Can we get money out of politics?

March 8, 2012

The experience of campaign reform laws over the past four decades raises the question of whether reforms for "getting money out of politics" will tackle the problem.

WHEN I first started to form my political opinions, I read an appeal from the campaign finance reform organization Common Cause. It argued that the "most radical" thing we could do was to support the reform that Common Cause was promoting. Because of the decisive influence of money on politics and government, enacting this reform would radically alter the U.S. government.

I don't remember what the specific proposal was, so I don't recall if it ever passed. It may have. But it's worth pointing out that I read this appeal sometime during the Carter administration. Now, three and a half decades later, a number of campaign finance laws have come and gone, but the influence of big money is seemingly worse than ever. And many activists are again attracted to the idea of "getting money out of politics."

The recognition that the richest 1 percent controls the government, usually in opposition to the wishes of the rest of us, makes "getting money out of politics" one of the most unifying themes of the Occupy movement. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which essentially equated the ability to funnel corporate cash to political candidates with free speech, it's not hard to see why this is the case.

But "getting money out of politics" means different things to different people. Some activists call for more of the kinds of reforms that Common Cause first put forward in the 1970s: "clean elections," public financing of campaigns and the like. Others seek to reverse Citizens United through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to overturn the 19th century Supreme Court ruling that defined corporations as persons.

While many of these reforms would be worthy in at least throwing a few obstacles in the way of complete corporate domination of the American political system, there are good reasons to ask if they will actually help to transform U.S. politics or to empower "the 99 percent."

CAMPAIGN FINANCE reform is a labor of Sisyphus. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned forever to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. Like Sisyphus, campaign finance reformers since the 1970s have been fighting a battle against a system rigged to thwart them. One could even say that campaign finance laws are made to be broken.

The 1970s reforms that created the modern campaign finance system, including the Federal Election Commission (FEC), came on the heels of the Watergate and ITT scandals.

Watergate exposed how Richard Nixon's Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP), built on donations from corporations and wealthy individuals, was used by White House operatives to finance "dirty tricks" against Nixon's political opponents. During the same time period, the manufacturing conglomerate ITT was exposed for helping to finance the 1973 right-wing coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende--and in 1972 for influencing the Justice Department to drop an anti-trust lawsuit against it with a well-placed donation to the Republican National Committee.

One would have thought these shocking revelations should have spurred the creation of a strong watchdog to crack down on these blatant abuses. But the 1974 campaign finance legislation creating the Federal Election Commission and establishing public financing of presidential elections was a weak compromise.

Perhaps this wasn't surprising given that the people in charge of writing it--politicians from the two major parties--had much to lose if they completely cut off their monetary life's blood.

Since then, corporations have treated campaign finance laws the way Wall Street treats financial regulations. If they can't succeed in weakening the laws from the start, or using court cases to limit their reach, they devise new and more complex ways of influencing elected officials by exploiting grey areas in the law.

For years, laws limiting the campaign contributions to political candidates had a huge loophole that allowed corporations and the wealthy to give so-called "soft money" donations to the political parties, rather than individuals.

In the wake of another wave of corporate malfeasance--the scandals surrounding the collapse of firms like Enron and WorldCom in the early 2000s--Congress banned soft-money contributions to the parties. So in the next several election cycles, corporations, unions and wealthy individuals instead donated unlimited sums to so-called "529" groups that carried out electioneering without coordinating--wink wink, nod nod--with federal candidates.

In the wake of Citizens United, these 529 groups are now taking a backseat to SuperPACs, which allow unlimited contributions to organizations that are not officially allied with candidates, but whose directors just happen to be former operatives for those candidates. One wonders why the politicians even bother to maintain the fictional separations.

Most reformers' plans to "get money out of politics" focus on the corporate role in elections and contributions to political candidates. (A recent article by David DeGraw for Occupy Wall Street News provides a useful summary of them.)

BUT ELECTIONS aren't even the most egregious access point for corporate influence in the American system. What happens after elections, as industries and other special interests lobby elected representatives, is more important.

Data from Open certainly suggests that more money is spent on lobbying than on elections. FEC figures show that about $3.6 billion was spent on federal elections in the 2009-10 election cycle. In the same two-year period, lobbying organizations spent a little over $7 billion.

These may seem like enormous sums, but they are chump change compared to what corporations can gain from favorable government policies. This is because the real bonanza for companies often comes in the arcane minutiae of legislation and regulations. Here is where companies can get favors for themselves, or--equally as important--rewrite regulations to support their profit-making endeavors.

In the backrooms of Congress, corporate lobbyists generally don't show up with wads of cash, offering to buy votes. The process is a lot more subtle, and therefore more effective, as the Washington Post's Ezra Klein described in a recent article:

If someone walks up to you with a bag full of money and asks you to vote to make coal companies more profitable, that's not a very persuasive argument. Even if you take the money, you're going to feel dirty the next day. And most people don't like to feel dirty.

But if one of your smartest, most persuasive friends, a friend you agree with on almost everything, is explaining to you that those environmentalist nuts are going too far again--they're always doing that, aren't they?--and they have sneakily tucked a provision into a bill that would make it more expensive for your constituents to buy electricity, that's very persuasive. And if it's also in your self-interest to listen to him--and lobbyists are good at nothing if not making sure it is in a politician's long-term self-interest to listen to them--then all your incentives are pointing in the same direction. You'll listen.

Pro-capitalist policy doesn't come from some cabal of the 1 percent. It flows from companies and their trade associations, through different private foundations and think tanks, lobbies, universities, quasi-public agencies and the capitalist political parties. All of these recruit professionals from the corporate sector who are groomed to carry corporate policy into government. And lobbying groups recruit ex-members of Congress and congressional staffers--people whose personal and political connections with lawmakers make them the best emissaries.

The fact that campaign finance and lobbying reforms are under constant threat of being evaded and watered down doesn't make efforts to strengthen them irrelevant. But this does raise the question of whether even the strongest reform law can really curtail the influence of the 1 percent. Most of the reforms for "getting money out of politics" propose procedural or technical solutions to a problem that is much bigger than they can really tackle.

For one thing, they all rely on representatives of the two main capitalist parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, to implement them. And even if, by some miracle, the two parties implemented strong campaign finance reforms, it wouldn't change their nature as big business parties.

That means that the debate over policies like health care reform or Wall Street regulation will oscillate within the overall framework of Corporate America's agenda. The 99 percent will still be left standing on the sidelines.

What if organized labor decided to stop wasting its money on the Democrats and formed a labor party? This would be a great step forward for working people in the U.S. But it would immediately reveal deeper evidence of the corporate stranglehold on politics under capitalism.

Even if we had iron-clad campaign finance reform, public financing of elections, a labor party and a constitutional determination that a corporation is not a person (a constitutional amendment that would take decades to win), we would still be confronted with other manifestations of corporate power.

Corporate control of the media would assure that pro-capitalist points of view continued to influence public opinion. Corporate decisions to shutter factories could still ruin whole cities or industrial sectors. Capital could still "go on strike," sabotaging the economy if it vehemently opposed a government policy.

What's truly "radical"--in the sense of "going to the root of the problem"--isn't a well-crafted plan for "clean elections," but recognition that challenging the 1 percent's political influence means confronting capitalism itself.

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