LIKE DEATH AND TAXES, SO IS MONEY IN POLITICS
For as long as there have been politics, money – or it’s prehistoric cousin – has been involved. And yet, for about the last 40 years, the government has been regulating it in one way or another in the United States. Before the Federal Election Campaign Act passed in 1972, campaigns were a free enterprise in this country. Yes, that’s right, strict regulation of campaign financing is a new idea. Not because politics are more corrupt, but because corruption of our constitution is more rampant. But before, other than a few brief regulations on expenditures in the 1920’s campaign finance was an open system.
Now, people act indignant about “big money” interests in the campaigns of their side’s opponents, but seem to overlook the fundraising practices of their own side. So often, the only thing that determines what some view as “dirty money” is what side of the aisle they’re on.
Almost immediately after the original FECA was passed, the Supreme Court began to whittle away, starting with Buckley v. Valeo (1976). And this judicial reprisal has continued, not because of corrupt business leaders, but because the still constitution wins more than it loses. Since 2010, most limitations on corporate donations have been deregulated, causing a whirlwind of anger among varied groups on both sides, aghast that corporations can spend money in elections. That’s because the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that third party political activism was protected as free speech. As the courts of previous generations had assumed.
Whether or not people agree with the Citizens United decision often has little to do with the principles behind the decision, or even the U.S. constitution, but rather what we think about it in reference to candidacies we don’t like. This is where I part ways, and often catch some flak for it.
I do not believe that campaign financing should be regulated at all, except in obvious pay-for-play schemes, and some reporting of donations. Even then, it’s not something the federal government is constitutionally empowered to regulate, and essentially forbidden to on a state level.
My guiding principle is simple: if everyone has access to the same foundations of capital as everyone else, there is no reason to regulate who gives it or who spends it. Similarly, I don’t think the government should tell us how much we can earn, from where and how we should budget our money. Why is campaign finance any different?
ROOTS OF CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM
Back in 1828, Andrew Jackson was known for greasing the hands of political operatives across the country and having newspapers work to promote his campaign. While he may have crossed a couple of lines, it wasn’t seen as unconstitutional. Interestingly, he was opposed by corporations during his bitter battle against the Second Bank of the United States in quite the same way, when tens of thousands of dollars were hurled into the system to oppose his efforts.
What goes around, comes around.
In his bid for the Presidency, Abraham Lincoln learned from his previous Senate bid which nearly bankrupted him and leveraged the support of some wealthy donors in big cities to finance his campaign. He simply could not have won without such help in a nation of our size at the time. After Lincoln’s death and the Civil War, figureheads of the rich class became well-known in political circles, on all political sides. Some cried foul, but it was seen by the courts as fully constitutional, and the idea of limitations were shunned.
President McKinley was the first to employ the use of national campaign strategies coordinating billboards and other media, using the dollars of corporate interests across the entire continent. For so long, the only way to overcome the physical limitations of a vast nation and the virtual divide with the masses was to seek out wealthy sponsors. This was especially helpful if you were a newcomer or not as well organized. Money talks loudly, and some upstarts began to utilize limited, but wealthy resources at the turn of the century.
I believe the advent of real third parties motivated the first round of regulations, as the effective Bull Moose, Progressive and Socialist parties began investing heavily in local races in the early 1900’s. By 1924, the government began to restrict some expenditures. The influence of Ross Perot and Ralph Nader in the mid 1990’s and Pat Buchanan’s virtual layup to George W. Bush in 2000 surely gave a headache to established politicians in Washington. Campaign finance reform had the known-but-unspoken potential of limiting smaller, unorganized political mechanisms. In 1999, John Doolittle (R-CA) introduced a House bill that would have eliminated all federal limits on donations, but expanded and specified disclosures, saying that more regulation would “abridge our precious God-given right to speak.” I could have supported this. But, the bill died. Instead, the House pursued tighter restrictions in September of that year, and culminated three years later in the McCain-Feingold bill of 2002. It was perfectly timed (you could say motivated) after the stressful 2000 presidential election. It seemed to facilitate the demise of the national Green and Reform Parties. Perhaps it was just a coincidence.
Since Citizens United, conservatives have began rushing money into organizations like never before. Liberals of course are beside themselves, but conveniently dismiss their support for forced-union dues and use of education alliances for decades. In 2012 alone, records show unions donated more than $400 million, mostly to Democrat causes.
