Money And Politics

Monday, January 09, 2006
Since the idea that there is a pressing need for reform of the way politics is financed seems to be gaining traction, I’m offering the following suggestions as to what realistic changes should look like in my view.

1) Ban all political donations to parties or individual candidates from PAC’s, unions, or corporations. Only individual citizens should be eligible to donate money.

2) Put a cap on how much money any individual may donate, say $10,1000 per party and $5,000 per candidate.

3) Allow individuals to donate money only to candidates in their own district. A Californian should not be able to influence a House race in West Virginia.


All of the above would pass constitutional muster, in my opinion. The question then arises; what happens if a multi-billionaire decides to donate $30 million to a 527 group to run ads to influence an election? Or what if a movie-maker releases a film which is aimed at affecting the political process? How about a writer publishing a book attacking a certain candidate? I don’t see how any restrictions on these activities could get past the Supreme Court, so I think that we will simply have to live with them.

Of course, these loopholes tend to make the whole reform process pointless. It does little good to restrict a corporation or union from donating directly to a candidate if they can donate instead to a 527 which supports that candidate.

However, many people have argued that it’s important that some action be taken so that some appearance of reform occurs. So I’m offering these suggestions as practical possibilities. Feel free to leave suggestions for other possible reforms in the comments section.

48 comments:

Syl said...

I don't know about that, flenser.

I think this is more of an agent problem than a contribution one. People get together and form a group to petition the government and pool their resources. I see nothing wrong with that.

But the groups have agents and that's where the problem lies...not in the act of contributions itself. No?

flenser said...

syl

I don't follow you. By definition the groups have to have agents. So if you have a problem with agents you must have a problem with the existence of the groups the agents represent.

Are you saying that it's cool for the casinos to give money to congressmen as long as they do not do so via an agent? I don't see what difference that makes.

Eric Blair said...

There's a certain appeal to the idea that you only contribute to candidates where you live. Why in the world should somebody in Mississippi get to influence a congressional race in New Jersey? Especially just because they have the money?

flenser said...

Speaking of money, the Dow is above 11,000.

chuck said...

Wouldn't be simple to just let individuals spend their money as they see fit? Attempts to legislate morality seem to cause all sorts of problems. Prohibition and the war on drugs are other examples. The question of associations contributing money may look different, but individuals form associations to increase their influence, it is a profoundly human thing to do, being we are the social beings we are.

I think the important thing is transparency. Without it deceptive practices arise, i.e., "grassroots" movements funded by rich foundations. Unions -- the main problem is mandatory membership in some sectors, so the members may be forced to donate money to causes they don't believe in. I am not sure how to solve that.

Any solution is bound to be imperfect. I just think that solutions that depend on widespread enforced morality are going to run into trouble.

Rick Ballard said...

Eric,

If I want to build a project in New Jersey that may be negatively affected by a proposed amendment to the Endangered Species Act why should I be barred from contributing money to a declared opponent of the amendment?

I would prefer no changes to be proposed or enacted. The fact that Abramoff will be going to prison and that the bribe takers (at least the most egregious bribe takers) will see their careers end is sufficient. If "something must be done" then let it have to do with transparency and speed of reporting. There is no reason why deposits to campaign accounts cannot be listed and published as they occur.

terrye said...

flenser:

I don't think it is just about appearances. When the editorial staff of the WSJ and conservatives and libertarians like John Fund or Glenn Reynolds start talking about the need for reform then obviously there is a problem.

Now whether the reform takes only time will tell.

flenser said...

In general I think the whole Abramoff scandelette is a joke. However, if Congress is going to allow itself to be stampeded into "doing something" just to win style points, then it might be handy if whatever it does serves some useful purpose.


chuck, I think that widespread enforced morality is the very definition of a society. I don't see what else it can be. All laws are an enforcement of morality. I do think that unions should be banned from participation in politics.

Rick,you are not barred from contributing to a declared opponent of the amendment. Not as long as he is your congressman, senator, or president.

