(The following is an excerpt from our yet to be published book regarding politics, government and American society. We are a married couple and the following expresses our opinions about campaign finance reform.)
Campaign Finance Reform
There has been much discussion in recent years about campaign finance reform. The best solution that anyone has come up with so far has been public financing. Really? This plan uses taxpayer dollars to help pay for campaigns. Why should my dollars go to pay for candidates that I do not support, and pay for candidates in regions that don’t affect me?
The excessive money being spent on campaigns, makes Americans feel that politicians are buying elected office.
Only registered voters should be able to make campaign donations. No corporations, no lobbying firms, no unions. All monies remaining at the end of the election are to be donated to the general fund at the level of government for which the campaign was held. Federal campaigns to federal government, state campaigns to state government, and so on.
We need, as a country of individuals, to take back our government. We need to do this by taking control of how we finance our elections. Only registered voters should be able to contribute to campaigns. There should be reasonable limits put on donation amounts so that we don’t inadvertently create a system where the wealthiest Americans have more say than the least among us. We need to make the American taxpayer the boss again – not just something to be hauled out when political ideologies need props.
Why would a corporation contribute to a campaign? Typically it is so that (if elected) the politician will support (or kill) legislation that is favorable (or unfavorable) to the corporation. However, what is best for the corporation is not always what is best for the taxpayers and constituents of the district/regions involved.
Why would a lobbying firm contribute to a political campaign? Again, it is with the hope that the elected official will support or kill legislation in accordance with the wishes of their clients. Their clients range from corporations to entire industries, and non-profit organizations.
Why would unions contribute to a campaign? Once again, it would be with the hope that the elected official will support or kill legislation in accordance with the wishes of the union.
All of these entities seem to ignore the understanding that our government should be …of the people, by the people and for the people. It was a pretty simple premise that was established long ago. We should be legislating with “the people” in mind on every issue.
There are those that would say the corporations, lobbyists and unions are working on behalf of their employees, clients or members. However, if we look at unions: most do not poll their membership prior to endorsing a candidate. Additionally, just being a member of a union does not define its membership. Let’s take a look at a teachers union as an example. There are teachers that are close to retirement, and those that are new to the vocation. There are teachers that own homes and property, while others rent. There are teachers that are gay, while others are heterosexual. There are those that are married and some that are single. Are we to assume that their views as union members would supersede all of the other facets of their lives? We cannot, but the current system allows millions of dollars from teachers unions to be spent supporting campaigns in every level of government, often on campaigns and issues that aren’t supported by a majority of their membership.
Another concern is that when so much money is donated by these large entities, it inhibits the small guy from participating in the process. Essentially, voters are only able to vote for the candidates that have large money backers. The corporations, lobbyists and unions have already narrowed the field down to a selected few. When we go to the polls, we are selecting from what they have offered us. We are not necessarily selecting from among the most qualified or most civic minded individuals. We are often, admittedly, selecting the lesser of two evils.
Finally, incumbents have a huge advantage over opponents because of massive campaign funds that roll over from one election to the next. These campaign dollars buy far too much power. They should be able to raise as much money as they can from individuals and spend it liberally to get elected. However, people that donated to their campaign this time might not support their next run. The fair way to distribute these excessive donations is to have them be put toward the people of the region and offset taxpayer liabilities. I would be wary of any plan to allow these donations go toward “charity” because they might be recycled into the campaigns anyway, via shell non-profits that front political action committees.
Christine and I pretty much agree on finance reform for the election process. The most obvious roadblock to any effective reform in this area is the politicians now in power. They got where they are under the rules that now exist. They are pretty good at using those rules to their own advantage. And they are unlikely to see any personal advantage to changing them. Ideas for real reform of our money-swamped election system are going to have to come from people who do not have a vested interest in seeing it continue along as it is now. Ordinary citizens will have to put a lot of pressure on their elected officials to make any progress on the issue. Pressure to do what?
First, Christine is dead right that the ability to make campaign contributions to candidates should be limited to natural persons. She would limit it further to registered voters. Fine by me. Those who don’t care enough to vote should forfeit the ability to influence office holders with their dollars until they become responsible citizens.
The usual argument against limiting any person’s (natural or otherwise) right to give money to any candidate is based upon First Amendment grounds of free speech. This is a serious topic and deserves serious consideration. I would contend that the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment are rights of the People as that term was understood when the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791. This is a sort of “strict constructionist” point of view. Since that time many sorts of “non-natural persons” have been developed and have been accorded certain legal rights and obligations by our courts.
