Tuesday, June 26, 2012

we need public funding for elections

Did you know that in the second half of a President's first term, we demand that our president perform two full-time jobs? The first job, for which no individual can ever muster sufficient time or attention, is to be the president. Despite the overwhelming nature of this job, we demand that our president perform a second full-time job: traveling all over the country wasting valuable time and resources to meet with rich people so he can raise millions of dollars so he can go on being president.

This is insane. In less than a year and a half, President Obama has participated in 132 fundraisers. While dealing with the overwhelming demands of the presidency, of economic crisis and war and peace, for the past 16 months President Obama has been at a fundraiser every 3-4 days.

This is not a criticism of President Obama, but of a system that requires him to take time off from his duties to have a fighting chance of keeping his job. And the never ending chase for more money is getting worse. George H.W. Bush only attended 27 fundraisers during his reelection campaign; Bill Clinton, 70, George W. Bush, 86. The pressure to raise money is getting more intense, and with outside groups and billionaires now able to spend unlimited amounts, a president feels he must scurry around the country sucking up to the rich and powerful if he is to have any hope of winning reelection.

It is absurd to think this does not affect a president's ability to do his or her job. It produces all sorts of bad incentives, and if nothing else it simply takes time and energy, which necessarily means less attention will be paid to far more important matters the president ought to be considering.

The problem, then, is obvious. What's the solution? We need some sort of system of mandatory public funding for election campaigns. I know other countries do this, but I don't know anything about how they actually go about it. How do you pay for it? How do you determine who is eligible for election funding? And in a legal landscape where money=speech, we may need nothing less than a constitutional amendment to bring real change.

The situation is even more dire at the state and local level. Billionaires can easily throw a million dollars at congressional races and overwhelm the local dynamics of a race. Done on a wide enough scale, such efforts could conceivably deliver a congressional majority almost entirely beholden to just a few people. If nothing else, as at the presidential level, the incentives are now all wrong. The most important skill for a congressperson is not detailed policy knowledge or an ability to build political consensus. It is the raw capacity to raise cash. Do that, and you can stay in congress.


  1. I agree that money is a major problem! I think an essential piece to really take care of the problem would be to put a cap on election spending. I take it that you had this in mind along with public funding, but I didn't see it in your post.

    I wonder if a cap and reasonable campaign contribution limits were imposed for individuals and corporations, the problem might solve itself.

  2. What if you didn't publicly fund elections but simply set a limit on all contributions, whether from individuals, corporations, or unions, say at $200, or $1000, or whatever, with no loopholes? That way the incentives for politicians might be fairly good. They would still need our money, but couldn't get it in meaningful amounts without a lot of us giving it to them. And no one person could buy an election or exert undue influence over a person holding public office.

  3. If the American people don't want money to buy elections there is a simple solution: Vote for the candidate who spends the least amount of money. (We recently had primary elections where voters did that.)
    There is no way to eliminate loopholes. Restricting the right of the people to influence elections would increase the influence of the media. Also, restricting election spending does not stop the advertisements I am seeing now which criticize or applaud candidate's actions without referring to the election.


  4. I'm not sure how we can be expected to do that on any kind of meaningful scale. Would you really be willing to vote against a candidate you agree with on all the issues simply because they spent more money than the person you disagree with?

    I think the media angle is a good point. But I don't think the media would necessarily be unduly empowered. For example, if there was a $1,000 contribution limit, campaigns could still raise enough money to get their message out, but they would have reach out to a broad base of supporters. Witness Mitt Romney's huge haul of money from small donations in the hours after the Supreme Court's decision. The huge sums from billionaires and outside PACS are not necessary to inform the public; all they do is exert disproportionate influence over campaigns.

    I agree that, in terms of what is currently politically possible, we cannot eliminate all the loopholes. But it seems rather fatalistic to assume that that's just the way it is and we're stuck with it. In theory, of course the loopholes could be eliminated. But it might, as I said, require a constitutional amendment spelling out how free speech and campaign contributions fit together.