If you want to influence a congressman in another district or another state, you are of course free to move to his district.

Why should the people of New Jersey be subject to your project? You could always build it in California, right?

Now, if your example was that you wanted to build in California and it was blocked by congressmen from other states, then you would have a better argument. But I see no reason, from federalist principles, why people from one state should be allowed a say in the political processes of other states.

flenser said...

terrye

Some of the people you mention are talking about reform simply because of appearences.

Glenn Reynolds and those like him favor the idea not because of any concern over corruption, but because they hope to end up cutting the size of government. Not that there is anything wrong with that, its why I'm suggesting these reforms myself.

But lets be clear about motivations. Very few people calling for reform are motivated by concern over "corruption".

Knucklehead said...

1) Ban all political donations to parties or individual candidates from PAC’s, unions, or corporations. Only individual citizens should be eligible to donate money.

I can't get behind this one. It seems to me the issue is not one of who donates or how much, but transparency in where the money comes from and where it goes.

I don't know what the legal structure of PACs is or whether or not, or how, PACs allow transparency of donations and spending to be subverted, but if they do then that is the problem that should be fixed.

I'm no fan of unions or, rather, I believe they have far too much political clout for the number of citizens they represent and have one of our two political parties completely under their thumb, but it seems to me that people with something in common should be allowed to represent that common interest and donate money to political candidates or in support of particular initiatives as they see fit. That said, unions have what amounts to a quasi-taxation power and use the money "taxed" from their members to support candidates and issues their members may disapprove of. There's some room for improvement in transparency and opting out on how portions of dues are used.

Corporations often have a direct interest in legislation. Yet again, it isn't the fact that they put up money but the transparency of the donations and hwo they are used that is the issue.

For all three of these categories there ought to be, it seems to me, much improved transparency. They should be made to keep easily and publicly available records or who gave them money and how they spent that money.

2) Put a cap on how much money any individual may donate, say $10,1000 per party and $5,000 per candidate.

I have mixed feelings about capping the amount that can be donated. On the one hand, it's their money so who am I to tell them who they can give it to or how much. On the other hand, one of the reasons wealthy people become wealthy is getting a return on their investments that is larger than the investment. I don't believe wealthy people hand over huge amounts of money to political candidates as a matter of ideology - in general I expect they expect a return and the return would normally be subject to being measured financially.

But again, transparency would go a long way to helping prevent or expose issues here. When Mr. and Mrs. Goezillionaire give $250K to Senator Munchausen I think we have some right to know about that and Se. Munchausen should be required to tell us what he did with the $250K.

3) Allow individuals to donate money only to candidates in their own district. A Californian should not be able to influence a House race in West Virginia.

Somebody above, probably Rick, gave a good example of why this is not a great idea. One may live, for example, in Kansas or Missouri yet still have a valid interest in our national policies about ports or fisheries international borders and have a legitimate wish to support candidates from states with international borders or ports or whatever. Conversely, somebody in Rhode Island may have legitimate reasons to work for or against, say, a candidate in Wyoming due to the candidate's work about water rights or federal lands or whatever.

Transparency is the big issue here as far as I can see. We need more of it.

Knucklehead said...

Flenser,

Rick,you are not barred from contributing to a declared opponent of the amendment. Not as long as he is your congressman, senator, or president

How does an "off color" (blue voter in a red state or vice-versa) have any opportunity to effect the political process through donations? Not that I believe it a good example, but say there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that, without moving, I will ever get to cast a vote for a senator who would support social security reform. But in another state there is such a candidate for senate who has a chance to be elected. Why can't I send that candidated money?

MeaninglessHotAir said...

I think the root of the problem is being missed here. The root of the problem is that the federal government is a whopping 33% or so of GNP, and it's the biggest GNP the world has ever seen. That means there is an enormous torrent of money pouring through there for the plucking and only 500 or so people you have influence in order to stick your snout into it.