Corporations, of a sort, existed in 1791; but they were a very different animal from what we now have. A concise, if necessarily incomplete, history of the corporate form of entity can be found in Chapter 46 of The Americans: The Democratic Experience, Random House, New York, 1973 by Daniel J. Boorstin. The corporate form of enterprise thrived in the United States and grew along with the country. Its primary advantage was, and is, that it allowed investors to participate in business ventures without risking everything they owned. If a corporation goes belly up, leaving lots of angry creditors, the shareholder loses his investment, not the farm. The corporation, in economic jargon, facilitates the efficient allocation of capital. Our justice system, and our lawmakers, granted corporations the right to enter into contracts, and the right to sue (or be sued) to enforce their rights and obligations under those contracts. Just like real people. Corporations can be held liable for torts, negligence or criminal conduct. Just like real people. Essentially, the legal fiction of personhood was used to enable corporations to carry on business and to hold them to the legal standards necessary to the orderly conduct of that business.
But corporations are not real people. No corporation has the right to vote in any election for public office. No corporation can serve as a member of a local school committee or vote on an annual school budget. No corporation has sired a child attending any local school, and no corporation may be presumed to have the best interests of such a child at heart when school budget issues or curriculum are at stake. No corporation has a heart. Corporations are run by real people, and perhaps some of them have large, generous and compassionate hearts. They may steer some corporate funds to worthy (and tax deductible) causes. They may run for school committee and have some good ideas about the budget and the curriculum. But corporations are legally bound to operate in accordance with the best interests of their shareholders. Widgets, Inc. might want the local high school to spend more on basic accounting and word processing skills. The school board and local parents might want to improve reading, metal working and gymnastics. Regardless of the merits of these choices, the right to make them correctly resides with the real people involved.
All the rights enjoyed by corporations in this country are conferred upon them by case law or statute. Our Constitution, including the First Amendment, is the highest form of statute we have. The First Amendment does not specifically extend Freedom of Speech to corporations or any other non-natural persons. I contend that since corporations did not exist in their current form in 1791, the founders did not contemplate including them when it guaranteed Free Speech to the People. The First Amendment also guarantees the Freedom of the Press. Corporations, and other well heeled non-natural persons, can buy all the favorable press they want. The editorial section of the Wall Street Journal is always happy to listen to and pass on the concerns of our corporate titans. They will not lack influential forums.
For the mathematically inclined, I offer the following equation:
$ = Speech
Even if the Supreme Court should not agree with me that our founders did not intend the First Amendment’s guarantee of Free Speech to include non-natural persons such as corporations, I further contend that campaign contributions are not speech. The above equation is wrong. Nothing George Will writes against campaign finance reform has, or will, convince me otherwise. Money is not speech. And the argument that money equals speech strikes me as fundamentally undemocratic. While our Founding Fathers may have distrusted the rabble enough to put some limitations on the franchise and to give us a Republic (if we can keep it), they also trusted the demos enough to enable it to throw the bums out when dissatisfied with their efforts on behalf of the People.
One thing large corporations have a lot more of than most natural persons is money. Let us put some effort into making our election process responsive to the needs and desires of the People, the citizens, the natural persons who live and work here. After all, they are what really make this country great.
So, write your Congressman, your Senator, your Governor, State Senator or Representative. Tell him, her or them that you favor serious campaign finance reform and that the right to contribute should be strictly limited to registered voters. Most of them will probably ignore you. Some may openly disagree with you. But, here and there, a few officeholders may actually agree with you, and tell you where others may be found who also want to give control of elections back to the People. It’s a start.
During the writing of this book, there have been developments on this issue and William has added the following:
Well, the Supreme Court has spoken in Citizens United v. FEC. The five Justice majority does not agree with me. It held that the First Amendment guarantee of free speech does extend to corporations and other such organizations and “non-natural persons.” My own point of view was eloquently set forth in the dissenting opinion of Justice Stevens. I hope and expect that the issue will be revisited and that another mixture of Justices will decide differently. In the meantime, we may be facing years of distorted and misleading electioneering paid for by corporate interests motivated by profit. Elected officials will be very careful not to offend those with enough money to hurt their reelection chances. Woe to any Congressman who is thought to be an enemy of Big Oil or Big Pharma.