The Answer to All Our Problems (seriously)

What would you say if I told you that I have the answer that will solve virtually every problem in our country? You’d probably assume that I was either: (a) joking; (b) completely delusional; or (c) hopelessly naïve and ill-informed about the state of affairs in this country. I won’t keep you guessing. Here’s the answer: campaign finance reform, or more specifically, publically-funded elections.

I just heard the sound of someone’s eyes glazing over with disinterest. Before you click back to Facebook to get the latest update on someone’s zany pet let me explain how this issue could single-handedly solve all of the problems we face in this country.

Something we can all agree on is that there is too much money in politics. In 2008, the presidential candidates spent roughly $5.3 billion. According to The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP)—a non-profit, non-partisan research group based in Washington, D.C. that tracks the effects of money and lobbying on elections and public policy—US House members who won in 2008 spent on the average $1.4 million. US Senate candidates, on average, spent more than $9.2 million. For those individuals who see national politics as out of reach, they may contemplate a run for state senate. They will no doubt be disappointed to read the findings of The Pew Research Center, which estimated in 2004 that winning a state senate seat can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In California, one state senate campaign spent $938,522. So the idea of the average American running for public office at any level—even in a losing effort—is extremely unlikely. There’s a reason that so many of our political candidates are rich. You almost have to be to have a chance of winning an election.

What happens to the candidates who can’t compete financially? They get thumped. Examples of this are seen every election cycle. One example occurred in 2004 in Massachusetts. Democratic House Member James McGovern was defending his seat against Republican challenger Ron Crews. Crews was outspent almost 10:1. He mustered together a paltry $150,000, which paled significantly to McGovern’s $1.25 million. Crews lost by 43 points. We can dismiss this as another liberal Massachusetts election, but McGovern’s seat is in central Massachusetts, well away from the liberal hub of the greater-Boston area. The person who held the seat before McGovern (for much of the 1990s) was a Republican, and the three counties represented in McGovern’s district overwhelmingly voted for Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown in the 2010 special election. Similarly, Russ Feingold—the long-time senator from Wisconsin, well known for reaching across the aisle and working with Republicans—lost his senate seat to the ultra-conservative Tea Party candidate Ron Johnson in 2010. Johnson outspent Feingold 3:1, berating Feingold with an onslaught of negative TV ads. Feingold lost by five points.

When discussing his ability to predict elections, MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan quipped, “If I know who raised more money, without even knowing anything else, 94 percent of the time I will pick the winner.” When I checked the validity of this claim, I found that it was Ratigan wasn’t far off. According to PolitiFact.com, in 2008 93% of the House candidates that spent the most money won; and 84% of Senate candidates who spent the most money were victorious. So Ratigan’s number may have been somewhat inflated, but not by much. The message remains the same. What kind of Democracy do we have when money is the best predictor of who wins?

The obvious problem is that the money has to come from somewhere. In 2008, the pharmaceutical and health care industries invested $236 million in lobbying. Oil and gas companies spent more than $130 million for their lobbying efforts. Politicians can’t rely on $25 checks from individual supporters. They need corporate money and money from special interests to compete. The inevitable situation is that politicians receive money to keep their campaigns afloat and in turn agree to vote for (or vote against) legislation that serves the interests of their donors. (I admit this is a simplified explanation of the lobbying process, but you get the idea.) Because of the significant role money plays in the electoral process, politicians do not serve the interests of their constituents but rather the interests of their financial benefactors. This does not occur in just presidential politics but at all levels: federal, state, and local. Instead of a country that is of the people, by the people, and for the people; we have a country that is of the people, by the people, and for the moneyed interests. The Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court in 2009 solidified this reality.

The solution is simple. We ban all money from elections. No individual donations; no corporate donations; no loopholes. For people who cry foul and want to rail about their freedom of speech being violated, I encourage them to exercise their First Amendment rights by becoming active. Volunteer your time and work for your favorite candidate; spend time learning the issues and canvas your neighborhood talking to potential voters; register voters in your area; put up a yard sign; put a bumper sticker on your car; wear an election pin; vote; drive people to the polls.

