Bad Diagnoses, Wrong Remedy : Campaign Finance Edition
Given all the attention to the DISCLOSE Act, which seeks to respond to the problem of money in politics by ensuring disclosure, which seems to me to miss the point, I thought I’d quote Lawrence Lessig, who’s done the most to clearly articulate what’s wrong with our political system. He was responding to the claim that we need a constitutional amendment to authority limits on campaign spending. He argues this focuses on the wrong side of the scale.
But at some point, Congress has got to muster the courage to say what every sane reformer recognizes: that we won’t solve the problem of “big money donors” until Congress begins to say yes. Not just finance limits, but also finance support. Not just ways to restrict, but also ways to enable.
The framers of our Constitution gave us a republic. They meant by that a “representative democracy.” Or as Federalist No. 52 put it, a Congress “dependent upon the People alone.”
Despite the founders’ intentions, however, Congress has evolved from a dependency “upon the people,” to an increasing dependency upon the funders. Members spend 30 percent to 70 percent of their time raising money to stay in Congress, or to get their party back in power. Less than 1 percent of Americans give more than $200 in a political campaign. No more than .05 percent give the maximum in any Congressional campaign. A career focused on the 1 percent — or, worse, the .05 percent — will never earn them the confidence of the 99 percent. Indeed, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, so far it hasn’t earned them the confidence of any more than 9 percent.
So long as elections cost money, we won’t end Congress’s dependence on its funders. But we can change it. We can make “the funders” “the people.” Following Arizona, Maine and Connecticut, we could adopt a system of small-dollar public funding for Congress.
Neither limits or disclosure will solve this problem. There’s something to be said for trying many things, but if we have bad diagnoses for the problem, we won’t find the right remedy. Framing matters.