Getting Big Money Out of Politics: A Solution

By Joe Firestone

A lot of Americans have the feeling that those who have and supply big money to candidates, office holders, lobby groups, think tanks, and media have bought politics. That it is they who are determining the agendas that office holders act upon and even the specific decisions they make in passing laws and rendering executive and even judicial decisions. This short post won’t debate the extent to which big money has perverted democratic processes in the United States. Instead it will offer a simple, perhaps an oversimple, solution to the problem that will really work. Here it is.

If you really want to do something about this, then just follow a very simple rule. If the election you’re voting in is virtually a two candidate contest, then vote for the candidate, who, in combination with her/his supporters spends the least amount of money. In a virtual multi-candidate contest, do the same thing.

That’s the proposal, in its simplest form. Its objective is to reverse the current race to the bottom in buying elections by ensuring that there would be a powerful incentive to start a race to the top to raise and spend as little money as possible in campaigns. That incentive is that if you spend too much you lose, pure and simple.

The other rationale for the rule is that the person who raises and spends the least amount of money for a campaign, will generally be the person who is “less bought” by wealthy people, financial interests, and large corporations. Eventually, if the rule took hold it would no longer be said of the Congress that “the banks own the place.”

Now, some clarification: by “virtual” I mean that you have to make a prior assessment of the candidates who have a chance to win, because if you don’t, and if a person with little or no resources runs, then you’ll be driving all fund raising out of politics, which would then probably bias elections even more towards well-known incumbents and celebrities than is the case now.

What about excluding third party candidates if you apply the “virtual” notion? Well, I don’t see that applying the rule would make things any worse than they are now, since people already do that kind of exclusision of third party candidates. In fact, as time passes, applying the rule as stated may actually improve the chances of third party candidates, by driving spending down for major party candidates, thereby affecting the perceptions people have about the chances of third party candidates.

A final point: to get enough people following this rule for it to be effective, we’ll need a movement to mobilize people to use it. This could begin by making the idea go viral on the web (get it picked up by Upworthy), and continue with petition drives aimed at candidates for office. What if, in a Congressional primary, general election, or both, the major candidates for office were presented with petitions signed by 50,000 voters saying that the undersigned will vote for the candidate who, along with her/his supporters, spent the least amount of money? Would they compete for that distinction and the 50,000 votes?

I think they would!

16 Responses to Getting Big Money Out of Politics: A Solution

  1. Important topic, thank you. We have to find some way to keep the oligarchs from buying elections.

    Another part of the equation imho is that local and state media outlets depend on campaign spending to survive. See the excellent piece from Jane Hamsher below: “Has Google destroyed the Fourth Estate”

    http://bytegeist.firedoglake.com/2012/10/04/has-google-destroyed-the-4th-estate/

    I don’t see them standing by and letting progressives kill one of their last advertising income streams.

    In Wisconsin, Chris Abele (inherited all his money from his billionaire Dad), promised everyone that he would support collective bargaining when Democrats elected him Milwaukee County Executive. That’s the job Scott Walker (who btw married money) had before he became Governor. Once Abele became County Exec, he continued Walker’s union busting, but as a pro-choice, pro-LGBT Democrat. Rumor is that Abele wants to run against U.S. Senator Ron (sunspots caused climate change) Johnson, who married the daughter of a billionaire. http://www.waxingamerica.com/2010/08/ron-johnsons-real-accomplishment-marrying-the-shrinkwrap-princess.html

    Now Mary Burke is running against Walker and she got all her money from her Dad who started Trek bicycles. Based on how badly liberals and progressive feel screwed by Abele, it’s hard to trust Burke, who likewise has no political record.

    Another idea I have heard is to restrict campaign contributions to registered voters and then cap it at something like $50 year (for local, state, and federal races).

    Then if you have federal (or state) matching, it’s pro-rated based on what they raised from REGISTERED voters.
    I got this from Sarah (RIP) several years ago at a now defunct website the next hurrah.

    http://thenexthurrah.typepad.com/the_next_hurrah/2008/02/yes-another-sar.html

    It’s clearly been around for awhile, so hopefully someone has it in a more fleshed-out form.

