I’m submitting this article a day before the election, so I know some of you are elated and some depressed right now. I also know that I’m tired of the massive amount of funding required to run a campaign in this day and age. I’ve gotten over a hundred emails every day asking for money for campaigns in congressional districts all over the country, as well as governor’s races (even attorneys general!). Money coming from people like me at least is coming from voters, even if I’m a thousand miles from the district. I mostly don’t give because I think that constituents of Congress people should be the only ones allowed to pony up.
Bernie Sanders showed that small contributions from across the country could add up to amounts that can compete with the special interests. This election, candidates all over the country are milking the same population (us), and both parties, especially the Democrats, who traditionally get less of the corporate loot, are happy with the results. Some PAC money also comes from sources that represent legitimate voter supported issues, but most PAC money comes from shady special interests, and, by law or by design, from undisclosed sources. But the problem is not just the source of the money. It is the amount of money that is putting our democracy in danger: a total of $5.2 billion in 2018—$1.5 billion more than the midterms in 2014. Does all that money make our elections more representative? Couldn’t we find better ways to spend it?
Our campaigns have cost record amounts for several reasons. First, the moneyed interests like it that way because they have a distinct advantage and that allows them to “own” the candidates. There are few laws constraining, much less prohibiting their contributions, and what laws there are are rarely enforced. It means a candidate is much less likely to succeed if they are not wealthy or do not have wealthy connections. Corporations were outlawed from making political contributions in 1907, but we allowed them to slip back in. Now, as you all know, corporations pretty much call the shots.
Second, the main cost of campaigning is media, and, this year, they’ve bought a lot of it. You would probably tune out if it wasn’t for last minute election news anxiety. When radio and TV frequencies were first licensed, there was a public service requirement that should have made some minimum amount of media coverage free. What happened to that?
Thirdly, campaigns last forever. I’m already hearing pundits saying that the 2020 campaign starts on Wednesday (yesterday for you). In Canada, campaigns can be no longer than a year as parliament needs to sit at least once a year. That would be nice, but I think six months would be even better. I would expect that is more than enough time for a candidate to get the word out.
In 2001, I helped start a group called Washington Public Campaigns. I was driven to find these like-minded people after I found out that our people in Congress were spending more time fundraising than they were spending making law. The idea of public campaign financing seemed like the perfect solution and, in my political naiveté, I thought that everybody would agree that campaigns should be about ideas instead of money and that our elected representatives would be better employed doing what we sent them there to do. In the next ten years, I would lose my innocence as I watched campaign funding restrictions steadily disappear. Here’s a little trivia for you: there is a public campaign funding law for presidential elections, and it has been on the books for forty years. You may know it as the question right below your name on your tax Form 1040 that asks if you want to contribute a dollar to the presidential public campaign fund. That’s right—one dollar. In 2012, Senator McCain, a long time campaign finance reformer, offered to run on the public financing if Obama would. Obama declined as he knew he would get more money from private sources. It’s not that public campaign financing is impossible or even difficult. It is that virtually everybody, from candidates to wealthy donors to media (both news and advertising departments) find the sleazy system we have now both very good business and empowering—for them, that is.
All of this tells me that if we really want to clean up politics and make our electeds accountable to us, we are going to be pitching against a very powerful alliance of money makers and money offerers. So, if we are serious about it, we are going to have to insist in the most strenuous terms! I know it’s a pain, but this is one more issue where civil discourse just ain’t going to do it.