Occupy Wall Street’s Silver Bullet: Publicly Financed Campaigns

By David Groves

The central theme of the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement seems to be the power imbalance between managers of large corporations and the other 99% of us. When backed by government policies, this power becomes absolute. Therefore, the first step in moving toward a solution that benefits the 99% is breaking government-corporate collusion. The fundamental question then becomes: how do we do this?

If I took away one lesson from my years working on federal policy in Washington, DC, it’s the corrosive role money plays in our federal policy-making process. The problem can easily be observed from afar via no-strings-attached TARP money or watered-down health and safety regulations. But what’s even more dispiriting is when you’re able to see firsthand how money is considered in virtually every decision of a federal policymaker.

The sad truth is: money buys votes. More money means more mailings, more paid campaign staff, and—most importantly—more TV ads. Simple math shows that anyone seeking to be a member of the House (both incumbents and challengers) must raise more than $10,000 every week for two years to be a viable candidate. If you want to become a Senator or maintain your seat, you have to raise over $26,000 every week over a six-year term (or more than $64K/week in the big states with multiple media markets). And Obama’s goal is to raise $1 billion for his 2012 bid.

Federal policymakers don’t meet these goals with small donors. They go to the most efficient—and most willing—sources: the wealthiest 1%. This leaves very little face time with the 99%. In light of this, who do you think has the most influence in developing their policy platforms?

How do we reduce corporate-government collusion? Big questions are typically accompanied by complex answers. This issue is unique, in that great headway toward solving it can be made via a relatively simple solution: require that all federal elections be publicly financed.

This essentially means that all federal elections are funded by tax dollars. Every candidate that meets a certain criteria (e.g. a threshold number of petition signatures) is provided the same amount of money to spend toward convincing the electorate of his/her worthiness. The amounts would vary, depending on House/Senate/Presidential races as well as for primary versus general elections. Elections are then decided by who is best at managing his/her campaign, not who is able to raise the most money. Isn’t the former criteria a better measuring stick for political office?

The intellectual arguments for publicly financed elections are sound: the source of funding for the process of determining our political leaders should be most representative of society, i.e. funds should be collected from all Americans and U.S.-based organizations. To make the system most fair, the amount collected should be loosely based on each individuals’ and organizations’ annual income. Fortunately, we already do this; it’s called taxation.

(As an added bonus, such a scheme would mean that the estimated $8 billion expected to be spent on the 2012 election—about half of which will go to the huge broadcast corporations for ads—could instead be reinvested by businesses to create jobs.)

John Stewart says our current campaign system separates the willing from the able… and always goes with the willing. In other words, our elections are not won by the candidate who is most qualified but rather who is most willing to beg for money and do the things once in office needed to secure more of it. This results in the perpetual situation of voters being forced to decide between the lesser of two evils.

Without publicly financed elections, we should continue to expect our policies to cater to corporate America and be insufficient to adequately address today’s problems. Even when Congress passes a law that’s considered remarkable (e.g. McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, the 2009 stimulus package, Dodd-Frank finance reform,), the policy is watered down to where it only addresses the issue at its margins. More generally, what happens is nothing at all, e.g. climate change legislation, tax reform, and deficit reduction.

Of course, there are major obstacles to achieving this: the Supreme Court has ruled that any limitation on an individual’s ability to give to a campaign is a violation of its 1st Amendment rights, even if that “individual” is Goldman Sachs. But past Supreme Courts have also upheld both slavery and segregation, and the retirement of Scalia, Thomas or Kennedy could result in the overturning of Citizens United and other related decisions. Moreover, the current system promotes incumbency (historically, over 90% of House members win reelection). It seems illogical for a sitting member to vote for a policy that discourages his/her chance of being reelected. But many policymakers secretly abhor the current system. It requires that they spend more time begging for money than legislating or speaking with their constituents. Yet very few are willing to speak publicly against the system for fear of watching the money flow to their opponent in the next race.

This is where a national movement comes in.

Part of the power of Occupy Wall Street is its inclusiveness, created by a lack of leadership and unclear agenda. But if I had a say, the movement’s theme would be achieving substantive campaign finance reform and the specific ask would be to make federal elections 100% publicly financed. I believe the incredibly disparate 99%–with its diverse views and prerogatives on fiscal and social policy–should unite behind this single demand, as it is the necessary first step toward achieving everything else.

It is said that education is the silver bullet to alleviate many of society’s social ills, from poverty to crime to drug addiction. I firmly believe that requiring publicly financed elections is the silver bullet to achieving so many of the prerogatives of the 99%.

Publicly funded elections won’t change ideologies. And it will only marginally decrease the partisanship that’s creating the current gridlock in Washington. But what it can do is create a policy-making system where decisions are made based on the merits of the argument and not the amount of money on the competing sides. This alone will make American policy much more forward-looking across every issue we face.

If things don’t change and our current system of legalized bribery continues, then we should all expect a future of policies that increase the disparity between the wealthy few and the other 99%, regardless of the party occupying the White House and Congress.

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