Like it or not--and as Terrye frequently points out, most people like it--there's an enormous imperial government sitting in Porkopolis that is nothing like the Jeffersonian democracy of which Glenn Reynolds is still dreaming. Vultures will inevitably descend upon a huge pile of money, wherever gathered.

I see no conceivable way to stop this. You can outlaw direct contributions but people will then spend money indirectly. That just makes the process less transparent and more corrupt.

The truth is that democracy is fundamentally a joke in the modern world. Television ads can influence voters via a non-rational process. In large constituencies consisting of millions of people that means that winning the election is simply a matter of spending money. And when there is such a large lottery pot sitting at the end of the rainbow, everybody's going to be doing it, one way or the other.

Naturally the Dems will try to pin it on the Republicans and vice versa and naturally a lot of useful fools will be taken in by the rhetoric. Why the party of the Senior Murderer. the Traitor, and the Rapist-In-Chief thinks they can come across as the clean party beats me. Apparently it works though. Apparently people really are that stupid.

terrye said...

flenser:

No doubt a lot of the people out there wanting to cut 'pork' see this as part of a larger problem, that being the GOP getting too far away from what they consider to be its small government base.

But I think the larger problem is the cost of running for office and unless the networks give time away I honestly do not know what kind of solution there is.

But it has become almost impossible for every day citizens to run for national office and that is not a good thing.

flenser said...

knucklehead

As far as transparency goes, we already have it, don't we? You can go to web sites like opensecrets and see who donated how much to whom. I don't think there is much more to be done here, unless it's to set up some sort of formal government database to track this kind of thing.

I'm waiting for Ricks response but I'm not persuaded so far that anyone should be able to influence elections anywhere. If Alaskans want to drill in Alaska they should be free to do so. The "federalization" of every aspect of the country is not something that libertarians or conservatives should be happy with.


Realistically, what does federalism mean if all Congressmen and Senators can be seen as being "national" resources in a sense, and not tied to a particular state or region?


Skip the issue of congress for a moment. Should a resident of New York be able to influence the state senate races in Utah?

flenser said...

terrye

But it has become almost impossible for every day citizens to run for national office and that is not a good thing.

I think that is a problem. But I don't know what the solution is. Any ideas?


MHA

I don't have any expectations that the system can be purified. But if some changes are to be made we may as well not leave the defining of those changes completely up to the Democrats and the left.

If we can defund the unions in return for defunding corporations that would be a major win.

terrye said...

flenser:

Not really.

People have to work, we are not craftsmen and gentlemen farmers anymore. Just walking away to do politics for a couple of years is not done anymore.

And the costs is just so high.

I had even thought of the national networks giving up a certain amount of time to debates to allow more people exposure, but that would not really solve all the problems.

On one hand we do not want a bunch of independently wealthy people running the country, at the same time who else can afford to run without getting money and resources from somewhere?

chuck said...

But it has become almost impossible for every day citizens to run for national office and that is not a good thing.

I think that is a problem. But I don't know what the solution is. Any ideas?

Isn't that what political parties are for? True, you can't just expect to walk in off the street and be successful. You have to become involved and spend years cultivating contacts and working in the trenches, but that is how it is in any large organization.


MHA,

the federal government is a whopping 33% or so of GNP

The last number I saw was 29%; the US percentage has actually declined while the percentage in the EU has gone up to something like 40%. As you point out, this has large implications. I wonder if this has some odd similarity to the gilded age when the government wealth consisted of land and mineral rights.

Knucklehead said...

Flenser,

As far as transparency goes, we already have it, don't we? You can go to web sites like opensecrets and see who donated how much to whom. I don't think there is much more to be done here, unless it's to set up some sort of formal government database to track this kind of thing.

There are some groups, such as opensecrets.org, who track the INPUT side of this via, apparently, the federal disclosure forms the FEC (and/or IRS) require.

This is good in so far as it goes. Without giving it any deep thought regarding the ramifications of such a thing, I would like to see this burden placed at the doorstep of the individual politicians and PACs and unions and corportations and such. They should (perhaps) be required to maintain a web page that is readily available to the public and shows where their money came from and what they did with it.

