Real campaign finance reform: dilute the bad money with lots of good money

February 7, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

In his recent article at, “How to fix campaign financing forever for $50,” Farhad Manjoo explores what should be a national priority: campaign finance reform. 

Why should it be a priority?  Because private money corrupts all political dialogue.  It makes us think that politicians are taking The People seriously, when they aren’t.  Our current system of private political donations give birth to the ubiquitous Orwellian political sound bites (e.g., the Clear Sky Law).

Presidential candidates must now start raising at least $2 million a week, or $286,000 every day, including weekends, until the election.  And the sales pitch for the contribution is not anything like this:

Please give me LOTS of money.  In return, I won’t invite you to special gatherings of political and corporate elites.  I won’t answer your phone calls any more than I answer the calls of people who don’t contribute anything.   I won’t have my staff flock to hear your legislative proposals.  All I’ll do is continue representing the interests of all the people.

What doesn’t work to fix the campaign contribution system?  Contribution limits. Manjoo argues that getting around the limits “has become a huge Washington business.” Here’s another thing that doesn’t work: Making politicians disclose who gave what to whom. Manjoo suggests that “sunlight just isn’t so great a disinfectant.”  Information is freely available, but there’s too much of it for the public to digest, or maybe we’re just apathetic.  As if we don’t know that huge energy and financial corporations financed President Bush into office

Manjoo writes, however, that there’s already a plan out there that would work.  It’s a plan promoted by two Yale professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres.

The centerpiece of the plan is to give every voter $50 to donate to candidates running for federal office.    All of these campaign donations would be secret, so that political candidates -knows the source of the money they’ve received.  “Anonymous giving means no quid pro quo.”  At $50 each, this plan would cost $6 billion per election cycle. That’s a lot of money.  But consider that we’ve spent 60 times that amount in Iraq so far, a war that (I believe) never would have occurred had clean-money politicians occupied federal office.  Consider all of the other waste and lost chances that occur because our national dialogue is corrupted by political money.

That $60 billion can be expected to fuel the public’s traditional opposition to public financing.  You’ve probably heard it yourself from your neighbors: “Why should we give more money to those damned politicians?”  Why, indeed, other than the fact that our representatives are picking our pockets for many multiples of that amount, handing it to their contributors, wrecking all semblance of meaningful political dialogue in the process?  Everyone knows that it’s not free to get a quality result in any other undertaking.  For instance, if you want a weed-free yard, you’ll need to work hard and spend some money.  Having a weed-free government is no different.  Responsive intelligent government isn’t free and it’s time for the voters to disabuse themselves of that fairy tale notion. 

But the Ackerman-Ayres plan offers something different to the public.  It doesn’t just hand money to politicians generally (e.g., as the current $3 checkbox on our tax returns does).   It offers the public a reason to support public financing by empowering the individual citizens to pick the candidate(s) that will receive their money.  The money, by the way, would take the form of an electronic voucher (The People wouldn’t be able to spend it on beer).

Consider that $50 per voter would make a substantial difference.  As Manjoo notes,  “As a comparison, all federal candidates — for the House, the Senate and the presidency — spent a combined $4 billion in 2004, most of it raised from private donors.”

Surprisingly, the Ackerman/Ayres public money proposal wouldn’t prevent you from giving a politician more than your government-issued $50.  Manjoo explains:

The new caps would be $5,000 for House candidates, $32,000 for Senate candidates and $100,000 for presidential contenders (with a cumulative cap of $100,000 to all candidates). But that’s where Ayres and Ackerman’s second innovation, the “secret donation booth,” comes into play.

This opening to contribute private money is a move to deflect the money = speech argument that abounds.  If you want to give more than your government-issued $50, you must make your check out to the Federal Election Commission and the origin of that money will be confidential.  You can tell the candidate that you contributed $32,000 to his or her cause, but the FEC will never corroborate your story.  Because of this secrecy, Manjoo argues that “Today’s routine $2,000-per-plate benefits would become impossibly tense affairs.”

This secrecy of the origin of private contributions would thus give the same benefit as our sacrosanct secret voting booth.

But what about those privately-funded independent groups, including all versions of swift-boaters?  Here’s how Manjoo describes it. If they start pouring lots of bad money into the system, the FEC would be empowered to open the spigots to increase the flow of clean money:

If donations to independent groups rise by a substantial amount, then the FEC, under their plan, would correspondingly increase public money given in vouchers. In other words, by design, public money would always vastly outweigh private money, and ordinary people would always have more combined power than the wealthy.

Ackerman and Ayres have published their book, Voting for Dollars, on the Internet. They include model legislation.  If any politician were as concerned about the abject corruption of our leaders as I am, they could photocopy this model legislation and introduce it immediately. 

All we would need then would be a vigorous wide-spread discussion of the need for this legislation in the corporate media.   I’m now writing with deep sarcasm, of course.  That is why media reform and campaign finance reform go hand in hand.  

Our so-called democracy (at least at the national level) will continue to be a joke until we tackle both of these critical issues.


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Category: Campaign Finance Reform, Communication, Corruption, Media, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Scholar says:

    Creative idea, but how would we decide who to give the fifty bucks to, since many potenially high-quality candidates would not yet have any money for campaigns? I think it would quickly get corrupt if some undeserving candidates began to accumulate funds and were able turn their campaigns into juggernaughts with false ads (just like they already do). I think it might actually end up just be giving billions to the bad guys each election.

    Across many cultures and civilizations and forms of government, it has proven "difficult" (strategically) for those in power to develop a fair and just government, while still maintaining their own elite status. To put myself in their shoes, if I was a congressperson, I probably would shy away from supporting legislation which might decrease my bankroll.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Scholar: The current power-holders would have to start acting on the belief that THE PEOPLE (not just selected elites) are the bosses of this country. This is a foreign concept for many of them. Giving up power to the voters at large is something that terrifies most of them. It's human nature to not want to relinquish power.

    Therefore, what the professors propose is politically earth-shaking.

  3. Scholar says:

    The underlying problem could be something which we have all witnessed. People seem to *automatically* change (for the worse of humanity) upon receiving wealth and/or power. It is not always the case, but is a well-documented aspect of "human" nature. A few names that comes to mind are Fidel Castro, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Julius Caesar, Cesar Chavez, Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il, Pol-Pot, George Bush SR, Napoleon Bonaparte, George Bush JR, Hernando Cortez, Constantine, and of course, all of the maniacal *POPES*. Please correct me if I have left anyone out who begs mentioning, or included any which I should not.

    Here is a link to global political corruption sentiment…although I am suspect of the fact that the USA received a rating of "low" for corruption in politics.

  4. SkinTight says:

    Would the Ayres-Ackerman plan abolish or limit corporate and union contributions ?

    I like that this plan actually is the embodiment of that '60s slogan 'Power to the People'.

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