Things Your Money Can’t Buy

First, a question (showing off new poll feature in blog):

We all talk of the outsized effect the dreaded lobbyists have in Washington. And they do. How else to explain why our “representatives” oppose legislation for things like keeping companies from polluting the water and air, making insurance companies provide easy-to-understand policies instead of pages of legal gibberish, and making hedge fund managers pay the same tax rates as every other investment adviser (instead of being able to treat their sales commissions as long-term capital gains). All of these top-of-mind random examples are things that many of our “representatives” (and all of our Republican reps) oppose but would be of benefit to absolutely every citizen, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, white or non-white—except for the citizens who own or run the specific companies involved.

 So how is it the lobbyists get our Congresspeople to listen to them? Why would they ever vote for things that benefit only a tiny minority of people in the country (and perhaps even no one in their district)? Simple. People serve those who pay them. Well, don’t we pay the salary of politicians? Yes we do. The annual salary of a US Congressman (House or Senate) is $174,000. However, a campaign for a House seat costs about $4 to $6 Million (and Senatorial campaigns are typically in the 10s of millions), all of which must be raised from private (and corporate) donors. See this Washington Post interactive on campaign spending by parties and interest groups in the 2010 election.

So we-the-people pay a House Rep. $348,000 during their 2 year term, and they-the-donors pay them $4 to $6 million over the same period. Any wonder who they listen to?

 So if we want our representatives to listen to us, rather than private donors, then WE SHOULD BE THE ONLY ONES PAYING THEM. Thus, the only funding for political campaigning should come from public funds.

 But isn’t that restricting our “freedom of speech?” People justify not restricting spending on political ads based the philosophical premise that we should be allowed to spend our money on whatever we want. Well, there are a number of things that you aren’t allowed to buy with your money whenever and however you want—drugs, explosives, machine guns and prostitutes come readily to mind. If we are happy to forbid purchase of sexual services, why can’t we forbid purchasing political services? Clearly, politicians should be added to the list of “controlled substances.”

 Of course we can’t buy politicians, can we? Well, you can’t order one on Amazon (yet), but the whole funding mechanism of our political process amounts to the same thing. If you want politicians to represent big companies, big unions, big wealth, etc., then you let the companies and the unions (and their supporters) and wealthy people fund them. If you want politicians beholden to the people, let the people fund them. Oh my goodness, he’s talking about public financing of political campaigns! Darn right. Anything a candidate does to run for office, including holding or traveling to any event, along with all paid broadcasts and publications (not including op-ed pieces, blogs, etc) that mention a candidate for office, should be funded solely out of the equally-distributed pool of money allocated to that candidate. Third parties of any kind as well as the candidates themselves (i.e. from their personal wealth) could not provide funds for campaigning. Yes, it’s your money, and no, you can’t buy political ads with it, just like you can’t buy heroin. Furthermore, within a certain reasonable period before an election, any paid mention of issues that are identifiably part of some candidate’s platform in that election must be funded from that candidate’s pool. The best way to look at it is that “paid” speech is not “free” speech; if you have to pay money (eg, to a broadcaster, newspaper, event site) to get your speech out, it’s covered by this restriction.

Anyone receiving a given (reasonably high) number of petition signatures would be eligible for modest funding distributed equally from a common pool. “Modest” means just that—not nationwide daily media blitz-level funding.  Where would the funds come from? The bulk of money would be supplied by the political parties, with the contribution proportional to the number of members—and the parties could be funded solely by individuals, not corporations. Primary races would be funded solely by the political parties and general elections would be funded by a combination of party money and public funds. Candidates who don’t belong to a party but who receive the requisite number of signatures would qualify for funds from the pool as well.

 Restricting “free speech?” We do it regularly; misleading and false advertising is not permitted, and drug ads are heavily restricted by the FDA. Besides, will you really miss all those fundraising calls?