The other side of the transparency coin is the OUTPUT side. I am not aware of any readily accessible information on how donated money is spent. There's some potential for some very interesting information there. I'm pulling numbers out of thin air here for example purposes but we might learn stuff such as that XYZ Inc. donated $100K to Candidate M's senate campaign which then spent $1.5M booking fundraisers and other campaign activities in XYZ's 6 posh hotels in that state and ran up another $500K in sumptuous room service meals.

Where money comes from is one matter. Where it goes is another.

Eric Blair said...

"But it has become almost impossible for every day citizens to run for national office and that is not a good thing.

I think that is a problem. But I don't know what the solution is. Any ideas?"

Arthur C. Clarke had an interesting idea in that people were drafted for Govt. work.

You get drafted for jury duty, why not draft somebody for congress?

Could they really do worse?

Knucklehead said...

Eric Blair,

Well, they couldn't do worse as far as I can tell.

It doesn't seem particularly workable, though. How can we justify drafting at least two people, most of whom have no interest in the position (or aptitude for it), for each public office and then ripping them to shreds with mud slinging. "Oh, ho, Mr. Candidate, you never got a building permit for those improvements you made to your garage, didja! And, BTW, just how much reefer did you smoke back in HS? And are you really trying to tell us that you like Hooters buffalo wings enough to eat lunch there 3 times per week or do you get off on oggling the waitresses!"

Rick Ballard said...

Flenser,

Let's substitute my brother, who holds dual American/Australian citizenship, lives in Melbourne and hasn't spent two months in the past fifteen years within the US for me in the illustration. Let us return to the hypothetical NJ investment - he has a tract of land to be developed. The less than honorable Sen. Lautenberg has introduced an amendment to the Endangered Species Act prohibiting (via federal statute) development of my brother's tract because of a claim by Greenpeace that it is the sole remaining habitat suitable for the lesser thimblewitted twit.

I would argue that barring a contribution would impinge upon his inherent right to engage in the political process.

I can see your point with regard to elections for state or local office but not for a federal office. The current loose interpretation of the Commerce clause moots your point a bit, too. Until we can keep Uncle Sugar focused upon federal rather than state business we need to be able to exert influence upon any federal officeholder regardless of locale.

Wrt Open Secrets et al - there is no reason that every check deposited could not be crosslinked both to the donor and recipient but (in the case of PACs) also to legislation supported or opposed by the donor.

chuck said...

Knucklehead:

...for each public office and then ripping them to shreds with mud slinging.

Hey, it could be a new version of reality TV. Or maybe that is what we already have.

Knucklehead said...

Chuck,

I was in the process of rethinking my opposition to Eric's suggestion. It would be unfair to those drafted for the first few rounds but it might provide, as you mention, some interesting entertainment value. And eventually we might get past the pollyannish nonsense of expecting politicians to be "cleaner" that the rest of us.

Completely off topic, but this called it to mind somehow, but I was walking passed a TV yesterday which was on some talking head interview show and the interviewee was Ted Nuggent who just at that moment happened to describe himself as "Mother Theresa with a Glock." I like it!

Morgan said...

Also off-topic, but only slightly:

If we treated all the present and future income and advantages that come with, say, the Presidency, as an annuity, what do you suppose the NPV would be?

Just curious whether anyone has any thoughts on how that might be calculated, or might hazard a ballpark guess.

Buddy Larsen said...

Damn, knucklehead, i had no idea you had such a checkered past. Hooters THREE times a week?

Knucklehead said...

Not me, Buddy, a friend. I can't eat that many wings.

markg8 said...

From Pajamas Media's own David Corn:

"My friend Karen Tumulty reports in this week's Time that Justice Department prosecutors are running a decent-sized investigation:

Another official involved with the probe told Time that investigators are viewing Abramoff as "the middle guy"--suggesting there are bigger targets in their sights. The
FBI has 13 field offices across the country working on the case, with two dozen agents assigned to it full time and roughly the same number working part time. "We are going to chase down every lead," Chris Swecker, head of the FBI's criminal division, told Time."

