February 6, 2007

To Candidates: Free Your Hands

To: Senator Clinton. Senator Obama. Former Senator Edwards. And Many Others.

There are a lot of important issues facing the country. And a lot of my worry about our future is not about health care or terrorism, although those certainly are serious concerns. My worry is over the stability and health of our democracy. Because instability at the core of our system ripples out and exacerbates all the other serious problems we face.

One aspect of this worry is with the political power that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have tried to consolidate around themselves. Last November, the people showed that it is possible to express your willingness to restore balance through the voting process. But there is another process in Washington that cripples politicians the moment they win their election. I'm talking about campaign financing, and the obligations that politicians have to their largest contributors.

Cooperative efforts between the current administration and recent congresses have been ridiculously tame in tackling this political 1,000 pound gorilla. In 2002, the President signed a bill into law which plugged certain holes concerning "soft money ads" but did little to stop the influence felt by candidates who are beholden to large donors. We need something more aggressive.

In your candidacies, I would like to see something other than hole-plugging when you approach the issue of campaign finance reform. I understand that incumbents are less likely to favor this sort of reform. That's why I think the best chance we have for change is in the hands of an incoming candidate, and, in fact, a presidential candidate who can send a proposal to congress.

What do I mean by more aggressive? Let me suggest the proposals outlined in a recent article at Salon magazine called "How to fix campaign financing forever for $50."

To summarize, this article advocates for two changes to our current system.

  1. Public financing would come in the form of a $50 electronic voucher which would be used like a vote, at any time during a campaign, to fund the candidates of your choice. See the article for details. $50 from every voter amounts to $6 billion in campaign funds. This could focus candidates efforts on speaking to the people rather than chasing large donors.
  2. Raise the ceiling on private donations but make all private donations secret, like voting ballots. Critics of campaign finance reform often cite freedom of speech issues, equating dollars to speech. This provision answers them by increasing the limits, allowing them to have their say. However, their donations will be anonymized through an agency which passes on the donations (inserting random delays and breaking up the donations to further obfuscate). Large donors would no longer get direct credit for their donation. Candidates would have a healthy dose of doubt about where their money is coming from, reducing (at the very least) feelings of obligation.

There are ideas out there about making our democracy stronger. I want to see them become part of the national debate. If there are better proposals, let's debate those as well. I want to see candidates who are serious about preserving our democracy. When you talk about freedom, and the great virtues of our American system, do not ignore or downplay the problems this system faces. Tell people you are going to return power to their hands, and then empower them. At the same time, free the hands of our elected officials to do the work of the people, and not the work of large donors.
Posted by James at February 6, 2007 1:38 PM
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A problem with (2) is that it doesn't stop, say, Pirrip Molly Inc. from donating a huge amount of money to a candidate, and telling the candidate that it did so, and making the candidate feel obliged to Pirrip Molly and working for legislation that favours them, such as limitations on lawsuits about second-hand Pirrip damage.

The bit about hiding the donations with delays and fragmentation and other obfuscation is a good idea, but ultimately seems irrelevant. In the end, the candidate will know whether Pirrip Molly came through with the money or not.

I'd rather see us push the issue of separating "speech" from "money", to the point that we can say that money is not speech and campaign spending can be strictly limited, and thus make large donations (or the spending of bushel-barrels of personal funds) pointless. It seems to me that making it possible to be elected to office without a "war chest" that could fund World War III supports the intent of our founders far more than saying that free speech means you get to donate money.

Posted by: Barry Leiba at February 6, 2007 4:16 PM

Limits are raised, not removed.

If my best friend said he donated a big chunk of money, I might be inclined to believe him. But I think you're over-estimating how much politicians and corporations (and other big donors) trust each other.

Besides, the two suggestions work together. The first suggestion floods the campaigns with money coming in which they won't be able to distinguish from corporate donations instead of "matching funds" which come directly from the government. That adds to the obfuscation quite significantly.

