Sunday, October 28, 2012

Can I Pay For My Free Speech in Cash?

             As of today, there is only a week and a half before I regain control of my television. Granted, not total control, (there are hours of Pawn Star marathons and Cupcake Wars that I can sadly do nothing about) but come November 6th, a small amount of sanity will finally return to screens which have been dominated for months by political advertising. Between American Crossroads and Priorities USA, I’m even starting to miss the Sham-Wow, and am completely ready to see an end to this year’s election cycle.
            It goes without saying that the 2012 national and state races have been a slog, and citizens everywhere are looking forward to the excitement of their results and the relief of their conclusion. Of course, one of the largest factors in the volume of campaigning surrounding this fall's contest is the tremendous amount of money involved. In my last post, I explored the new entities called Super PACs and the rhetoric they produce with their millions of pooled political dollars. While not the sole cause, Super PACs (and their cousins, 527 groups) have thrown fuel onto the fire of an already heated cycle, and have ballooned election spending which has been on the upscale for several decades. My research left me wondering if there was any possible better way to elect our public officials. This time around I decided to look into public financing of campaigns, a long advocated concept that I believe could make elections fairer and help to civilize discourse.

            Before discussing modern campaign financing, a brief history of money and its role in US elections is in order. While campaign spending is a frequent topic of political conversation in our own time, money and ballots are extremely tangled and reach back deep into the history of the United States. Politicians have been raising and spending funds to advertise their positions since the nation’s inception, but regulation of the practice didn’t come until the mid to late-1800’s as a result of the “patronage system”. During this time, politicians frequently sought campaign donations and votes based on the promise of government jobs for their supporters if they were elected [2]. In 1876 Congress passed the first campaign finance regulation when it became illegal for federal officers to solicit campaign contributions from Navy Yard workers [1], and the civil service system was slowly turned over to merit based promotion rather than patronage [2]. From 1900 to 1940, the primary focus of regulation was on corporate spending in elections, and the foundation of our modern system was laid with the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) in 1971 [3]. The law set up limits on individual contributions to campaigns, mandated the disclosure of all donors, and created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as a regulatory agency [5]. The first major hurdle to be faced post-FECA was the “soft-money” loophole, which allowed unlimited donations to the Republican or Democratic National Committees so long as the funds were used for “party building activities [3].” This stipulation was quickly expanded, and soft money exploded in the 80’s and 90’s [3]. Finally, in 2002 the McCain-Feingold Act put a stop to the free flow of unregulated cash to the two major parties in exchange for expanded limits on “hard money” (donations made directly to candidates) and also put some new rules on issue advocacy groups [4].
            At the time of its signing, McCain-Feingold was hailed as a godsend that would finally alleviate the stream of big money into politics. However, what the law, and very few people, couldn’t anticipate was the massive transformations that occurred surrounding campaign finance in the first decade of the 2000’s. Through the Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United v. FEC and several other cases, free flowing cash found a new channel into elections through Super PACs and brought us to the present atmosphere of 2012. Besides the polarizing rhetoric they produce (detailed in my last post), I believe these organizations to be a fundamentally bad way to finance the spread of information we use to elect our politicians.
The primary fault of the growing Super PAC system is that it gives an overwhelming voice to the wealthy in terms of political opinion. As Kenneth Vogel pointed out in his August 7th article for Politico, it would take nearly all of the registered Democrats in Lexington, KY (about 100,000 people) giving $100 a piece just to match the single $10 million drop made by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to Mitt Romney’s Super PAC in June [8]. What’s more, Adelson’s total contributions to various independent political organizations this year (over $36 million) represent the equivalent of $168 to an average American family when viewed in terms of percentage of wealth [9]. These figures display the sheer disparity in equality that is created when the super-rich are allowed to swing away with unlimited means in the political arena. Another negative aspect that Super PACs offer is anonymity, both for donors and for candidates. Not only can wealthy supporters make the amount of their political contributions secret by operating through 527 groups (which engage in “issue advocacy” but face very lax rules regarding reporting of funds) [6], Super PACs also offer protection to the candidates they support by providing distance from negative advertising. In short, a Super PAC or 527 will drag an opponent through the mud and say things an office seeker would never dream of while the candidate themself can focus on producing a positive image. Take a look at the two ads bellow, one produced by the conservative Super PAC American Crossroads, the other by Mitt Romney’s campaign for president.

Lastly, independent organizations have lowered the level and quality of discourse in their campaign material. While politics has never been an honest game, Super PAC ads frequently receive low ratings for accuracy from, and attack an opposing candidate’s ethos rather than discuss issues. (The most egregious example of which, produced by Priorities USA Action, can be seen below.)

