Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hide me the money!

This week is the home-stretch before next Tuesday's special senatorial primary in Massachusetts, so I've got elections on the brain. Today's post is going to be the first — and more harebrained — of my two-part election-week extravaganza.

The way I see it, politics is far too heavily skewed by corporate interests. There are those who disagree with that assertion; Radley Balko rightly points out that libertarians put a higher premium on individual rights than liberals, who like policies that promote equality. Conservatives also put more trust in the free market and corporate interests than liberals do, so they might be okay with corporations pouring money into elections. But I'm a liberal, dammit, and I think it's a harmful practice.

There are two main reasons for my stance. First, corporations are much stronger than individuals: they can't die of old age, and they're able to merge and buy each other, so they're much better at amassing and consolidating money and power. Second, companies' concerns are fundamentally different than people's. People have to worry about money, personal freedoms, fairness, happiness and a host of other "soft" concerns. Many of these concerns are contradictory, making people's objectives very complex; but since companies only worry about money, they skew policies in a way that's unbalanced relative to people. Given the choice between favoring corporations or favoring people, I'd lean toward people.

The question is, how do we move power away from companies without completely trampling their rights? For the past century, our approach has been to curb funding: there are limits to how much an individual or company can contribute to a campaign. One of the problems with this is that it reduces pressure from companies, but not necessarily from industries. Another is that it's less powerful against companies like law firms or banks, where a lot of individuals can contribute to the max, effectively multiplying their company's contributions. Yet another is that it does little to stop another problem in politics, which is that it's very hard to unseat an incumbent in a primary or run as an independent in a general election; you'd be working against someone with a lot of money behind them.

What if we instead curb spending? Let politicians gather money from anyone they please, but limit the amount they can spend on the campaign, preferably to a smaller number than the current average. This would greatly limit the amount of power a company or industry could wield: if there's an uncomfortable quid pro quo, candidates would be able to refuse the money, comfortable that they'll still be able to raise up to the maximum. It would also make it easier for independents to run, since it'll be easier for them to match their opponents' spending.

Of course, as I said at the beginning, this is a hairbrained and somewhat half-baked proposal. In particular, I'm not sure how it'd apply to PACs and other third-party groups. It wouldn't help at all if an industry decides to just deflect its spending on direct advertisement for a candidate, rather than giving it to that candidate's campaign. A few months ago, the Supreme Court held oral arguments in a case that would determine whether it's Constitutional to restrict third-party groups from spending money to effectively campaign for (or against) a candidate; if those restrictions — some of which are a century old — are overturned, the corporate skew in campaigns could easily get much worse than it is now.

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