CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM
Americans are increasingly worried about the way political campaigns are financed in this country. In 2016 the total amount of money spent on federal elections was nearly $7 billion. With elections for state and local races getting more expensive every year, the total outlays are nothing short of astonishing.
Let’s look at what it takes to win one of the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives, because that is what I am trying to do. The conventional wisdom is that it takes a million dollars. Given the number of registered Democrats who vote in a typical congressional election in my district, I would have to get about five dollars from every single one of them to finance a campaign war chest of that size. But very few voters ever donate money to political campaigns.
In fact, political scientists estimate that 40% of election campaign contributions in this country come from a group of people who comprise 0.01% of the population. Another way of looking at it is that this group that spends such a big chunk of the total represents just one out of every 10,000 voters. That is a staggering concentration of political influence in the hands of the wealthy.
Money buys influence. Most of us believe Members of Congress vote in a way that satisfies the people who finance their campaigns. Politicians themselves deny this, but they do admit that “money buys access.” If you want an appointment to speak to your representative, you will get that much more readily if you have been one of his or her generous campaign contributors. I have experienced this personally. About a decade ago I was going to be in Washington and wanted to visit my representative to discuss issues in health policy. Repeated emails and phone calls were fruitless. Then the political director of my professional organization called my congressman’s office and reminded the scheduler that I was a leader in that organization, which had contributed money to the congressman’s campaigns. The scheduler promptly called me to schedule an appointment at my convenience.
How can we expect Congress to be responsive to the will of the people, when they are beholden to the monied interests to get elected to office and stay there?
The Supreme Court has decided that giving money to support political campaigns is “expression” that is protected by the First Amendment, and that the free-speech right guaranteed to the people is also guaranteed to corporations, because a corporation is treated like a person in our legal system. This is why it may well take a constitutional amendment to return the government to the people.
What can we, as individual citizens, do about this in the meantime? Ask hard questions. Look at who finances the campaigns of people seeking election and re-election. There is a great deal of information about this, on the Web, in the public domain. If you see a candidate getting generous support from the pharmaceutical industry, do not expect him to do anything to help lower drug prices. If he takes big bucks from the fossil fuels industries, do not expect him to share your vision of a nation powered by wind and solar.
There is no guarantee that a candidate whose run for office is financed at the grass roots level will vote the way her constituents want. But it certainly improves the odds. We can get big money out of politics if we set our minds to it. It will take a lot of work to change the system, but we can start by following the money – and being skeptical of candidates whose campaign financing comes from “special interests” that don’t share our values and our goals.
All issue papers are written by me, Bob Solomon. Your feedback is welcome!