That's about 48 investigators working on Abramoff's connections up and down the chain. You guys might start thinking about how you're going to rebuild the party instead of trying to get out in front of this with reform. This is a betrayal of the public trust on a massive party wide scale. I don't think we've ever seen anything like it.

Eric Blair said...

Marky-mark: "This is a betrayal of the public trust on a massive party wide scale. I don't think we've ever seen anything like it."

You obviously haven't read any American history have you?

But don't get all self-satisfied there, Walberg. Plenty'O Democrats had their hands in the pot too. I think 45 Democratic Senators accepted money from Abramhoff.

Rick Ballard said...

Bobby Baker's distribution of George Brown's dough in support of oil and gas interests (remember the good ole depletion allowance?) makes Abramoff seem a small time chiseler.

Not to mention those Buddhist monks attempt to influence - what the hell were the Buddhist monks trying to achieve? That's right - it was a cover for the the Chicoms purchase of Al Gore.

Rather poor investment skills but what can you expect from Communists. If Armand Hammer (& Sickle) had been around they would have done better.

Buddy Larsen said...

You bet--not one of Clinton's dirty dozen got a proper airing--well, Whitewater did, but the canaries were terrified and it went nowhere.

Let's use this opportunity to get to the bottom of the Clinton Administration--including Hilary.

Buddy Larsen said...

Mark, with any luck, you guys will push on this hard enough to destroy congress, and we can just keep George Bush on for 20 years while we re-organize. Whaddaya think, sound ok?

markg8 said...

I've heard Howard Dean and Paul Begala say Dems didn't take one red cent from Abramoff. Judging from Abramoff's lifelong partisan hatred toward Dems (spill their blood!) I'd have to say he never offered. Did Dems take money from Indian tribes? Sure, minorities have contributed to Democrats for decades.

Bush is going to have to explain
why one day after Frederick Black the acting US Attorney in LA for over a decade issued a subpoena demanding the release of records involving the Guam court's lobbying contract with Abramoff he demoted Black and replaced him with a cousin of one of the main targets. The cousin recused himself and the investigation went away.

Bush says he doesn't know Jack. Tom DeLay never was a friend. Just one of the hired help ya know. How long before he's saying that about Rove?

Buddy Larsen said...

Thirty minutes?

Buddy Larsen said...

Guam, eh...well, that probably ties back in to the cocaine habit...oh when will Kitty Kelly break her silence and tell us more?

Peter UK said...

Harry Greid seems to have financial connections with Abramoff

Buddy Larsen said...

Peter, I'm afraid this country has reached the point where Dems suffer hardly at all from exposed corruption--when exposed, they lose hardly a vote back home. It's become a given, not news, simply a fact of life, expected.

This Abramoff story is 'man-bites-dog', in that the anti-corruption party has some bad apples.

Another news story would be if Sen. Greid and his Corruption Party was found to have any good apples.

Dig? I mean, Big Dig?

markg8 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
markg8 said...

Off topic here: Ya know as I think about it Buddy a few years ago in L.A.
the FDA or USDA shut down a little Latino cheese outfit for making unpasteurized cheese the way the Mexicans like it. If I remember correctly a number of people got sick or died. Forget exactly when it was but if it coincides with your problems
maybe that explains why the powers that be took such a hardass attitude.

Buddy Larsen said...

Mark, you're right--the informal, never-acknowledged policy became, "lean on the little guys, as they're the most likely to screw up".

Makes perfect sense, in the 'one-size-fits-all' gov't way. But that's small comfort when you're the one under the boot.

Besides, as i said, i never failed a hygeine test, never failed a pathogen inspection--I just got into a legal-technical-gray-area-regulation interpretation battle--and even then, stayed licenses.