Publicly-funded elections are the answer. In other words, our tax dollars will fund all political races. Conservatives will no doubt raise hell over this proposal, labeling it another government program and expenditure. But this cost does not need to be large. In a federal budget that includes $2.6 million dollars to help Chinese prostitutes learn how to drink responsibly and $1.8 million to aid the Museum of Neon Signs in Las Vegas, I think we can scrape together the cash for something as important as real campaign finance reform. This would not have to be an expensive program. Several solutions have already been proposed. One of those was by a group called JustSixDollars.org. They developed a plan that would allow public funding of all federal elections (President, US Senate, and House of Representatives), and it would require each American to pay just $6 more in taxes each year. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting bent out of shape over six bucks, but for those that do, I encourage them to look into how much our government has spent in the last year on tax subsidies for oil companies alone.

Clearly the spending on elections would be greatly reduced, meaning there would be an end to spending $5 billion on presidential elections, and US Senate seats would no longer cost $9 million. For the sake of fiscal responsibility, significantly less would be spent on elections. This would create some significant changes. First of all, the election cycle would be much shorter. Mitt Romney’s five-year race to the White House would no longer be a possibility because candidates would spend the vast majority of their money in the few months leading up to the election. Campaigns would not have the capital to spend millions of dollars 12 months before the election. The second thing it would do is provide the public with more focused and more thoughtful campaigns. The strategy of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks would no longer be strategically advantageous. The money would have to be spent wisely.

The big payoff of publicly-funded elections is obvious. Our represented leaders would no longer owe favors to their financial contributors. Their legislative decisions would be directed by the wants and needs of the people they represent and not the wealthy private interests that got them elected.

How this plays out is the most exciting part. It’s fun to speculate. Government contractors like Halliburton and Blackwater would no longer have the power to influence politicians to vote for war. If the war profiteers no longer have a say in the political process, our chances of getting mixed up in another unnecessary war are dramatically decreased. And the troops overseas will likely come home in record time. The climate change crisis would finally be dealt with seriously and would no longer be controlled by corporations that profit from polluting and producing greenhouse gases. Tax revenue would likely increase because the corporations and private interests that advocate for lower tax rates for the wealthy would no longer have a grossly lopsided say in the political process. We would likely see income tax rates return to where they were under Reagan and Clinton, an increase in the historically-low capital gains tax, and an increase in the also historically-low estate tax. Private pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies would no longer have a strong hold over the political process, making it more likely that our healthcare system could turn from a for-profit industry to a system that makes the goal treating and preventing disease. And the list goes on.

It may not be the flashiest issue on the campaign trail, and it’s not going to excite any rallies; but there is not a more important political issue out there.

 

– Nathan

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4 Responses to “The Answer to All Our Problems (seriously)”

  1. Dylan you for got to sign it. But how do you get the people who benefit the most from it to change it? When was the last time the mob with the pitch forks got anything resembling what they asked for?

  2. Joel Stucki Says:

    Well, looks like we actually agree on a few things! I’m not sure if public funds are the answer, but it’s at least a conversation worth having. I absolutely agree that lobbying and campaign finance have ruined our entire political system.

    I don’t think it quite solves every problem: there’s still the matter of the candidates themselves. They might be horrible even without being bought and sold. I guess at least they would be authentically and honestly horrible, instead of wolves in sheep’s clothing.

  3. Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington?

    no really–it’s a good movie.

    What else? Yes, reduce elections to 36 days like they do in Canada.

    And I believe the Estate tax isn’t at an historical low–it was temporarily GONE–abolished under the Obama administration in 2010 and slated to return in 2011.

  4. Jason Sebastian Says:

    Freakonomics on NPR’s marketplace addressed this issue recently “Does money really buy elections?”. Their conclusion was that money may have about a once percent effect on the outcome of a race. For every example seeming to confirm that money does in fact buy elections you can also find an example of the opposite. This is how they state the money/vote correlation “money doesn’t necessarily cause a candidate to win — but, rather, that the kind of candidate who’s attractive to voters also ends up attracting a lot of money.”.
    I find it hard to believe and I would have previously agreed with this blog post, now I’m not so sure. Great blog guys (glad my wife made me read it).
    Recovering conservative and hesitant liberal -Jason

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