major interest groups are feeling about various pieces of legislation. Rarely, I suspect, will overt demands be made by lobbyists, though I'm sure it does happen, however in all these conversations, there will be the unspoken understanding that if the legislation goes the way of that lobbyists interests, the politicians involved will be viewed favorably by that lobbyist, and their fundraising will have gotten that much easier. The more powerful and wealthy the interest group, the more prestige will the lobbyist have, the more parties, and more important parties will xe be invited to, and the more credence will be given to xis suggestions. This is the subtle but powerful influence lobbyists have on the political system (emphasized no doubt by the fact that many lobbyists are friends and former co-workers of the more senior and thus influential politicians on BOTH sides.)

    The last impact I will discuss is the tendency for such huge sums of money to lead to entrenchment exclusion, and a close approximation of a plutocracy, wherein only those of a certain class, particularly those BORN of a certain class, have much of a chance at political power. Since there is such a tremendous financial barrier to get over, one which requires the help of monied connections poor and middle class people are unlikely to have. There are ways around this, and many examples of people who have gained popular support before receiving financial backing to turn their campaign into a viable one, but they are far rarer than might be expected in a country which purports to value "bootstraps" and "the common man". Instead we are given financial elites, with a well crafted and expensive veneer of everyman. Surely this has something to do with the deep sense of mistrust and apathy the average American now feels towards Washington.

    And what benefit is there to all this money? Certainly it raises the awareness of politics, but only in a very superficial way. Most people will be able to name the Democratic and Republican candidate in any presidential, and possibly Senate and House race they can vote in, but that might well be the extent of their knowledge. Others will buy into one sides advertizing, accepting it wholesale, and thus having a deeper, but fundamentally biased understanding of the race. Many Americans however seem to simply be burned out by all this advertising, considering, with some reason, that all politicians are essentially the same, crooks, and therefore none of the are worth paying attention to. This leaves us with many mainline Americans withdrawing from the political process, especially the primary elections, leaving only the most motivated, and often most extreme elements of both parties to dictate the fate of prospective politicians. This at a time when access to fairly non-biased, understandable information on every political candidate and issue is increasingly wide-spread and easy, at a time when the political challenges facing us are greater than perhaps ever before, and more complex.

    Beyond the burnout, there is the waste. Money spent on elections, past a certain point, is essentially wasted. It doesn't produce any real increase in knowledge, or participation, not when it's constantly be countered by money on the other side. It is money used to cancel out other money, and that is truly inexcusable.

    So those are the problems, here's a possible solution.

Establish a fund, cared for by the federal government, which bankrolls political campaigns up to a point. Require that people achieve a threshold of signatures before receiving this funding, to ensure the money isn't wasted on non-viable candidates. Candidates can use these funds up to the limit, and beyond that limit they have to raise their own funds. These could be raised up to twice the federal funds, with each dollar raised taxed at 50% to help pay for the general fund. That is to say, if a presidential candidate reached the say, 10 million dollar limit on federal funds, and wished to raise more, they could raise up to 20 million more, but 10 million of that would be placed back in the general fund. Outside groups which wanted to campaign for an issue (directly campaigning against or for a candidate wouldn't be allowed) could go through the same process, receiving funds if they reached a threshold of signatures, or simply paying for it themselves, but with a 50% tax. Different levels of funding could be set for different numbers of signatures, and different offices/issues.

     There would be kinks that have to be worked out, but the returns would be a drastic increase in accessibility, a change in focus for politicians from working with lobbyists to working with citizens, and a huge saving in both time and money for all politicians who would no longer have to worry about being massively outspent, or having to raise huge amounts of money. Setting the limit far lower than common values currently spent on elections would also mean campaigns would have to be more efficient, search for ways of reaching voters that cost little, and produce much, far better practice for actual governance than swimming in a sea of money and focusing on how to make sure it keeps pouring in. The reality is that these days, with the internet, many voters can be reached not by jamming ads down their throats, but by engaging them in ways they care about, addressing issues they want addressed in more than superficial ways.

     I know this won't solve all the problems our political system is suffering from, but it's a good start, and to my mind, one which really HAS to be the start, since without a major shakeup of how we conduct business in Washington, there won't be any significant progress in dealing with all the OTHER challenges we face. We have to change the paradigm under which laws are made, before we can hope for those laws to be changed in any meaningful way.


Ed said...

The issue in my opinion is less the fact that we need reform, but more along the lines of we need to be able to set this up without congress voting on it. They will never implement something that limits their campaigns, or sets restrictions on themselves. Why with the internet and all the latest technology do we have to even have congress? Can't we actually vote on things ourselves in this day and age?

I do agree that limiting the max a campaign can use is a good idea, but getting anyone in congress to go along with it might be difficult. I'll be reading more on your blog, good read.

Jeff Trechter said...

Sorry for the delayed reply. I don't think I've ever gotten a substantive comment on my blog before and didn't notice I'd gotten one until just now.
First of all, it would be very difficult and cumbersome to try to pass any campaign finance reform without congress. The best you could hope for is a constitutional amendment passed by a constitutional congress called by 2/3 of the state legislatures. Not easy. On the other hand I think you're wrong about congress never passing something that "limits their campaigns, or sets restrictions on themselves". In truth most congressmen hate having to spend so much time more or less begging for money in order to keep their jobs, and the jobs of their teammates. It's a terrible way to work, constantly having to fundraise, most politicians are policy buffs, they have ideas about how our country could be made better, and want to execute those ideas. The problem is that in order to do so they need to keep their jobs, and so in the current climate they have to spend much more time wooing donors, and then campaigning, than they do writing, reading, debating, and passing legislation. If enough of their constituents started shouting about campaign finance reform I think a lot of politicians from both parties would happily pass it, knowing that it will reduce their exposure to the terror of a massive opponent ad-buy even as it reduces their ability to do the same, and content to spend more time worrying about legislation and less about financing their campaigns.
Second, we really do need people who's job it is to consider laws and policy, who are capable and committed and extremely well informed, we can't have a direct democracy in a country as large, complex, wealthy, and powerful as ours. The issues voters think about, and that go to referendums are simple issues (gay marraige? yes or no?) but much of what government does is more delicate than that. Have you read the farm bill? Do you want to? Because while certain provisions I take issue with, I know that it is an enormously complex piece of economic policy, and it needs to be attended to by people who are at least advised by people who are extremely well informed about agricultural economics.