campaign_finance

Campaign Finance Reform

(Topics: Administration & Security | Back to Home)

I could give you a big explanation about all the various ways that money gets into politics. Direct donations to candidates, donations to the party, donations to advocacy groups that support individual candidates or groups of candidates, donations to regular political action committees, donations to “super” political action committees (aka SuperPACs) and so on.

But in summary, there is no practical limit to the amount of money that can be spent on political campaigns, as long as you have the legal knowledge to follow the rules (or are willing to pay the fines) [1]. And, politicians are passing laws that make it even easier to raise and spend money without disclosing the details—even though most people are opposed decisions like Citizens United [2]. Yet another case of doing what almost nobody wants.

Limiting Spending is Practically Impossible

If you think campaign finance reform is viable, I have bad news for you. Given today's cultural and political reality, I don't think that we can effectively limit how much is spent on campaigns. This is because of a couple of key facts.

First, people can spend their own money on whatever they want. If you support or oppose “Proposition 254” then you can use your own markers and poster board to make a sign for your own yard. This is a donation to a campaign. You providing a “thing of value.” You can also go into business selling these signs, regardless of whether or not you are coordinating with any official campaign. It's hard to see how the Federal Election Commission (FEC) or any other government body would track these things.

Second, reporting is a voluntary act. This is true for lots of things. If you made money in the last year, you're supposed to report it to the IRS. But lots of people keep the money they earn—especially cash—because there is no easy way for the IRS to find out about it. Likewise, if money is spent to promote a political view in advance of an election, how is the FEC going to know about it unless it's reported?

Third, as big as campaign spending is, it's not actually that big. We spend about $10 billion each cycle. But you know what we also spend roughly the same on every year in the United States? Chewing gum [3]. Think about how much you spend on chewing gum each year, and about the same amount is being spent on you by political campaigns. Despite what it seems like up until election day, campaign spending is not a major part of our economy.

Given the amount of power and influence lawmakers have (that is: too much power, that is a fantastic deal for them. With a relatively small investment, they are able to guide the fate of the entire country.

And most of us are talking about limiting their spending—which is not feasible and their spending is not that significant anyway.

Funding Campaigns with Taxpayer Dollars

A common answer to the problem with campaign finance is simply “make it publically financed.” This is already partially true [4], but for the most part in the United States [5], campaigns are funded through private donations.

In my view, this idea requires strong trust in government and politicians. Since we don't have that, spending taxpayer money to help politicians doesn't really make sense. Because in 1976, about 30% of the population checked the box on their tax forms that said “save part of my taxpayer dollars for campaigns.” Now it's down to around 3%. [6]

Alternate Ideas: Tournaments and Platforms

What I do think might help would be government funding of activities for candidates to participate in. Who wouldn't love to see candidates take the Foreign Service Officer Test? Or participate a news quiz bowl? Or do more structured debates and competitions?

These might be good uses of public money, because they wouldn't cost very much and don't involve giving cash to candidacies.

I also would like to see the primary process be more democratic as well. Today, you get to be a primary candidate for the Republican or Democratic party mostly because the local leaders of that party decided to advance you. We don't have a primary for independents, and perhaps we should.

Banning Money Won't Work Either

The reality of our political finance/candidate promotion system is that it's too broken for straightforward legal changes to be effective. Even if we managed to change the laws regarding who can donate money and how much they can spend, those laws are practically impossible to enforce.

If someone prints a bunch of signs that say “Smith for Representative” using their own money, does that count as a campaign donation? And if it does, how does the Federal Election Commission find out about it? And since the Smith campaign can't stop that anyway, is it their fault if some random person makes those signs?

Money in politics, like so many issues, is an area where changing the law is not a solution. We have to change our culture. We must shift our relationship to political speech, and not believe the person who is the loudest, the most widely advertised, or who panders to us the best.

The candidates we need are the ones who are honest: who share what they believe, who actually answer our questions, and who admit when they are wrong.


[1] Nor is there much of a consequence. The 2008 Obama campaign was fined years later, which I think most people forgot about.

[2] Around 85% of Democrats and 66% of Republicans support a constitutional amendment to outlaw Citizens United.

[3] About $9 billion domestically.

[4] There is some Federal funding available for presidential campaigns, but pretty much none of the major party candidates have taken it, due to limitations on how that money can be spent.

[5] Many other countries have public funding programs that are more extensive, such as the United Kingdom and Iceland, but even in those countries private spending massively outstrips public funding.

[6] https://www.fec.gov/resources/cms-content/documents/Pres_Public_Funding.pdf


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