    Folks at fairvote.org have some interesting idea on voting too.

    http://www.fairvote.org/

    MMT would allow US to begin paying federal judges, prosecutors, civil servants, more what they’re worth. IMHO, that’s another way to spread the “good news” about MMT. I’d like to see jurors AND THEIR EMPLOYERS get paid a much better stipend for jury duty. That would really help our judicial system.

    • Thanks. You’ve made a number of good observations. The nice thing about my proposal is that it doesn’t take legislation to implement it. Just a viral movement giving people an idea they can use to register their dissatisfaction with a formal political system that has sold out to special, moneyed interests and to do it an effective way. People advocate staying away from the polls to protest what’s going on. They also propose voting for third parties. But neither of these alternatives would actively penalize the power of money in elections.

      On the point of media dependency on campaign money. I think that’s another reason why something like my proposal is needed. Local media has been bought. They’ve become trivial marketing outlets for business and do not do journalism. Their replacement by local blogs as the source of local news would benefit us all.

    • Jim Shannon

      “We have to find some way to keep the oligarchs from buying elections.”
      Well that should be obvious but it not because the 99% have all been brainwashed to believe the monied elite are a necessary evil for their collective survival. The corruption of government by the oligarchs is not new. In fact it defines the history of all societies. No government EVER has stopped those who want it ALL for themselves from using commerce and the government to extract wealth from the society.
      There is another solution. One the Oligarchs will not let the 99% ever think about. A solution so simple that it scares the devil out of everyone. All the brainwashed Economists and Academics are too afraid to model or think about. Governments are so corrupted by CentaMillionaire$ and Billionaire$ that those elected few who do all the thinking for the 99% no longer care what happens to their constitutents!
      Change the TAX CODE. Governments have always decided who is rich and stays rich and who is poor and stays poor. The TAX CODE is the real DECIDER.
      The 99% have the collective right and the vote cause governments to limit personal GREED to $10,000,000 and until that happens the corruption of all government will continue unabated!

  2. With the ability to use the web to get one’s message out for free, it should be possible to run a very low-cost campaign. The only TV you would need is a 5-second spot with your url on it:

    see my trending youtube videos at JohnforCongress.com
    Don’t forget to vote. Your country’s future is up to you.

    • Excellent point and definitely the direction things are trending, inexpensive, web ads targeted by zip code.

      Unfortunately, a lot of urban poor and rural poor are on the wrong side of the digital divide. “Too poor for pop culture:
      Where I live in East Baltimore, everything looks like “The Wire” and nobody cares what a “selfie”” ishttp://www.salon.com/2014/02/05/too_poor_for_pop_culture/

    • You’ll still be swamped by big money is various ways. You can get a message out; but it’s difficult to get it widely dispersed.

  3. Innovative as always!
    It’s of course as simple as it is difficult. It’s such an unimaginably impossible thing to imagine people doing this en masse, yet it would be such an effective and simple means!

    • It is hard to imagine. But the web and social media give rise to crazes and fads all the time. So, the potential for getting this spread is much greater than it was before these technology developments.

  4. Apart from the impossibility of convincing people to do anything sensible with their votes this only addresses some of the corruption in politics. There are still a lot of kickbacks, bribes and especially post-term jobs influencing politicians. Knowing you are almost guaranteed a multi-million easy job on wall street if you play nice with them is a big incentive.

    • It is. But you’re not guaranteed that job until you’ve spent quite a considerable time n Congress because new people don’t have the necessary influence to command it. So, if a proposal like this is implemented and then the new people who are elected defect by selling out to the interests, then they can always be defeated before they acquire enough influence in Congress to really make a killing through their sell-out. Once this dynamic starts working, people would ver quickly stop selling out.

  5. This won’t work. Candidates spend lots of money because it works. If it worked to spend little amounts of money, that’s what they’d already be doing. Here’s a couple of other solutions:
    1. Most money is spent on just one thing – short (e.g. 30 second) TV and radio ads. These are generally sound-bites, uninformative, often negative lies and distortions. In short, they tell people almost nothing useful about a candidate except how low he or she will stoop to smear their opponent. If we can’t ban them altogether, let’s at least ban them – whatever their source – a month prior to any election, primary or general. This would save millions of dollars on campaigning, and make the media more responsible for telling us about a candidate.
    2. If you want to get third party special interest money out of politics, than counter it with public funding, and to be sure there are no false arguments about how public financing would increase the debt, pay for it with debt-free U.S. Notes dedicated to just this special purpose, to any candidate who meets the minimum qualifications to get on the ballot (this would also have the good side effect of opening elections up to more candidates than just the heavily funded major party candidates).
    3. Other reforms – instant runoff that allows people’s second and third choices to be considered in case no one gets an outright majority on the first tally. Make it easier to qualify to be on the ballot by lowering the signature requirements and making them uniform and consistent, for all parties and individuals.