The agency rulebook tho, is several hundred pages single-spaced of terribly-written rules with all sorts of semantic, grammatical, substantive interpretively-languaged regulations, and if you get the people mad at you--if you don't supinely kiss-ass--they can beat you to death with that book, and be 'legal' all the way.

Your recourse is to prove you're being treated worse than your competitors, and in my case, all us competitors in the cheese were at the saame time necessarily cooperative friends in the livestock-breeding trading, and I just didn't have it in me to call for them to get the shaft the same way I was getting the shaft.

And they knew it, and appreciated my forebearance. Thus, i could re-enter the biz, now, if I wanted to--reputation is all, and I left before the jerks could ruin mine.

Basically, my stubborn, assh*le personality is a bad fit with gov't regulators--the little cabal I was up against were nothing but rogue cops wearing the white robes of 'health inspectors' (and who doesn't want their health inspected?), and their method is to make sure that everyone knows that arguing with 'em will get ya Rodney Kinged, one way or another.

Philosophically, how is a little guy 'spose to make it to big guy if it ain't permissible to ever be a little guy?

Peter UK said...

Obviously it was getting too close for comfort Buddy,so Markg8 decided to change the subject after his rant was deleted.

Buddy Larsen said...

You're assumed to be guilty of something, somewhere, and they can make proving that you're not, into your full-time round-the-clock occupation. since small-biz itself is a dicey, gotta-have-the=full-animal-spirit kind of thing (the old saw about 'meeting a payroll'), it doesn't take a whole lot of mickeymouse-sacrificed time & energy (time/energy that is already in hugely short-supply, in the effort to make ends meet inside, and also--crucially market cheerfully outside), sacrificed toward writing a running commentary on every single thing you do, video-taping every batch of cheese you process, to totally ruin your morale.

If i hadn't had kid in college, and could've devoted that cash to employing a liason, or a lawyer, or maybe to bribe, then i STILL could've hung on against the arbitrary, just-because-you're-you, government assault.

And, as i've said, I don't really care about me, anymore, it's the system that i hate, the idea of how much entrepreneurial activity never even initiates, due to these dead-eyed (unelected) clockwatching lifers having such power.

Buddy Larsen said...

Peter, that rant removed was if I recall full of republican shenanigans aimed at a change in the political status of Guam, and the immorality of providing jobs for people who have none and want to eat. but i don't know why it was deleted, it was standard Mark.

Buddy Larsen said...

There's similar ops lost off in western Rio Grande valley and the vast wastelands of west Texas that get maybe a few cursory inspections a year. But as you move in closer to the agency HQ's, the inspections--always surprise inspections, a sensible thing--go up in perfect line with proximity to HQ.

If it's a pretty day out, I could count on a schedule-shattering drop-in, as the guys wanted to get out of the office and take an expense-account drive out into the hills west of town (an attractive and popular pastime for Austinites). And use up a day doing it.

But, this little game needed justification, my place needed to be on the 'problem list', to keep the day-off-with-pay game afoot.

This isn't my paranoia, this is what everyone in my peer cohort noted, too, that if you're close to Austin, and easy to get-to, on a pretty highway, ha, yer f*cked.

USSR in the USA.

markg8 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
flenser said...

I'm afraid this country has reached the point where Dems suffer hardly at all from exposed corruption--when exposed, they lose hardly a vote back home.

It's worse than that. I can think of several instances where Democrat politicians have been indicted, tried, convicted and served jail time. And once released, the Democratic sheeple voted them back into office.

Being a criminal is almost a badge of honor in that party. Thats why they all thought it was downright amusing when Sandy Burgler was caught. It did not hurt his image with them, it enhanced it.

markg8 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Buddy Larsen said...

Alcie Hastings, Marion Barry spring to mind--

Buddy Larsen said...

Flenser, are you censoring Mark? I'm curious as to what i'm missing. No fun to needle a blank spot--evn tho poor Mark is a blank spot even when he ain't a blank spot.