Yes - a corporation can say that they donated to a candidate, but, as we know, corporations already donate to both sides -- they hedge their bets. There will be no way for a candidate to know for sure whether courting a large donor paid off.

They will know for certain if courting the public has paid off... that's what the election itself is for.

Posted by: James at February 6, 2007 4:30 PM

It should be very easy for me to prove that I donated money to your campaign. I have a cancelled check and a bank statement, or some other type of receipt.

It'd be possible to set it up so that there's no way for me to prove who my donation went - say I write my check to "Donations 'R' Us" - but I wouldn't like it if I donated money and had no way to prove where I had intended it to go, for the same reason that people don't like it when there's no paper trail for their votes. But as long as I have proof that my donation went to you, I can still tell you where your money came from.

I guess it's that I DO want politicians to know who's supporting them, financially and otherwise. And I want to know who's supporting them.

Posted by: Julie at February 6, 2007 5:11 PM

Except that that knowledge is of little value, practically speaking. This amounts to disclosure that perhaps satisfies our curiosity while corruption continues unabated. All of the candidates are getting money from somewhere. And we keep passing more and more disclosure. Newt Gingritch seems to love the disclosure. Why? Because it looks like it works but it hasn't done anything to stop the problem. A perfect political solution.

It's not easy for you to prove you're supporting candidate X if you don't have a receipt saying who the money went to. Again, it comes down to trust regarding where the money went. See the article.

How often do you get candidates offering to pay you for your vote? Probably not that often. You could take the money and vote for whomever you want.

And again, you're underestimating the first part of the suggestion which places huge financing power in the hands of people.

Posted by: James at February 6, 2007 5:53 PM

OK - that would actually be "Gingrich" not "Gingritch." Dur!

Posted by: James at February 6, 2007 6:59 PM

My father, perhaps because he was the son of a preacher man, perhaps because he was a newspaper reporter, instilled in me a strong sense of ethics.

It is something I don't see a lot of.

My father was a freelance writer, and sometimes wrote articles about products. He once worked on a book called "Crocket's Toolshed," about gardening tools. There were companies that wanted to send him tools to review. My parents are avid gardeners, and we were fairly poor. But my father ALWAYS sent the tools back, even when the companies told him to keep them, because he believed that keeping them could have colored what he wrote about them.

In "Maggie's Ideal World," there would be no commercials except PSAs. Period. Candidates would have to debate each other to be seen. I'm not anticipating living in MIW any time soon. So as long as candidates have expensive campaigns, I think they should not know where their support is coming from. Whatever they are, if they are supported, then that is what they should continue to be. I think they are far more likely to base their decisions on their internal moral compass under those circumstances.

I am basing this opinion on the most ethical person I have ever known, who remains the most ethical person I have ever known to this day, and who teaches astronomy to children for free because he believes that he can make a difference in their understanding of science and the world. He never took a bribe and he was never corrupted. We all know that money corrupts. Maybe this solution isn't perfect. Maybe Julie won't donate more than her allotment if she doesn't get a receipt, and maybe others will feel the same. Maybe that problem can be solved, perhaps with open-source code and the other solutions that are being proposed to solve the voting accountability problem, minus the paper trail. (Or maybe even with a paper trail, by use of an encrypted receipt.)

It's not a no-brainer, but it's clear that it's a problem that has to be solved. Keeping the information from politicians about who is donating money to them is a very good step toward keeping them honest, even if they have the best intentions. Money corrupts.

Posted by: Maggie at February 6, 2007 7:09 PM

I'm in favor of strict spending limits on campaigns. Nobody should be able to win an election simply because they have more money and that's a loophole I see with this plan. If candidate 'Smith' promises to get laws passed to help the auto industry or 'Big Oil' and receives huge donations from related industry that still give candidate Smith a huge advantage. Cap spending to reasonable levels and otherwise make sure that a candidate can get his or HER message across and let votes NOT dollars decide an election.

