The Federally Financed Dilemma

It’s likely that the Occupy Wall Street movement will turn to corporate influence in politics as its single demand. After all, lobbying and corporate money are really messing with the priorities of Washington. It’s remarkable, for instance, that we’re prioritizing BP’s rights to drill in the ocean over the average American lifespan going down as a result of obesity. One of these things is a vastly more important discussion than the other.

If money is speech, and speech (through the purchase of advertisements) is political power, let’s agree that the top 1% of the country have a lot more political power than the remaining 99%. Let’s further agree that what’s desirable (interestingly enough, by both the Occupation and the Tea Party) is a government that’s more accountable to “the 99%” and less accountable to “Wall Street.” Finally, let’s agree that the status-quo way to do that is through a constitutional amendment that federally finances elections. Here’s Dylan Ratigan’s proposal to do that:

So if our goal is to empower the 99% and disempower the 1%, does this amendment (or any of the other amendments proposing the restriction of campaign contributions and federally financed elections) actually accomplish this?

I suspect it does not. Corruption doesn’t work that way — when you turn the lights on in a roach infested apartment, it does not kill the roaches. It sends the roaches to the shadows to organize. Restricting campaign contributions does not “take the money out of politics” it takes the money out of campaign committees. The money will find a new place to go.

What I think would happen is, instead of you seeing advertisements saying “I’m Jefferson Smith, I’m running for Congress, and I approve this message because I support America’s energy independence,” you’d see advertisements saying “I’m T. Boone Pickens, and I support Jefferson Smith in his run for Congress because he supports America’s energy independence.” The influence will change from where it is now: Corporation -> Lobbyist -> Candidate -> Advertisements & GOTV program to 1%er -> Advertisements & GOTV program on behalf of candidate.

While candidates will likely have to spend less time on the phone talking to prospective donors, and likely spend more time currying favor with the super-wealthy who can finance the tremendous operations themselves, using the veil of the first amendment to do it.

So then your instinct is to say: Well, we have to ban that then, too!

Easy there tiger. That’s where we start running into really rough territory — not only with the first amendment, but also with the foundations of democracy. What’s the difference, for instance, between T-Boone Pickens running an advertisement and putting it on television for our metaphorical Mr. Smith, and you organizing your neighborhood to put up signs supporting Ms. Doe? You’re spending money on signs and time organizing them and getting them up, and Mr. Pickens is doing the same with an advertisement. By banning the right of T. Boone Pickens to do that, you’re starting a really slippery slope that could end with people not being able to act for their candidates.

So if a ban on campaign contributions, and federally financed elections won’t solve the problem, what will?

It’s a really tough question, and one that deserves some thoughtful considerations. One interesting way to do it would be to make it so that it requires less money to get elected.

Today, campaign managers sit behind desks with spreadsheets, using soft formulas based on polling data and sample focus groups from their pollsters and media consultants. They think to themselves: “if I run this advertisement in these areas at these times, I can push my 30% of my soft supporters into hard supporters” or some other outcome. Major campaign decisions and major campaign money gets spent on advertising because that’s what a candidate needs in order to reach the vast number of people that it takes in order to win an election. Political candidates spend most of their time dialing for dollars because they need money, and nothing costs those candidates more money than television advertisements.

In other words, candidates aren’t addicted to money — they’re addicted to advertisements. So one interesting way to solve this problem is not through the FEC but through the FCC — the federal agency that regulates television advertisements. If the FCC mandated, for instance, that every local broadcasting station had to set aside a small amount of inventory for political advertisements, and that inventory was extremely finite, and price regulated you might solve the problem.

It’d at least start solving the obesity problem. Without being able to use the television for their primary method of messaging, candidates would have to find new ways to get into your living room: by actually going to your house and knocking on your door rather than sending hyper-produced electrons your way. They’d likely spend more money on the Internet too, maybe even spend most of their money on internet advertising. I see no problem with this — the Internet is coupled with fact-checking mechanisms that empower skepticism in ways that television cannot. And a candidate that can truly leverage the Internet is one that directly connects with her or his constituents online — again, getting as close as they can to your living room.

Another way of solving the problem is by increasing the number of representatives and by taking politics out of drawing districts. Today, our districts are drawn to win political battles and entrench political interests — not allow for a representative to best hear from a district. When a district is drawn like this it isn’t for the convienence of the legislator to be able to talk to their constituents better — it’s so that legislator can more effectively retain power. I’d say, let’s turn the power of drawing districts over to computers entirely. Let’s have a debate over how an algorithm ought to better draw a district, and let the algorithm do its job. Instead of drawing districts every 10 years after a census, let’s debate the algorithm every 10 years and go from there.

Now, for those of you saying “oh, but this won’t pass constitutional muster” — one last thought: we began this argument with a constitutional amendment. My claim here isn’t that this stuff is constitutional, rather that if we’re going to pass a constitutional amendment for something, let’s have the amendment treat the actual problems rather than be solutions that may or may not make them any better.

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