Monday, October 10, 2011

Dictator for a Day: Campaign Finance

As we drift into the election season I'm feeling that same old, sinking feeling I get every time the talking head parade begins. The feeling got worse after the Supreme Court's inexplicable 'Citizens United' decision a few years ago that all but wiped away any meaningful campaign finance restrictions.

Particularly over the last 30 years, our election system has become increasingly corrupted by money. Money in the hundreds of Millions of dollars floods into groups associated with candidates and political parties. Until recently there were a hodgepodge of campaign finance laws that made at least a valiant attempt to stem the tide of cash that surged into every election. But with one ruling, the now infamous 'Citizens United' decision, the Supreme Court swept most of them away. There are now only a few threadbare restrictions on the Who and How Much of campaign finance. Kind of like patching a dyke with a screen door. There are more than a few avenues and sleights of hand in place to allow anyone or any organization in America to donate without limit.

A great example is Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS. It's a so called 501(C)(4) group that not only can accept unlimited sums of money, but doesn't have to tell anyone where the money comes from. The only ghost of a restriction is that they are not allowed to coordinate with individual candidates, as if that's any functional impediment. GPS and its sister group, which does divulge its donors, spent roughly $71 Million in support of Republicans during the 2010 midterm. About 90% of GPS' total collections for that cycle, according to some sources, came from just a few Billionaires. For the 2012 elections they are setting a goal of $240 Million! That's just for two, supposedly independent, groups. If this kind of money, for the Right or Left, doesn't scare you, then you are not thinking it through to its logical conclusion.

This trend is toxic for a functioning democracy. The more money the wealthy and big corporations spend the more control they gain over the system. Sure we all still get a vote, but big money is gaining more and more control over who the candidates are, what we hear about them and what their policy positions are. Money determines what messages are broadcast into our family rooms and how often we hear it. Even a stupid idea, repeated loudly enough and often enough will start to take hold. There are just too many Americans who are either too naive or too lazy to look past the bullet points. They just let ads, pundits and party loyalty guide them blindly along the path without ever asking themselves if what they are being told even makes sense.

Just look at the 2008 financial debacle, if you don't believe me. Various parts of the United States financial industry destroyed the nation's economy and kicked the legs out from under much of the industrialized world. There isn't really even any debate over this fact anymore, aside from the question of whether it was a case of apathy or ignorance. But having done that, and then being rescued because we were all terrified of what might happen if the big banks actually failed all at once, they used every bit of pressure they could bring to bear to kill or weaken any attempt at true, meaningful reform. Even the financial reform bill that did finally emerge has been beaten and bloodied ceaselessly by Wall Street lobbyists to protect their astoundingly profitable casino. Actually, I should apologize as that's an insult to casinos who, unlike our banks, are required to actually have enough money on hand to cover all their bets. So even a blatantly obvious need to reform the banking system can't stand up to the massed checkbooks of that same industry.

If I was Dictator for a Day, the first thing on my list would be a Constitutional Amendment completely revamping campaign finance. Put simply, the days of big money control of US elections would be over.

First, no group, PAC, union or corporation of any kind could donate to political campaigns. Period. This would include these supposedly independent groups like Crossroads GPS. The only legal way to donate would be from individual citizen contributions.

Second, there would be a cap on individual donations, similar to current standards, with a $2500 per election cycle and $5000 per calendar year limit, adjusted for inflation in odd calendar years. Anyone found in violation of these limits would be guilty of voter fraud, face heavy fines and would be barred from donating to any candidate for at least one election cycle.

Third, each candidate would be allowed to create or hire ONE company/organization to manage the collection and disbursement of donations. They would all be licensed & renewed yearly. Their donation records would be available under normal Freedom of Information act rules. Anonymous donations would be illegal. Each group would face at least two random audits per election cycle. The audits would check general fiscal operations as well as take random samplings of donation records to confirm they are indeed real adult, US Citizens. Groups in violation of these rules, beyond a tiny margin for legitimate errors, would face draconian financial penalties, immediate cessation of campaign finance operations, a freeze on all funds and lose their license for a minimum of 2 years.

Fourth, candidates could not use their own personal funds for their campaigns. They would only be able to donate as individuals with the same limits.

Fifth, 'gifts' to candidates would be heavily restricted and fully public under Freedom of Information like rules.

I'm sure there are many details that would have to be ironed out or added, but you get the idea. This would go a long way towards leveling the playing field for voters. The wealthiest individuals and companies would no longer be able to simply buy elections. Sure there's no way to completely bolt the door shut, not considering how devious some of these people are. But it would make it much more difficult and if they were caught they would face more than a slap on the wrist. This amendment would also have the added benefit of preventing the waste of hundreds of Millions of dollars that could be put to far better use. Look, we have a big problem with our election system, but it's not yet too corrupt to reform. Unless of course we continue to ignore the problem till election day becomes nothing but a technicality to placate the masses.


  1. "The Court's ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution."
    -- Justice Stevens, dissenting in Citizens United (joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor).

    In a country of millions, kind of amazing that just one vote had such an impact on this important issue.

  2. The court's decision was the right one. You can't make exceptions to freedom of speech while still enjoying freedom of speech. Although many people these days seem to expect that they can have it both ways.

    I have often wished that contributions were limited to individuals, and that there was an arbitrary level playing field. The McCain–Feingold Act made a valiant attempt, but in the end it's a virtual legal impossibility because most all restrictions on advertising or donation of dollars by individuals, PAC's or corporations conflicts with the constitution.

    The extreme left likes to use this to infer that big money is somehow in control of elections. And of course on the extreme left, money, anyone with ambitions to earn money and anyone who has money, is inherently evil. This is a seductive line of reasoning until you put the theory into a real-world scenario test.