However, for all the strife and discord Super PACs and 527s have caused in 2012, they are just the latest in a series of challenges regarding the proper influence of money in a democracy. Patronage, corporate spending, and soft money all caused issues in their day, and were successfully overcome in an effort to create an ever improving system of government. One idea that many have looked to as a final resolution to money and elections is public, rather than private, financing of campaigns.
As previously stated, using public funds to conduct campaigns is not a new idea in the United States. In fact, President Theodore Roosevelt first proposed the measure in his 1907 State of the Union when he suggested, "The need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish if Congress provided ... an appropriation ample enough to meet the necessity for thorough organization and machinery, which requires a large expenditure of money [5].” Roosevelt’s plan was actually adopted in part by the FECA which does allow presidential candidates to opt into public financing so long as they agree to stop accepting private donations. More recently, nine senators drafted a proposal for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United [7], and the Fair Election Now Act (which sets up a voluntary system of public funding for House and Senate candidates) has been introduced every year since 2009[10]. The primary skepticism surrounding these plans has been their voluntary participation (President Obama opted out of public financing in 2008 because he believed the $84.1 million it provided would be insufficient to fend off attacks he predicted from 527s [5].) and more overarching proposals have been made. One of the most thought provoking ones I found in my research was given in an Op-Ed by Dr. Lawrence Lessig of Harvard University in which he advocated for a $50 “democracy voucher” licensed to voters and to be donated to the candidate of their choice [7]. (It really is a compelling piece, and one I can’t do justice here. Click the link if you are interested.)
Overall, I feel that all of these proposals deserve consideration as possible remedies to uncivil discourse and polarization. Firstly, public financing means more parity in almost every aspect of campaigning. With equal sums of money provided by two candidates’ constituents, opposing viewpoints simply cannot be buried under a mountain of Super PAC cash. Furthermore, public money would mean that the voices of the race would be the candidates alone, and each could be held responsible for everything produced in the campaign. This eliminates the whispers that fly across the airwaves via independent spending, but at the end of the day cannot be linked directly back to a candidate. Finally, public money versus private would help return politicians’ attention to constituents rather than donors. With the average congressman spending 30 to 70 percent of their working hours raising campaign cash [7], priorities can be confused as to who a House or Senate member is actually responsible. If public financing does nothing to quell polarization, at the very least it restores the principle that representatives in our democracy do just that: represent.
After examining the storied history of money and campaigns in the United States, it’s clear that Super PACs are the most recent chapter in an evolving story, and although they have come with their own issues, they are not unresolvable. Just as Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold were there to stop soft money in 2002, I believe that someone will pick up the mantle of public campaign financing as a fairer way to choose our public officials. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there is a History Channel documentary on Netflix I have been meaning to get to. The best part? No ads.

1.      "Appendix 4: Brief History." Appendix 4: Brief History. Federal Election Commission, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2012. <>.

2.      "Gilded Age Scandal and Corruption." Gilded Age Scandal and Corruption., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2012. <>.

3.      Overby, Peter. "A Century Of U.S. Campaign Finance Law." Ed. Maria Godoy and Rose Raymond. National Public Radio, 2010. Web. <>.

4.      "Campaign Finance Law Quick Reference for Reporters." Federal Election Commission. Federal Election Commission, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <>.

5.      Pickert, Kate. "Campaign Financing: A Brief History." TIME Magazine, 30 June 2008. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <,8599,1819288,00.html>.

6.      Crowley, Michael. "Karl Rove's Return." Time 13 Aug. 2012: 36-40.

7.      Lessig, Lawrence. "More Money Can Beat Big Money." The New York Times, 16 Nov. 2011. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <>.

8.      Vogel, Kenneth P. "Election 2012: The Myth of the Small Donor." POLITICO. N.p., 8 July 2012. Web. 27 Sept. 2012. <>.

9.      Avlon, John. "The Super-PAC Economy." The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 18 Sept. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <>.

10.  "Fair Elections Now." About the Bill., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <>.

Video Used:

1.      "Understands" 2012. Campaign Advertisement."Understands" Priorities USA Action, 7 Aug. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <1.>.

2.      American Crossroads "Cool" 2012. Campaign Advertisement. Crossroads "Cool" American Crossroads, 26 Apr. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <>.

3.      Day One, Part Two. 2012. Campaign Advertisement. One, Part Two. MittRomney, 24 May 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <>.

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