So what can we do to change the way elections are funded in order to eliminate the “gift” economy that is corrupting our government?
Summary of the Problem
The “gift” economy is one where those seeking to influence decisions by our elected officials donate large sums to the re-election campaigns of those officials. With the recent Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, these donations don’t have to be direct. They can be to political action committees (PACs) set up to support these elected officials. Giving to these Super PACs is unlimited and anonymous. In the current republican primary cycle, for example, two of the candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, are each supported almost exclusively by one individual.
This is entirely legal as is the larger “gift” economy.
We are not talking about corrupt individuals. Instead we are talking about a form of corruption which weakens the integrity of the institution of Congress. Congress was designed by the framers of the Constitution to be “dependent on the People alone”. Instead we have an institution where even the most well intentioned members are distracted and ultimately compromised by the challenge of raising campaign funds.
The solution is not to throw them all out and elect a new set of representatives who are somehow immune from this influence. This dependency, as Lawrence Lessig points out, is “among the most human of reactions that evolution has produced. We all reward those whom we depend upon, whether or not such reward is consistent with our ideals or objectives. And we are especially prone to reward those whom we depend upon when our conduct is viewed as justified within the institution with which we are affliated.”
The only individuals who may be immune from this sort of influence are those so wealthy that they don’t need the help of others to fund their campaign. It doesn’t seem like that is a viable long term solution to this problem either.
The real solution is to design institutions that are immune to these conflicting dependencies – voters versus contributors. That design is unlikely to come from the current Supreme Court who has exacerbated the situation, so let’s look at what Congress can do.
Fair Elections Now Act
This promises to create a funding alternative for those running for Congress. It would not eliminate the “gift” economy. Instead it would give voters a choice between candidates who funded their campaigns privately and those who used public funds. Those who used public funds would agree to take voluntary small-dollar contributions from citizens which the federal government would match. If the math is done well, this would provide candidates sufficient funds to be competitive. Each candidate could raise as much money as they wanted but the limits on individual contributions would eliminate the influence of any individual contributor.
Akerman-Ayers Democracy Vouchers
In this system, the Federal government would create a fund based on a nominal amount (e.g $50 per voter). Every voter would have the option to designate their amount to the federal office candidate(s) or party of their choice. The significant difference between this proposal and the Fair Elections Now Act is that all donations are anonymous. So the recipient would not know who provided funds or who didn’t. Any unspent funds would expire either when the candidate quit the race or the election occurred.
Akerman-Ayers does not eliminate private donations either. They simply impose a limit and require these to be anonymous too. The Federal simply government serves as the broker for all donations. Individuals who wanted to give more could do so (up to a limit), but the candidate would have no way of knowing for sure who actually provided the funds. Very large donations would be disbursed in smaller amounts over time to further obscure the source of funds.
This does create the possibility of a sort of Liars Poker where large donors can claim that they provided funds to candidates but don’t actually fulfill their promise. Since the candidates are never really sure where the money came from, the expectation is that this will break the current dependency on large private donors.
Eliminate the Lobby Jobs
These two public funded options could curb the influence of campaign contributions, but don’t address the other big incentive for elected officials to respond to the requests of special interests. That other incentive is the lucrative lobby jobs that await many members of Congress once they leave elected office. Effective reform would also ban any member of Congress from working in any lobbying or consulting capacity in Washington for seven years after their last term in Congress.
This problem is not going to go away on its own. Elected officials are not going to voluntarily adopt a new system that will likely be bitterly opposed by the forces that created the “gift” economy.
It may require the growth of a new single issue consortium of voters. We’ve already seen similar sorts of spontaneously organized grass roots movements spring up on the right with the Tea Party and on the left with the Occupy movement. This new campaign finance reform group could easily draw support from across the spectrum because their only issue is campaign reform and not the politics of the individual candidates. This group would support candidates who promise that their only commitment is to implement election reform as the first and only thing that they do. If the Congress fails to take up their legislation, they will abstain or resign rather than participate in any other vote. These candidates will campaign on a very simple reform platform that is independent of party but likely supported via individuals and Super PAC money.
Given the narrow margins of victory in some legislative districts as well as on a national scale, the campaign reform group could gain some momentum because it embraces several themes that are very popular with voters right now. The first is the deep distrust of the Federal government in general and Congress in particular. The second is the dismay by moderate voters at the level of partisanship displayed by both parties. This is a long pull, but may be the only legislative way to get this done.
It is possible, even if we are able to pass laws in Congress, that all of these reforms may not pass muster in the current Supreme Court. So the ultimate resolution of this problem may be a Constitutional Convention. There is certainly risk for all sides because once this convention convenes; they can produce anything including requirements for balanced budgets or bans on abortion. The framers of the constitution understood this risk when they convened the first constitutional convention. The original articles of confederation were not working. Their stated goal was to tweak them. What they did instead was come up with a whole new structure which became the foundation for a great nation.
It may be time to take just as bold a step to strengthen our institutions of government against the corrupting influence of money that has effectively crippled it.