Posted by: Lefty at February 6, 2007 7:31 PM

What loophole? Please explain.

The total money donated to political campaigns in 2004 was 4 billion dollars. This plan allows people to unleash 6 billion on the candidates from nontraceable sources (not counting additional donations).

In any case, we already have spending limits and I don't see them making much difference. All I hear is let's try more of the same thing that doesn't work.

Public Citizen celebrates when we pass new rules, but they admit that the new rules are going to get worked around "and they'll be there to plug the holes." They clearly cannot keep up.

It's time to try something new.

Posted by: James at February 6, 2007 8:11 PM


I actually like the idea a lot, and I agree something has got to be done.

I'm saying that I think too much is spent on elections now and I fear that huge donations will still spill in to candidates that are supportive of a 'big business' or other deep pocket groups and that simply having more money is a powerful tool for winning a campaign.

Hey, I could be wrong, the one thing I'm sure of is the current system doesn't work and I'm ready for a change.

Posted by: Lefty at February 6, 2007 11:33 PM

I would agree that campaign spending is out of control. One of the effects we can easily see is campaign advertising. We could still have restrictions on spending as well. But I think that the influence of knowing exactly who your big donors are is worse than the worst flood of negative ads.

Obligation -- described as "the rule of reciprocation" -- is one of the most powerful forms of persuasion.

From Robert Cialdini's book "Influence":

The anthropologist Richard Leakey considers the rule of reciprocity a defining element of what it means to be human: "We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honoured network of obligation" (18). Tiger and Fox (cultural anthropologists) argue that this "web of indebtedness" is the foundation for such diverse human practices as the division of labour, exchange of goods and services, evolution of experts, and other interdependencies that connect humans into more efficient cooperative units (18). As a result, we are trained from an early age to comply with the rule of reciprocity.

My hope is that if we could break the bonds of indebtedness candidates feel when they enter office, more idealistic candidates would not so quickly turn into jaded politicians. And, in fact, we would get candidates on both sides of the aisle that more of us would like better.

Posted by: James at February 7, 2007 7:27 AM

You quoted one of my bibles! First the ten commandments of email subjects, and now this!

I think it is only in your best interest to have candidates knowing where their money comes from if the lion's share is coming from you, because then you own them. Since that is never going to happen to most of us, let's free them from the result of millennia of evolution, and not let them know.

Posted by: Maggie at February 7, 2007 10:19 AM
In any case, we already have spending limits and I don't see them making much difference.
Say what? If we have spending limits, how can we have monstrosities like Jon Corzine's $60-million-plus senate campaign?

What we have are threats to deny public funds to anyone who spends too much. But, well, hey: if you have that much to spend, we've already seen that you don't care about the public funds. King George has not used public funds for either of his presidential campaigns -- and in 2000, Elizabeth Dole, who would have been a useful Republican alternative to the Shrub, dropped out early because... she didn't have the money to stay in.

We need strict (and relatively low, compared with current practice) limits. And not limits on how much money the candidates can have, but on how much they can use. You use too much, you're disqualified. Thank you for playing; try again next election.

It's a pity that the going interpretation of the first amendment doesn't allow real restrictions like that.

Posted by: Barry Leiba at February 9, 2007 1:15 PM

I misstated.

What I meant (since I wasn't advocating the eradication of limits) was that the limits we have had, and adjusting those limits, hasn't stopped candidates from feeling beholden to a special interest.

However, you're right -- the spending limits we have are broken.

My wish is for a radical change in the way we fund campaigns. Considering the way people equate money and speech, your suggesting would qualify as radical.

Although I think the Ackerman/Ayers proposal would work, I think any proposal faces the hurdle of incumbents who are opposed to any radical change.

If a candidate would propose any alternative plan that made sense to me, that would definitely get my attention.

Posted by: James at February 9, 2007 2:10 PM

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