The US Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United has opened the floodgates to money in US politics, since it ruled against limiting the amount of money that private groups can spend on elections. There are estimates that the 2016 election will see about $10 billion spent, an obscene amount. The influence of money has always been large but now it is so massive and the Federal Election Commission is so dysfunctional that the head of the FEC has pretty much thrown her hands up in the air and said that she cannot control the abuses anymore.
Since the amount of money in elections cannot be limited, resulting in the present situation where billionaires are buying up candidates, some reformers are seeking to at least partly democratize the process, by trying to balance the large amounts given by a few with a lot of small amounts given by the many.
Congressperson John Sarbanes has introduced a bill for just such a plan that has three parts.
• Everyone gets $25 to donate to candidates
All voters receive $25 per year to give to political campaigns, provided in the form of a refundable tax credit equal to half of donations up to $50. (For instance, if you donate $30 to a candidate, you get $15 of that back; to get the full $25 you have to donate $50.)
• 6 to 1 matching funds (at least) for small donors
Donations up to $150 to qualifying House and Senate candidates are matched 6 to 1 with public money. In other words, if your next door neighbor is running for Congress and you give her $50, she’ll get another $300, making $350 total.
And donations are matched 9 to 1 for candidates who completely renounce big money and take only donations of $150 or less. So if your neighbor is willing to do that, your $50 donation would turn into $500 total for her. (Moreover, if you use your $25 tax credit, that $500 she received would only cost you $25 total.)
• Help for candidates facing an onslaught of SuperPAC money, dark money, etc.
Candidates would be eligible for enhanced matching funds in the last 60 days before an election, with incentives so they would only access the funds if it’s a particularly high-cost race.
Jon Schwarz interviewed Sarbanes about his plan that has 160 so-sponsors.
I give Sarbanes’ credit for trying, and to be fair, Bernie Sanders is one of the co-sponsors of the Senate version, but I just find too many loopholes and obvious workarounds to be exploited. I think the unintended consequences here could be epic.
In the case of campaign finance reform, I don’t think we can tweak what we have, we need to change the game somehow.
Well part of the reason the FEC chair threw up her hands is that the three republicans on the panel have outright refused to prosecute any republicans no matter how egregious their crimes.
Marcus Ranum says
We have always had the best government that money can buy.
As Robert T. Morris, Sr once quipped, “The tragedy of ABSCAM is not that it showed our politicians are corrupt, it’s that you and I can afford them.”
Marcus Ranum says
I think the unintended consequences here could be epic.
I wish I thought those unintended consequences were actually unintended.
At a certain level of cynicism we are obligated to either flee or revolt. Though perhaps I ought to me, I am not yet at that level.
The only long-term and fair solution to the corruption of cash in our political system is a constitutional ammendment limiting all contributors to a certain amount, such as $500, on cash, services, or goods with a provision that the limit be subject to an inflation index. There should also be substantial criminal penalties (fines and/or prison) for violation of the limits.
In this way, each candidate would be on a level playing field and forced to depend on ideology, basic platform, or other programs to capture a winning vote. Those candidates garnering the most contributions would enjoy an advantage over others, but then that is precisely the point of democracy and a popular vote.
Amendments that specify dollar amounts are doomed to obsolescence. I would far rather have a short and sweet amendment that doesn’t say much more than “Congress and state and municipal authorities shall have the power to regulate the amounts, timing, and other characteristics of donations to political campaigns.”
What we are up against is the 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo. Unless that decision is challenged and reversed, any restrictions, specific or general, will fall before the 1st Amendment.
Better we tackle campaign finance transparency. In the Internet Age there is no reason that all contributions should not be made available to scrutiny within 24 hours of receipt. Such a requirement would not impose any restrictions or hardships any more than we expect a check deposited via an ATM to be seen by the account holder within seconds of the transaction.
This will not curb the tsunami of cash but what remains of our free and independent press will be able to follow the money and make votes plainly aware of who seeks to buy those politicians for sale.