The Sunlight Foundation Misses the Point

I'll begin this post as I increasingly find myself doing, with a tweet

I wonder if folks at the @sunfoundation realize they’re creating a system where only billionaires can get elected

That's the question I posed to the Sunlight Foundation, whose good work on government transparency is marred by their vocal support for draconian campaign finance regulations. It's a fair question in light of self-funders steamrolling "career politicians" / "lifelong public servants" (pick your poison) in recent primaries.

Their response on their blog yesterday was a nonsequitur on the DISCLOSE Act. No, my specific beef is not with the DISCLOSE Act but the entire regime put in place the original "campaign finance reform" of FECA more than 30 years ago, and its subsequent bastardization that has given us the kind of influence peddling that the Sunlight Foundation now rails against. 

It is this regime of strict limits -- $2,400 per individual to a campaign -- that creates a massive de-facto advantage for self-funders who can pour in anything they want. 

In the past, I've noted the weak record of self-funded candidates actually getting elected. And I've noted, in general terms, the drawbacks of said candidates. The Sunlight Foundation's own analysis shows a low, but rising, success rate for self-funders -- from 9.4% getting elected in 2002 to 21.5% in 2008. 

But 2010 by any measure looks to be a watershed year for self-funders. Just look at Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California, Rick Synder in Michigan, Bill Haslam in Tennessee, possibly Rick Scott and Jeff Greene in Florida, maybe Mark Dayton in Minnesota, and in today's Connecticut primary, quite possibly three self-funded nominees for the top two statewide offices: Linda McMahon, Ned Lamont, and Tom Foley. 

There's no doubt that this trend is helped along by public disgust at the current Congress and Administration, and no contesting the fact that the politicians seem to have made such a hash of things that it seems like political novices can do no worse. William F. Buckley's dictum that he'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book remains as relevant today as ever. And it's not to say that primaries won by self-funders can't produce a good result (Synder and Haslam -- a current mayor -- seem to be good examples). 

But for each Rick Synder, there are other candidates with baggage so great that they wouldn't survive a primary in an instant if they had to raise it $2,400 at a time. Think Linda McMahon, the WWE, and steroids, or virtual nobody Jeff Greene who profited off the very credit default swaps that are at the heart of Florida's real estate collapse. 

Though the political winds might be at their back, self-funders have a massive structural advantage: in the context of a campaign, they are the only ones who can exercise their Constitutional rights under Buckley v. Valeo with unlimited contributions to a campaign. (There is surely an equal protection case in there somewhere, right?) 

The situation is made worse in states that are models for strict campaign finance regulations and public financing: Florida and Connecticut. In Florida, you can only give $500 a pop to a statewide candidate, but outside political entities who don't disclose their donors openly coordinate with cash-strapped campaigns. In the realm of the truly bizarre, the state party can also subsidize any campaign's infrastructure costs to get around these limits. Connecticut also has public financing and contribution limits, and we may well get an all-self-funder race for Governor today. 

Let's look, by contrast, at states like Texas and Pennsylvania, which don't have any contribution limits in statewide elections. Is there a serious case to be made that their system is worse, or more corrupt, than Florida's -- where money is funneled through shadowy outside groups precisely because the ambit of disclosed campaign activity is so small? 

In Texas, all major candidates have an opportunity to fund their campaigns at a level appropriate to the modern campaign, thus making the cost of entry for self-funders very high. That doesn't mean they don't try, but they must at least compete on a level playing field because their opponents have the theoretical ability to draw unlimited dollars from elsewhere. 

Which gets us back to what the Sunlight Foundation wants to talk about: the DISCLOSE Act. If we actually had a sane campaign finance system, there would have been no need for the Citizens United decision, because this activity would be happening in a fully open and disclosed fashion under federal campaign laws. It is only under a regime of strict limits that clever tricks that hide where money is really coming from begin to take root. PACs, soft money, 527s and the widespread use of 501(c)4's for political activity are all functions of campaign finance "reform." 

Paradoxically, it is only when money becomes a scarce resource in a campaign that where it comes from matters most. I for one would much rather have a system where an individual can give a candidate $100,000, fully disclosed, rather than the one we have now where members of Congress have to grovel before industry PAC representatives for 20 measly $5,000 checks. 

If there are reform-based objections to this, let's hear them. And let's also hear an answer to threshold question: how are things in Austin, Texas or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania worse today than in Washington, D.C.? 

