After Hillary Clinton fundraiser Norman Hsu was discovered to be a fugitive from justice, we could assume no candidate will ever again accept large donations from anyone who pleaded no contest to grand theft charges. But we’d be avoiding the real question.
Who compels fundraisers to launder and bundle money to win elections? We, the voters, do – by believing that money from political action committees (PACs) and private sources can fund honorable political campaigns. We’ve traded the overt bribery of the 19th-century political machine for a craven packaged politics where pay-to-play prospers under a respectable veneer. Until we overhaul our public financing system and get private money out of politics entirely, we will continue to sponsor the corruption of democracy.
Newspapers run stories on the presidential race that equate cash with credibility. The cost of a House or Senate seat has quadrupled in constant dollars since 1976. Only six one-hundredths of one percent of voting-age citizens provided nearly 60 percent of funding for the 2000 presidential primaries. Such extreme concentration of influence resembles oligarchy, not representative government. It makes money a proxy for popular will.
When the Supreme Court in 1976 protected unlimited campaign spending as a form of free speech, we began to protect the fortunate few, deny equal protection to the many, and drown out the voices of “ordinary” citizens. Any ethic of equal representation demands that we blunt money’s disproportionate leverage as a means of expression.
Consider the merits of a voluntary (and constitutional) full public-financing system for all political campaigns. Candidates would voluntarily agree to decline private funding, since the Court prevents them from being mandated to do so. They would qualify for public funding by raising a significant number of individual $5 contributions, to demonstrate relevance and viability. And should they face a privately funded opponent, they’d get “fair fight” funds to be fully competitive.
Why? To level democracy’s tilted table. Encourage a broader array of donors and candidates. Improve the accountability of government. Remove the armor of incumbency. And preempt public spending from being distended – and policy from being distorted – by private donor and PAC manipulation.
It can’t be done? It’s already happening. Globally, 20 advanced democracies have public financing. Lawmakers and governors on both sides of the aisle in 14 states have launched it in some form. Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine provide it for all statewide and legislative races.
Voters wouldn’t support “welfare for politicians”? We already do, in government of, by, and for the lobbyists. Last year Congress blew $591 per voting-age citizen on earmarks and offshore tax havens alone. Full public financing for all House, Senate, and presidential races would cost less than one percent of that wretched excess – $5.27 per voting-age citizen per year, according to Common Cause and five other voting-rights organizations. Three in 4 voters surveyed last year across party lines support a voluntary public financing system.
Politicians won’t change the system that protects them? Congress banned soft money when voters got vocal. Publicly funded state legislators appreciate spending only a third of the time fundraising that their privately funded peers do.
We can reform the system incrementally? With private money, transparency is fantasy. Post-Watergate reforms led to an increase in spending for congressional seats from $9 million in 1968 to $89 million in 1972. McCain-Feingold’s soft-money crackdown doubled hard money limits. Incremental reform has been a mirage for decades.
Full public financing is too radical? Not for the states – nor for Teddy Roosevelt, who attempted it in 1907. Democracy itself was a radical concept when the founders framed it. Our electoral system has evolved substantially since the days when only white, wealthy, male landowners were allowed to vote.
If too many candidates opt out, creating no resistance to spiraling spending, a constitutional amendment would have to override the Supreme Court’s Orwellian money-is-speech ruling – no trivial matter. But there’s precedent for electoral reform: Outrage over manipulation of senators when they were appointed by state legislatures led to direct elections through an amendment in 1913.
Voters have ranked corruption above the economy, terrorism, and Iraq on their list of concerns. If you’re among them, call your senator’s office in support of the Durbin-Specter Fair Elections Now Act. Accountable reform in healthcare, energy, the environment, and other lobby-heavy domains is delusional until we stop electing lawmakers with their money.
The choice between status quo and clean money is clear. Expand pay-to-play, earmarks, ballooning deficits, incumbency, legislative manipulation, deepening cynicism, and voter apathy.
Or apply a modest amount of neutral public funding to deliver true transparency, competition on the issues, responsible governance, and responsiveness to the pressing concerns of the people rather than an oligarchy of deep pockets.
The prospect of full public financing is far more plausible than pretending that candidates can ignore donor innuendo over dinner.
Originally appeared in the Monitor on October 29, 2007