The truth for me is that I don’t care where the money comes from or who it goes to. The money should go where I want it to, if I’m a donor. Of course, as the layers of campaign finance regulation are slowly peeled off there are some inconsistencies. Right now, according to the FEC I am limited to $2,600 per election cycle to my Congressman or presidential candidate. But if a corporation wanted to spend $1 million on an election, they could do so in many ways, both via “issue” and “express advocacy.” Why am I limited, but corporations are not? Such disparities need to be resolved.
But, the FEC gives us one reminder after another that government agencies self-perpetuate and grow insatiably. Just this last week, the Republican Chairman of the FEC presided over a quibble between lawmakers deciding whether or not to extend regulations to the publisher of Rep. Paul Ryan’s forthcoming book, “The Way Forward.” His public warning came from a concern that the FEC may be trying to expand it’s powers in a way it never has before. It never stops.
I KNOW YOU ARE, BUT WHAT AM I?
The most common argument against laissez faire campaign finance is the influence of the rich over the regular folks. Accusations fly about those evil billionaires, and the name most brought up by the left is the Koch family. On the right, George Soros is anathema. Charles and David Koch have used their wealth to fund research and policy initiatives in the Mercatus Center, Americans for Prosperity, and the libertarian think tanks, Reason Foundation and Cato Institute. Soros funnels millions through the Open Society Institute, MoveOn.org, Democracy Alliance and the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Meanwhile there are hundreds of billionaires and tens of thousands of millionaires that also give to causes they believe in.
And according to the mainstream media the conventional wisdom is that this isn’t democracy. But I’m not sure why. Democracy is the ability of each person to exert their value in a process. As long as the free flow of money can come from everyone, not just the rich, I do not see the problem here. As it is, most of the money candidates raise come from small donations under $100.
Liberals frequently name their boogeymen, the Koch brothers as some evil imperialists but ignore their charitable work, and their own political players. Just a brief glimpse – or Google search – will reveal names like Pat Stryker, David Bonderman, Linda Pritzker, Stewart and Linda Resnik, and of course George Soros. For every billionaire on the right, I know of one on the left.
Soros spent $25 million against George W. Bush in 2004 and has disbursed about $8 billion so far in the last 30 years. Tom Steyer is a popular hedge fund manager who has pledged to spend $100 million of his own money in 2014 alone. David Bonderman, founder of TGP capital is another who has donated millions for his causes for many years. But liberals are silent on them.
It’s not all political. While the Koch brothers donate hundreds of millions to cancer research and other scientific ventures (about $1 billion total to all charities since 2000), George Soros has plowed his own hundreds of millions of dollars into education initiatives and universities.
SO, WHO CARES?
According to OpenSecrets.org there are 22 billionaires that are also the highest donors in national politics (local races are almost impossible to track). Of those, 13 give primarily to the Democrat Party and it’s allies, while 9 give primarily to Republican interests.
All sides have access to capital, and all individuals should have the power to influence politics as they see fit. Especially in the 21st century, where over 2/3 of donations come from the easier marketing and collection of small donations, we have more power than ever before. Teams of dozens of America’s brightest marketing and sales professionals run dozens of organizations dedicated to raising money and affecting the political system now that the Citizens United decision has freed them to do so.
Now, here in Wisconsin Governor Walker has been under fire from the left for supposed “dark money” and “collusion” of interests. Local prosecutors were persuaded by those here and across the country to pursue potential charges against him, except two federal judges have dismissed these concerns and halted the investigation. Walker did nothing illegal, or that the other side does not also do. It is not underhanded. What exactly is wrong with it? Now, the left is apoplectic about this, as though democracy has ended and the Age of the Oligarch has descended upon us.
Well, why haven’t their panties been in a wad over the announcement that several elite liberal donors have pledged $100 million this cycle to help the Democrats fend off a sure Republican gain in the U.S. Senate? Because they are comfortable with their side having the money to finance their message in democratic elections.
Again, as long as there have been elections with people vying for votes among the people, money has been a part of the process. We cannot change the history of mankind by trying to regulate it out of existence, only limit the abuse of one side over another. Anything else usually results in more of the corruption we were trying to avoid. Since the system has been more liberated, the last 4 years have seen millions of more people and dozens of the organizations they collectively support get involved in the process, and thanks to the internet and the instant news cycle there is more accountability and closeness to a candidacy than ever. Sounds crazy to some, but it’s true.
So, where’s the beef?