Posts Tagged ‘campaign finance’
Not long ago, elite Democrats began to reflect the concerns of ordinary people by talking about rampant and increasing inequality. This is a particularly good frame for Democrats seeking public support, but they soon abandoned it in favor of more bland talk about ‘opportunity’. I suspect this is because ‘inequality’ is a very bad frame for anyone seeking support from financial elites–the donor class–which is necessary but often ignored in our talk about politics. As I’ve insisted repeatedly, our political talk often begins from the premise that the public drives politics and policy, while certain things (like money) can interfere in this process. But in reality, money drives much of the process, with the public having influence within the bounds set by money. That is, assuming they have any influence at all. Organized people can beat organized money, but people who aren’t organized don’t stand a chance. And that describes most of us, most of the time.
Erika Eichelberger has a great and depressing story on how some Democrats (and more Republicans), are trying to weaken the major financial regulation legislation Dodd-Frank, passed in response to the financial crisis, before it takes full effect. This massive legislation requires a great deal of administrative rule making to implement it
A group of 21 House lawmakers—including eight Democrats—is pushing seven separate bills that would dramatically scale back financial reform. The proposed laws, which are scheduled to come before the House financial-services committee for consideration in mid-April, come straight on the heels of a major Senate investigation that revealed that JP Morgan Chase had lost $6 billion dollars by cooking its books and defying regulators—who themselves fell asleep on the job. Why the move to gut Wall Street reform so soon? Financial-reform advocates say Democrats might be supporting deregulation because of a well-intentioned misunderstanding of the laws, which lobbyists promise are consumer-friendly. But, reformers add, it could also have something to do with Wall Street money.
“The default position of many members of Congress is to do what Wall Street wants. They are a main source of funding,” says Bartlett Naylor, a financial-policy expert at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. “These are relatively complicated [bills]. It’s easy to come to the misunderstanding that they are benign.”
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.
Politics isn’t hard. Here Robert Reich, as he often does, boils things down to their essence.
One of the best parts of this is that Reich doesn’t let conservatives define themselves, or attack them for failing to live up to supposed conservative principles. He connects our history, or the better parts of it, with our future. He offers a narrative of American and conservatives that makes sense of where we are and were we need to go.
I only have one objection. Number four is treating corporations as people and money as speech under the First Amendment, “thereby inundating our democracy with campaign money from billionaires and big corporations and Wall Street so the rest of us cannot be heard”. I’ve objected to this formulation before. First, it places all the responsibility on the Supreme Court for a situation also caused by Congress, campaign consultants, the media and candidates. Second, it wrongly suggests the solution is “less speech” not increasing the opportunity for the excluded voices to be heard.* And third it suggests that the only way to address it is a constitutional amendment.
I’d say the issue here is a system that is corrupt. It forces candidates to spend all their time fundraising while those with the most money are guaranteed to be heard by public officials while the issues the rest of us care about are kept off the agenda. People-powered campaigns are the first step to solving this problem as well as demanding that corporations be transparent about their spending (both campaign and lobbying, which is left out of the money=speech framework) and require shareholders to approve them. We could also work to ensure institutional investors are committed to voting no (and to limiting CEO pay, golden parachutes and bonuses).
*As long as there is no trigger mechanism where candidates get more funding when the other side spends more, this poses no problem as far as the Court is concerned.
A common refrain is that until the problem of money in politics is dealt with, we can’t achieve anything. Often, the focus is on Citizens United*, and the necessity of a constitutional amendment to overturn it. The difficulty here should be obvious – enacting a constitutional amendment is exceedingly difficult, it would require gaining support from plenty of red states in addition to the blue and purple ones, it would require a set of strategies different from those common in campaigns now (i.e. ad driven, because why would big money donors support it), etc. How could this be achieved in a system that is broken? Obviously, one needs a way to improve the situation that can operate within the existing system, or there is no way out. By focusing on a constitutional amendment (without offering a path to get there), we offer people two choices – fatalism, or magic thinking. Neither view is very useful.**
It strikes me the key is to 1) find strategies that rely less on big money, preferably by harnessing the energy of the large majorities of Americans who oppose Citizens United and are concerned about corruption in politics and 2) finding reachable, intermediate goals that could create a path to major change but wouldn’t require it in order to be achieved.
In terms of strategies, face to face interaction is more powerful than advertisements both in getting people to vote and in engaging them to act. This would require building a permanent organizing infrastructure (that is, one that is not created and dismantled around individual campaigns). It would mean relying on volunteers over paid staff. And it will require choosing frames that inspire excitement and support rather than those that poll well with independents. This sort of organizing can’t be limited to elections–when people mobilize to elect candidates and then demobilize when those candidates take office, the policy that results will be a disappointment, as corporate interests and conservatives will continue to fight. It has to include battles over policy and organizing in the workplace as well.
What about the intermediate steps? Well, first corporations can be pressured directly to disclose their spending, and shareholders can pressure corporations not to use their money to advance political causes. (On the latter, remember the recent efforts to pressure corporations to stop supporting ALEC). The rules governing corporations could be changed to require them to get shareholder support in order to engage in electioneering or lobbying. Public funding could be instituted at the state level (as long as they don’t include a trigger where candidates get more spending when they are being outspent the Supreme Court is unlikely to strike it down ,and it’s not clear that these triggers are necessary.) And as an organizing infrastructure is created, it can be used to support candidates who in turn could be pressured not to use media strategies that require large donors.
None of this would be easy, but all of it is easier than a constitutional amendment. Regardless, any approach has to operate within the system.
*I’m not convinced that Citizens United is the problem. The system was fairly broken before that decision. There’s little doubt that in the wake of the decision the amounts of campaign cash skyrocketed. But simply returning to the pre-Citizens United rules would be no solution, and neither would placing spending limits on corporations alone.
**I’m leaving aside the question of disclosure, because I fail to see how 1) it’s possible using existing strategies or 2) why it would matter much. I knew a number of people who worked in the business campaign finance sector in the late 90s. Back then, any conversation about campaign finance ended with their suggestion that the solution was full disclosure. I don’t think it was because they wanted to limit the power of business.
David Dayen has a really good take on how the decision to go forward with a recall in Wisconsin narrowed the possibilities there that’s well worth checking out. A taste:
The populist movement that arose from the uprising could have used every dollar given to a politician or an outside campaign spending group and used it in community-based organizing. We could have seen well-funded nonviolent actions. We could have seen education campaigns, going door to door with a message rather than an ask to support Tom Barrett or whoever else. We could have seen economic boycotts on Walker-supporting businesses. We could have seen more organizing into broad coalitions around the idea of repealing the rights-stripping collective bargaining law. We could have seen an insurgent movement, one that captured the energy of the uprising rather than re-channeled it.