Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Bad Diagnoses, Wrong Remedy : Campaign Finance Edition

with 8 comments

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.

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Written by David Kaib

July 17, 2012 at 11:25 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Thank you for this, David. DISCLOSE was never really going to solve the problem, which I’m guessing is why the Democrats liked it so much. It wouldn’t change the cycle of spending most of one’s time glad-handing corporate interests.

    As it turns out, the FEC has been shredding contribution files of the biggest donors. So if they aren’t interested in enforcing their own regs, a slip of paper from congress doesn’t seem to matter very much.

    If you haven’t seen this story, it’s a doozy:

    http://www.alternet.org/news/156329/revealed%3A_key_files_on_big-ticket_political_donations_vanish_at_federal_election_commission_/?page=entire

    Ford Prefect

    July 18, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    • Agreed. What’s often left out of this whole debate is that members of Congress and their staffers benefit mightily from the system, however much asking for money is unpleasant. For one thing, power within the institution is often a product of fundraising ability, so those with the most power to shape the agenda are least inclined to change it in a meaningful way.

      This story reminds me of the financial crisis. When people ask why no one ever went to prison or why Dodd-Frank didn’t end TBTF, the answer is that the people who were supposed to be protecting us are implicated. It was knowable what was going on, and they either did nothing or actively abetted it. Is there any wonder that we’re tinkering around the edges?

      David Kaib

      July 18, 2012 at 2:39 pm

      • It’s long been a favorite line of mine that Neo-Liberal “reforms” are akin to putting a band-aid on a sucking chest wound and calling it “surgery.” The patient will likely die from the wound anyway, but “at least we did something.

        Dodd-Frank qualifies, as does ACA and pretty much every other “reform” offered up in recent memory.

        Ford Prefect

        July 18, 2012 at 2:55 pm

      • When you take the other side’s frames for granted, so much so that you don’t even notice them, it’s hard to challenge them. Market fundamentalism is so embedded in our discourse it makes it very difficult to see what’s really going on.

        David Kaib

        July 18, 2012 at 3:19 pm

  2. It seems increasingly fair to say neither party is the least bit interested in transparency. Here’s two more bits of grist for the mill:

    From Republic Report, Pro-Disclosure Democrats Were Anti-Disclosure in 2006:

    The DISCLOSE Act failed to overcome a Republican filibuster again last night, dooming the bill in the Senate. Democrats are pushing the bill to help reveal the donors of outside special interest groups that are dumping millions of dollars into the election anonymously. Republicans unanimously oppose the bill.
    But in 2006, things were very different. The two sides were wrangling over a bill that would’ve placed greater restrictions on outside election spending by so-called “527″ groups and also required more transparency. Although the bill was not perfect, in that it would’ve freed up party committees to spend more money, it had the support of reform groups and was generally considered to be constructive in reining in the problem of corruption.

    Republicans largely supported the bill and Democrats largely opposed it — for simple reasons. 527 groups were mostly benefiting the Democrats at the time, and the Republicans wanted to crack down on them in response. It ended up passing the House but failing to succeed in the Senate (Democrats also were protesting the GOP disallowing any amendments to the bill under a “closed rule”).

    A number of Democrats who today back the DISCLOSE Act passionately argued against disclosure in 2006, with many of them going as far as to echo the far-right argument that regulating campaign finance harms the First Amendment.

    http://www.republicreport.org/2012/video-pro-disclosure-democrats-were-anti-disclosure-in-2006/

    And this from McClatchy, in which it seems most members of congress, including one of the most vocal deriders of Romney’s refusal to issue his financials… Nancy Pelosi:

    WASHINGTON — Rep. Nancy Pelosi was emphatic. Mitt Romney’s refusal to release more than two years of his personal tax returns, she said, makes him unfit to win confirmation as a member of the president’s Cabinet, let alone to hold the high office himself.

    Sen. Harry Reid went farther: Romney’s refusal to make public more of his tax records makes him unfit to be a dogcatcher.

    They do not, however, think that standard of transparency should apply to them. The two Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives are among hundreds of senators and representatives from both parties who refused to release their tax records. Just 17 out of the 535 members of Congress released their most recent tax forms or provided some similar documentation of their tax liabilities in response to requests from McClatchy over the last three months. Another 19 replied that they wouldn’t release the information, and the remainder never responded to the query.

    http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2012/07/18/156632/most-members-of-congress-keep.html

    So obviously, transparency is at the top of nearly everyone’s agenda!

    Ford Prefect

    July 19, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    • I saw the first story too, but not the second one (great catch). My response was – this is why people hate politics. No one actually makes decisions based on this sort of thing, and those who are disaffected generally suspect that none of this is principled.

      Of course, you can imagine a scenario in which this sort of thing is used to push for real reform, but that isn’t how these things work.

      David Kaib

      July 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm

      • Indeed. I’ve been trying to figure out just who is left in congress that would even be willing to try for real reform. I can’t think of any. Sanders. That’s about it. Of course, that’s not enough either. There simply isn’t a real constituency for it, now that every ethical aspect of “public service” has been scrubbed from the books. When even Raul Grijalva is officially on board with Pelosi’s “era of austerity” crap, it would seem the jig is up on reform.

        We seem to be stuck in an Orwellian “universal age of deceit.” I still tend to think people naturally dislike that, which is one reason they hate politics–another part being it simply doesn’t work for them. The Democratic blogs are all aflutter over Mittens’ tax filings. But it does not occur to them their own leadership enjoy the same unethical privilege–or they simply choose to ignore it. The Democratic apparat more resembles the GOP version all the time, since they seem to enjoy their own hypocrisy as much as the other side.

        Of course, this is why we aren’t having a national discussion about depression-era level disemployment (“dis” as in a deliberate policy choice as opposed to mere happenstance), global warming, our aging and unregulated nuclear plants, energy issues in general, fracking, our gloriously stupid wars for profit, fraudclosure and the rest. Romney is an outsourcer, but let’s ignore Obama’s TPP and other “trade” deals which will end up doing even more damage than Romney, in his giddiest fever dream at Bain, couldn’t imagine doing.

        At what point do our institutions lose sufficient legitimacy to cause social strife? Because that seems to be where we’re headed.

        Ford Prefect

        July 19, 2012 at 1:06 pm

  3. […] that ensure that a small number of people make the biggest difference.  We need to provide an alternative way of campaigning.  That would involve the creation of permanent, grassroots organizations, that could knock on […]


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