American Culture

If politicians can be bought, the public must do the buying

If you and I — the electoral “we” — share dismay, disgust and despair over the overt and covert roles of corporate and special-interest money in politics, then it’s time buy back our government and our democracy. It’s time to outbid the corpo-kleptocracy for the largesse and lawmaking of our politicians.

Have a position on health care reform? Upset with immigration policy? Got a beef about about farm subsidies? Got an attitude about abortion, either pro or con? Think defense spending’s a problem? Irritated about paying for the Iraq War? Angry about the erosion of privacy rights? Think public education needs to be reformed? Tired of inaction about climate change?

Whatever our issues, whatever our points of view, whatever our positions, they don’t matter — because there’s an industry or a special interest that has outbid our politicians for their ears. Thus we may shout as loudly as we can, but our politicians do not hear us. We’ve been outspent and out-influenced. As long as our campaign financing debacle is not addressed by the very politicians who need corpo-kleptocratic money to be elected — and stay elected — our voices will be diminished to mere whimpers.

The 2008 presidential election will be the most expensive in history. Says FEC commissioner Michael E. Toner: “We are looking at a $100 million entry fee.” It gets worse, however, for all federal elections.

Elections are expensive at any governmental level. But at the federal level — presidential and congressional — the cost truly spikes. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2006 mid-term elections cost $2.8 billion, making the 2006 midterms the most expensive ever.

That’s 2006. Estimates for the costs of all federal contests for 2008 reach as high as $5 billion to $6 billion — with the presidential race alone expected to hit well more than $1 billion with some estimates reaching $3 billion. A CNN consultant’s analysis says the cost to influence the 2008 elections through televised political ads may reach $3 billion, up from $1.7 billion in 2004 and $2.3 billion in 2006.

And where’s the money coming from to pay these huge sums?

The non-partisan CRP, which analyzes campaign finance, says the top industries have stepped up their donations considerably:

On average, top-giving industries and interests have increased their total contributions to candidates for Congress and president, as well as to national party committees, by 46 percent since the same point in time four years ago. [See chart at bottom of CRP press release.]

Aside from donating as individuals the maximum amount allowed by law (if we can understand the law), our collective public will and wealth has been expressed through public campaign financing underwritten by a checkoff on our IRS 1040s and overseen by the Federal Election Commission.

But that’s a paltry undertaking. And more of us think so, because fewer of us mark that checkoff box: “Only 7.3% of 2006 tax returns filed from Jan. 1 to April 14 designated a $3 contribution to the public campaign-financing system, according to data the Internal Revenue Service prepared for USA Today.” In addition, a USA Today/Gallup Poll shows 46 percent of respondents would like to see campaigns financed solely with private money instead of public money.

The predictable consequence? As of March, the fund for public financing of presidential elections contained only $170 million. That amount wouldn’t even get one presidential candidate through the primaries. Says one political analyst, Richard Hasen, a campaign expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, “It would be political suicide to accept public financing as a presidential candidate today.”

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a non-partisan group that backs public financing, wants a bigger checkoff on the IRS form; he’d raise it to $10. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and David Price, D-N.C., have filed a bill to raise the fund’s spending limits — up to $150 million for primaries and $100 million for the general election.

These are nothing but ineffectual band-aids. They’re either not thinking big enough or they’re just trying to position themselves as campaign-finance reformers. Public financing — even with the around-the-edges tinkering suggested — is woefully insufficient as a means to outbid the corpo-kleptocratic players who now rule campaign finance and, by our collective public default, much if not most of the thinking and doing by candidates and incumbents.

An important point to remember: Politicians, believe it or not, don’t like the means by which elections are run and paid for any more than we do. It is demeaning and stressful. It requires them to attend thinly disguised fundraisers several evenings a week. It requires flying home to the district each weekend (actually, from Thursday to Tuesday) not necessarily to see the family but to raise more money. It requires them to make decisions on legislation that may not be in the best interests of their constituents, the nation or democracy in general. It reduces them to pawns who spend up to half their time sucking up to the corpo-kleptocracy and special interests. They live in sleep deprivation, and it shows.

That means they’re not working on the public’s business as much or as effectively as they could be. They’re not reading legislation before they vote on it, relying on staff memos instead. They’re not doing substantial work in Senate and House subcommittees. Staff do it. Imagine a Congress run by representatives and senators who actually get enough sleep to be productive, thoughtful and imaginative.

We’ve got to find a way to remove politicians from that fundraising frenzy. We have to outbid the corpo-kleptocrats.