    • Scott, I know it works. That’s why I wrote this piece in the first place. It’s purpose is to stop it from working by ensuring that the most well-funded campaign will always lose. If people buy-off on the idea then why wouldn’t it work? You’re not addressing that question. And why wouldn’t they buy off? They hate the Congress and are fed up. In polls they endorse the idea of getting rid of all the incumbents. They’re looking for real change in the system, and this idea would really rock it.

      Also, Scott, you have a penchant for solutions that take legislative action. Those won’t work because the legislatures have been bought. Why would they vote to undermine systems that have made them successful? That’s the point.

      It’ the easiest thing in the world to come up with solutions to problems that require Congress to act. They’re not what we need until we figure out how to get them to act. The solution I’ve suggested isn’t dependent on Congress acting. It also can’t be blocked by the politicians. It’s a civil society solution that will do much to fix the political system.

      • Yeah, but you assume that:
        A. People will simply vote for the least-spendiest candidate, instead of something else that means more to them. Where’s the evidence that they will do this?
        B. That everything else is equal and there is not some other reason the least-spendiest candidate has less money. In fact, many more people support Green Party ideas than actually vote for Green PArty candidates when they have the chance; they are afraid of throwing away their vote and having the most undesirable candidate win instead.
        C. How do we know their isn’t support for campaign finance reform in Congress? After all, we did have McCain-Feingold, which was pretty bi-partisan, until it was struck down in the courts. Maybe it’s more productive to rally a campaign for that, along the lines I suggested?
        D. We HAVE gotten victories, even out of this dysfunctional Congress – e.g. it looks like TPP Fast Track is dead, at least until Harry Reid is replaced, which means TPP itself is probably dead. The chained CPI for Social Security was killed by Bernie Sanders, but he also credits the grassroots efforts even more. It looks like the Feds will reluctantly allow for Marijuana legalization on a state-by-state basis, with restrictions (OK, not as important as campaign finance reform, but not trivial either). DOMA was essentially killed state by state only 15 years after being signed (still ongoing). Are we winning? No, but it’s not nothing either.

    • Networks pay big bucks for certain TV events, like sports. They would pay for Presidential debates, too, if they didn’t get them for free. They don’t need to be paid to carry these, because they know they can sell ads that will foot the bill. In the case of most big political events, it’s on all the networks, and you can’t watch anything else. There’s no need for them all to do it, wasting all that precious air time. They could rotate, and all the voters who want to see it would still be able to see it.

      I like the idea of banning the disgusting attack ads, but I don’t think it would fly, constitutionally. Most of them are paid for by “independent” groups, not by the candidate or by money contributed to his campaign. Some of them don’t even run on TV any more, they are on youtube and the url is sent to the networks for them to publicize it for free, even if the comments on it will be negative. No such thing as bad publicity.

      But, since the TV stations and networks are licensed by government, maybe there is a way to require them to carry some more meaningful types of debates or other messages “for free”, as a condition of their broadcast license. Not just for the Presidential race, but for Congress, too. If an hour debate for the city council race wouldn’t attract enough interest, just give each candidate a few seconds to reveal his stance on a single issue, all the candidates in a row, and they could point to their youtube for more in-depth discussion. “I’m in favor of x because I think it would help y. Go to JohnforCongress.com for more details.”

      I’ve long thought that “big money” donations should be for a race, not a candidate. A committee of representatives from all the candidates would receive and spend the money. No limits on donations. The money would be used to buy equal-time side-by-side ads for all the candidates. Then they can say whatever they want in the ads, and none of them would have a huge money or exposure advantage.

  6. Charles fasola

    Gentlemen,

    The simplest point, which you apparently fail to comprehend, is the problems are systemic. You can fix this and try to fix that but the entirely exploitative system is and will remain in place. Especially if the MMT’ers and their disciples continue to believe that a few minor tweaks are all it will take to solve the mess of a governmental, economic and monetary system which currently exists. Keep believing in miracles.