    Fact is that this dynamic doesn't always work the way one might expect. To date, for this election cycle "wall street" is the single biggest corporate contributor to the Obama campaign even while the Obama administration seeks to all but destroy the banking system through regulation. While Ron Paul, certainly the left's and many on the right's worst nightmare, enjoys a wind-fall of individual contributions from very loyal supporters. So the dictator has constructed a system where Obama would have to return millions of dollars, leaving Ron Paul as the last man standing with a viable war chest.

    I've begrudgingly come to accept that these things largely even out in the wash. Because in the end it's one person with one vote, and contributions are only toxic in the scope of a corrupt candidate. Each voter has the option not to vote for a corrupt candidate.

  3. Response to Anonymous on October 19th:

    I still don't understand how money equals free speech. I really don't see how that works. Everyone can contact their political representatives and speak their mind. Not everyone can give them a Million dollars. Completely different ideas in my book. I stand by my feeling that the sweeping nature of the 'Citizens United' ruling was a huge mistake. It makes it all but legal to buy elections and if you can buy the elections, then you can influence the judicial appointments. At that point the Constitution can be 'interpreted' in just about any way you can imagine. The only thing that makes it all work is a fair and balanced election system. Corrupt that and democracy will begin to fade as the will of the people is replaced by the will of the corporate world. Nothing is more corrupting than money and there was already too much of it in politics even before the CU ruling.

    You mention legal impossibilities, but the entire point of my post was being able to dictate a new amendment to the Constitution that would provide a framework to limit the influence of money and make it much more balanced so the super rich wouldn't have so much control over the candidates and elections. It would level the donation 'playing field'. Therefore it wouldn't conflict with the Constitution since it would BE the Constitution. Remember, it's not a static document. It was designed to be modified to fit new circumstances.

    "even while the Obama administration seeks to all but destroy the banking system through regulation."

    I'm sorry but that statement is so silly, dare I say ignorant, I'm not sure where to begin! Do you read/listen to anyone who isn't paid by Fox news? Ever since the banking industry nearly destroyed not only the US economy, but kicked at least one leg out from under Europe as well, the only reform passed has been the Dodd-Frank bill. Even that was watered way down to get it passed and it's STILL being attacked at every turn. The banking industry is at least as profitable as it was in 2007, even as the rest of the country is continuing to suffer three years later. I truly wish Obama HAD shackled them with a few rules, but so far very little has changed. So I'm unclear what 'regulations' you are referring to. I don't think that word means what you think it means. Look, the financial industry is like a child who shouldn't even be allowed to tie their own shoes unsupervised because eventually they'll figure out how to make money by tying them together! That is why they must have adult supervision. This supervision won't "all but destroy the banking system", but it just might keep them from all but destroying the economy . . . AGAIN!

    While I agree with some of Ron Paul's social ideas, many of his financial ones are pretty 'out there'. I'm afraid true Libertarianism is one of those exciting academic exercises that would never actually function in the real world. It makes too many assumptions about the free market that are flawed and relies too much on people being responsible, both long term and short. If there's one thing our financial system is astronomically bad at these days, it's long term thinking. Go much beyond a year and they don't really care anymore. Don't believe me? Then explain the series of bubbles and how the system seemed completely unprepared when reality popped them. The more money being made NOW, the less anyone cares about what will happen in the future.

  4. Because in the Democratic Dictatorship of Erik, if you placed an ad in the paper that supports any candidate, and that ad costs $2500.01, you must go to jail for exercising your "free" speech. Or maybe you just wonder about town and hand out flyers. Well those flyers have a dollar value, your time has a dollar value, and again you go to jail if that value is determined to be over $2500. And I can promise you that the opposing party will argue very hard in court that you have in effect given greater than $2500 to a candidate.

    A great number of PAC's are labor unions and (history lesson) PAC's were created to allow labor unions and certain trade groups to buy the election for FDR. Ouch, looks like you just knee capped your own party.

    So I guess the lesson here is that the first rule of setting up a proper dictatorship is to immediately institute enough laws to prevent yourself from being the first one sent off to Siberia.

  5. $2500 is a lot of money, more than I could ever afford. Why does my rich neighbour get to buy the election?

  6. Response to Anonymous on October 24th:

    As I clearly stated in the final paragraph, "I'm sure there are many details that would have to be ironed out or added, but you get the idea . . . Sure there's no way to completely bolt the door shut, not considering how devious some of these people are. But it would make it much more difficult and if they were caught they would face more than a slap on the wrist." There will always be wiggle room on things such as personal time and such, but an amendment such as I outlined would eliminate the vast majority of the problem and make it easier for a candidate with good ideas, but no wealthy backers to be a viable candidate. Is it perfect? Of course not! But if the choice is between just letting it slide or making a thoughtful attempt at reform, I choose reform.

    "So I guess the lesson here is that the first rule of setting up a proper dictatorship is to immediately institute enough laws to prevent yourself from being the first one sent off to Siberia."

    Yeah, you so completley got me with that one. Why didn't I think of that? (<-- Sarcasm Alert) The entire idea of 'Dictator for a Day' is to implement something that our disfunctional system would never be able to do due to partisan infighting and political self interest. It's about fairness, not helping your own party. The "real lesson here" is that you either don't care about the idea of fairness, irregardless of party, or are conveniently ignoring it because it doesn't fit your narrative.

  7. Yes, the devil is in the details (so to speak). Except the only fair dollar amount is zero since there are many with no budget for political contributions, and sometimes no budget for anything else at all.

    And I was completely wrong on the dictator thing. Everyone knows the first order of business is to kill or jail (but preferably kill) all that may oppose you and seize all assets for yourself. Big
    money may leave a bruise, but there will be a big money problem no more in the DDoE.


Please let me know what you think, even if it's to disagree.