Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Money Magnetism

“What’s clear by now is that this family enterprise was set up as a global shakedown operation, designed to finance and nurture the Clintons’ continued political ambitions. It’s a Hillary super PAC that throws in the occasional good deed.”
—Kimberley A. Strassel, Wall Street Journal column, June 5
In all my ponderings last week of what could explain the Donald Trump phenomenon, I neglected to mention one possible explanation that a lot of people go to immediately. The man is very, very rich.

Presidential campaigns are massively expensive but, as a billionaire, Trump is one of a select few who can credibly finance his presidential quest out of his own deep pockets.

This gives fuel to those who chant continually that there is too much money in politics. You hear the refrain over and over. It is not even a matter of debate. Recently I heard an extended and articulate recital of this view on the BBC World Service. Fordham University law professor—and failed Democratic challenger for New York governor—Zephyr Teachout was a guest on a business program, talking about her book Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United. She is an advocate of public financing for political campaigns.

As I understand the argument for public financing in particular and for campaign reform in general, it goes something like this. Money keeps pouring into political campaigns in ever increasing amounts and this corrupts the process. Some progress was made with the passage of the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, which regulated the financing of political campaigns. But then, in a travesty of justice, McCain-Feingold was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2010 in a case called Citizens United and now things are worse than ever. That’s the narrative anyway. You hear Hillary Clinton and lots of other Democrats retell this story often. President Obama even famously chided Supreme Court justices directly to their faces as they sat in the audience of one of his State of the Union addresses.

What exactly did McCain-Feingold do anyway? It basically did two things. First, it limited the amount of money political parties could raise or spend. Second, it banned corporations and organizations from funding issue advocacy ads mentioning a candidate’s name within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

The first of those two things was not affected by the Citizens United vs. FEC decision. Spending by political campaigns is still regulated. But it did strike down the second thing. The reasoning was that the Constitution proclaims a right to free speech and that a right to free speech is pretty meaningless if people are forbidden to pay to get their speech heard. The plaintive, Citizens United, is a non-profit organization that lobbies for conservative causes. It appealed to the Supreme Court because the DC District Court ruled that McCain-Feingold did not allow it to advertise a film it was screening called Hillary: The Movie.

Personally, as a strong free speech supporter and a middling film blogger, I get very, very nervous when the government uses its power to suppress the making or screening of movies.

So is Citizens United the reason—or one of the reasons—that there is too much money in politics? Well, not really, but it is one part of the reason that American politics have gotten so screwy. Because the Supreme Court left one part of McCain-Feingold intact but struck down the other part, we now have a situation where political parties—and by extension candidates—are very limited in how they can raise and spend money. But corporations, unions, organizations and private citizens can spend all they want. This means that campaign money is flowing to people other than the ones who are actually running for office. No wonder it is so hard for the candidates to control their messages when their own resources are dwarfed by super PACs and advocacy groups. In other words, the problem is not so much the Citizens United decision but the fact that McCain-Feingold was passed in the first place.

And, of course, the more money restrictions that are placed directly on candidates, the more advantage it gives to wealthy candidates like Donald Trump who can self-fund.

The McCain whose name figures in the commonly used moniker of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 is Senator John McCain, and it is worth noting how he fared as a presidential candidate. A longtime and sincere campaign finance reformer, he hewed scrupulously to the letter and spirit of the law that bears his name and relied on public financing for his 2008 presidential run. Consequently, he was massively outspent by Barack Obama, who was able to raise much more money by eschewing public funding. In the current election cycle, Hillary Clinton is on track to break all kinds of fund raising reccords. And Obama and Clinton are two of the most vocal complainers about too much money in politics! One suspects that, when people say there is too much money in politics, what they actually mean is that there is too much money supporting candidates and causes they don’t like.

We can see that the McCain-Feingold law and the Citizens United decision have a lot to do with why primary candidates get so much pressure from people with extreme positions, but they don’t really explain why there is so much money in politics in the first place. The answer to that question, though, is pretty obvious. Money in politics has ballooned in proportion to the size, influence and power of government. The more control the government has over the economy and our lives, the more money flows to campaigns and to lobbyists in attempts to influence decisions. You can pass all the campaign laws you want, but the money will find a way to get to the decision makers somehow. If you can’t give the money to the office holder or candidate directly or even to a friendly super PAC, then you will just have to make a big contribution to the politician’s family foundation or pay a horrendously huge fee to the politician’s spouse for giving a speech.

Would completely publicly funded political campaigns, as Professor Teachout advocates, solve the problem?

It all comes down to the golden rule. Those who control the gold… rule. Publicly funded campaigns essentially mean putting all the control over who can run for political office—and how much they can raise and how they can spend it—into the exclusive hands of the government. If you really think that this would be good for democracy, well, then you are living in a completely different reality than I am.

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