Call your representatives and senators. Tell them to immediately sponsor or co-sponsor a bill that would raise from general taxation $10 billion a year, indexed for inflation, to pay for all federal elections. That would raise $40 billion every four years. At the moment, that would easily outbid the corpo-kleptocrats for the mid-term and presidential election years. When the corpo-klepto spending begins to catch up, increase the amount to be raised through general taxation.

Do not require candidates to accept money from this new fund. Just tell federal candidates it’s either use the public’s money or that of the corpo-kleptocrats — but not both.

Retain FEC oversight of campaign contributions. Keep limits on individual campaign contributions, indexed for inflation. Keep the heat on limiting campaign donations from the corpo-kleptocracy. Retain the constitutional mandate for free speech as expressed through campaign donations.

But if candidates accept money from the public from this new fund, require rigorous accounting for every last dime of public money spent. If they take the public’s money, fine them severely if they then accept any other money.

That $10 billion annual addition to the federal budget would represent 0.0004 percent of President Bush’s fiscal 2008 federal spending request. That’s a cheap price to pay to get our government back.

The corpo-kleptocrats will, of course, vehemently and financially oppose such an initiative. A Republican president would undoubtedly veto such a bill (and don’t count too heavily on a Democratic president supporting it, either).

Ten billion dollars a year is a small price to pay to outbid the corpo-kleptocrats for control of our government. Many politicians, sadly, are bred to be bought. So let’s buy them back from industries and special interests.

We simply can’t afford not to anymore.

9 replies »

  1. And I’d say you’re still not going far enough. Pardon my magic wand, but the only way you solve this problem is by banning ALL non-public money from elections. All of it. No corporate donations, no individual donations, and nobody can pay for their campaigns out of their own pockets, either. Running for president? You get $X just like all other qualifying candidates.

    And that horsewax Supreme Court nonsense about money = speech? Yeah, that has to be explicitly overturned by Congressional action.

    Our Constitution has served us fairly well, but the more I ponder these sorts of issue the more I’m convinced the old girl needs an overhaul.

    The only problem there is that there isn’t anybody out there I trust to DO the overhauling.

    So, where did you say I could find those people who’d pay me for my vote?

  2. I can’t go that far — yet. I’d first like to see public financing of such magnitude that it becomes a viable and logical choice over private money.

    If that fails, I say we all take the money we get from selling our votes, buy an island in the South Pacific, rename it “Scrogueland,” and drink ourselves silly.

  3. Actually, Dr. Slammy, what Denny is proposing just might work without going through the all-but-impossible effort to throw a new amendment on to the Constitution.

    I would also amend Dr. Denny’s proposal, but only to dump more money into the campaign fund. That would make taking private money less useful, and ensure that anyone foregoing public money must have some VERY deep-pocket backers, indeed.

    Doc Denny’s proposal would mean that anyone taking public money could accuse any opponent who takes private money of being on the take, essentially. Accepting private money, when public money is more than adequate, will look awfully fishy to the average voter. This thing might just work out all on its own.

    And Dr. Denny, THANK YOU for giving me a new way to put this to people. I had been saying, “Pay more now or REALLY pay me later.” But I love the idea of outbidding the special interests!

  4. “We’ve got to find a way to remove politicians from that fundraising frenzy. We have to outbid the corpo-kleptocrats” … And this is part of what I have a problem with, the apparent “competition” that doesn’t really need to be there.

    The first 2 posts cover most of it fairly well, I think.. But let’s also consider this. Reagan took out the Fairness Doctrine.. and now shows like FOX NEWS are out there, allowed to LIE to the public by court approvals. There are 2 major issues that brings up.. First, our “public airwaves” aren’t being -reasonably- utilized. We’re letting the corps have access to things that belong to us, but we can’t compete with? Secondly, allowing a lie in political speech and calling it “free speech”, while still having “libel” and “slander” on the books seems.. well, to be blunt, insane. Clearly “lying” to the public to sway public opinion about matters that directly concern the public can’t be in the publics best interest, can it? At least, not if we want any semblance of a real Democracy in the U.S.

    Companies profit by using our airwaves, it’s time to force them back to supporting the Democracy that feeds them. Equal time to ALL candidates, no more “lying in political ads” (and those lawsuits get prosecuted for free by the courts so small independents can defend themselves against the mega-corp liars and manipulators), no more letting them get RICH off of the electoral system (you do realize that political advertising is something like the 3rd most lucrative income stream for media, right?). Time for the big media using our airwaves to help, not hinder. I think -that- is something most candidates could get behind.. Well, Democrats and Independants, anyway.. 😉