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Comments

Corrupt influences

"Paradoxically, it is only when money becomes a scarce resource in a campaign that where it comes from matters most. I for one would much rather have a system where an individual can give a candidate $100,000, fully disclosed, rather than the one we have now where members of Congress have to grovel before industry PAC representatives for 20 measly $5,000 checks."

Exactly.

Of course, contribution limits enhance the power of incumbents, who have already established relationship with contributors. I favor no limits together with strict disclosure requirements.

The ugly truth about what

The ugly truth about what passes for American democracy is that private campaign donations, offered to candidates, parties, independent orgs, or what have you, are bribes. That's why they're offered, why they're accepted, and they're the deciding factor in any and all government actions. Some people see the solution to this in things like donation limits or public financing. I'm skeptical that there even is a solution absent genuinely radical change, but I am aware that the situation is properly characterized as a serious problem. Disclosure is, of course, essential, but it doesn't solve the problem, and I wonder if those who advocate it as a substitute for more substantial reform efforts (of whatever degree of effectiveness) even recognize that there is a problem.

put the limit at $100 bucks... or fifty, say...

Not a whole hell of a lot you can do with that. 'cept go door to door, and recruit a lot of volunteers.

I sure as Sunday would rather see Planned Parenthood conducting "awareness campaigns" with volunteers (or Acorn) than five hundred TV ads I'll never see (no TV, tch).

Not a whole hell of a lot you

Not a whole hell of a lot you can do with that. 'cept go door to door, and recruit a lot of volunteers.

But limiting contributions directly to campaigns only deals with a tiny part of the problem. The money just goes elsewhere to do exactly the same thing (buy influence).

Yup. Whoever owns Fox gets a hell of a lot of propaganda

for FREE! hell, Fox makes a profit!

When propaganda is free, you're fucked, plain and simple.

The only way to fix the problem is to turn Russian and stop believing that the papers tell anything that isn't self-serving.

Looking at you, General Electric.

So, say you give $100,000 to a politician.

He then gives you grant money for the next six years.
Legally, and there's nothing that voters can do to stop it.

At least if you're contributing at $1,000 a pop, the future senator needs a lot of businessmen in his corner -- and thus the corruption gets spread around a lot, rather than concentrated in the hands of a few.

Cynical? sure. But you look at cynical, because it's now legal for judges to not recuse themselves after their election has been bought by the very people they're judging.

West Virginia. Look it up.

It doesn't take $100,000. A

It doesn't take $100,000. A $5,000 contribution to Sen. Patty Murray earned executives at Microvision Inc. a $5.5 million earmark, making the Pentagon spend the money on Microvision's worthless helmet-mounted computers, which the Defense Dept. didn't want, and doesn't use.

Multiply that--a VERY minor example--by several times, then multiply the result by 535, and you get an idea of how congress works.

earmarks still ain't much of the budget.

corruption ain't good, sure... but I worry more about states where the gov't won't say boo without corporation approval.

The ugly truth

"The ugly truth about what passes for American democracy is that private campaign donations, offered to candidates, parties, independent orgs, or what have you, are bribes."

The Supreme Court disagrees with you. How many unconstitutional laws do you want them to strike down before you give up?

Do you disagree with the First Amendment?

The Supreme Court disagrees

The Supreme Court disagrees with you.

The Supreme Court has also said corporations were human beings, but slaves weren't. A blue sky remains a blue sky, without regard to what the court majority may think of the characterization.

If you want a favorable health care bill in the U.S., you pour a fortune into candidates for the congress and presidency. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee was the top congressional recipient of health industry dollars; he hired the former Vice-President of Wellpoint to write insurance "reform," and--what a surprise--she concocts an industry-friendly scheme modeled on the lobbyist-written Mitt Romney health care "reform" (which was, itself, modeled on numerous other lobbyist-authored schemes over the years), and that's exactly what passed congress and was signed into law. A "reform" that forces us to buy private health insurance, provides huge public subsidies, earmarked for the purchase of that care, to those who can't afford it, and does absolutely nothing to address any of the crippling problems of current health care in the U.S.

Multiply that by every bill introduced in congress, and you've just created a portrait of how government works.

What to do about it is an open question. Pretending it isn't a problem, though, is a non-starter. The equivalent of sticking one's fingers in one's ears and dancing around shouting "LALALALALALALAL!!!!" as if that will make it something other than what it is.

you're wrong.

there's plenty that needs to be done with health care, and plenty more that could have been done...

but this effectively ends the modern Republican party... and, sad to say, good riddance! (once we nail the final coffinnail shut... we can actually get some REAL conservatives).

I miss Ike. There's a Republican I could vote for.