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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8 responses

  1. YUP, exactly right. I feel that all of our problems stem from the fact that politicians at all levels are pretty much required to pay far more attention to the 0.1% who fund their campaigns. IF we remove and even outlaw that requirement, we can get back to actually talking about issues. Occupy wall street is far too caught up currently in all the other issues that allow the media to pass them off as a fringe movement.

  2. In my view David Groves is in a conventional pre-Occupy mindset which has not proved effective over the past 50 years. David and people with an interest in the issue of campaign finance should get together and go after it with all the strength they can muster … and I wish them well in the effort because it is something that needs to get fixed.

    I don’t know that much about campaign financing and all the legal intricacies, so me working on this would be a poor use of my knowledge and experience. My issue is that metrics like profit, GDP and stock market indexes are not working very well for society, but have served the 1% very well. I want to see the system of metrics reformed so that value for society is as important as profit for investors.

    If I was a medical professional, I might want to help with sorting out the health sector so that society could be proud of what was going on in health.

    If I was in education … the same.

    The point is, there are many different areas where the 1% have taken control of the situation, and we have got to Occupy all these places and make sure that a new paradigm for all economic activity takes hold.

    In the Occupy Movement as I understand it there is room for everyone that sees hope in restructuring the economy so that those in the 99% get a fair shot. @truevaluemetric

    1. I disagree, unions should be treated just like corporations should. As entities that should be limited in their ability to fund and lobby politicians. Let the individual voices be heard, not the big wigs at the tops of the unions.

  3. Dr. Ron Paul has never been funded by lobbyists. He is 100% publicly funded.

    And don’t just single out corporations for their abilities to spend billions on candidates. Blame the supreme court for ruling that corporations are people and can donate unlimited amounts of money. That is the main issue.

  4. The hush-hush of politics is controlling a segment of people without those people recognizing they are being managed.

    In 1789 The Constitution and Bill of Rights are established as the law of the land.

    For 97 years it was understood that 1st Amendment freedoms of speech, press and assembly were the sole rights of flesh and blood citizens. Corporations had no rights. Newspapers had the right to print because they employed people and not the other way around.

    “The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy; the growth of corporate power; and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” -Alex Carey, Australian social scientist who pioneered the investigation of corporate propaganda (see Taking the Risk Out Of Democracy, Univ of New South Wales, 1995)

    In 1886 footnotes to the Santa Clara Railroad case, written by a Supreme Court Clerk who was previously a railroad executive, became the basis for corporations claiming the same rights as flesh and blood people.

    Following reports of serious financial abuses in the 1972 Presidential campaign, Congress amended the FECA in 1974 to set limits on contributions by individuals, political parties and PACs. But politicians exempted the commercial press, because the 1st Amendment prohibits abridging their freedom of speech and the press.

    2 USC 431 (9) (B) (i) The term “expenditure” does not include any news story, commentary, or editorial distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication, unless such facilities are owned or controlled by any political party, political committee, or candidate;

    But we cannot rely on the commercial press to be unbiased and provide the information we need to remain free. Both Republicans and Democrats agree the press is biased and only differ on which networks and newspapers are the culprits:

    A newspaper must at all times antagonize the selfish interests of that very class which furnishes the larger part of a newspaper’s income… The press in this country is dominated by the wealthy few…that it cannot be depended upon to give the great mass of the people that correct information concerning political, economical and social subjects which it is necessary that the mass of people Shall have in order that they vote…in the best way to protect themselves from the brutal force and chicanery of the ruling and employing classes. (E.W. Scripps).

    In my opinion the idea of media being objective was a marketing ploy to sell newspapers:

    “It was not until the 1920s that you really get the notion of professional journalists, the way we think about them today,” says Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “A lot of different schools of journalism started, codes of ethics were developed, the whole notion of the journalist as objective came into play …. of standing outside the story, telling both sides, of being factual rather than opinionated.”

    If the United States Supreme Court defined freedom of religion using the same logic that campaign laws use to define a free press only the church or synagogue “as an institution” would enjoy freedom of religion, not its parishioners!

    This law divides participation in America’s political process into two categories: The regulated majority, every living U.S. Citizen, candidate for office, political party and political organization and the unregulated commercial media.

    To restore equal protection under law, the “press exemption”, 2 USC 431 (9) (B) (i), should be modified to read: “The term expenditure does not include any news story, commentary, or editorial distributed by any citizen, citizens group, broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication.”

    Every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add… artificial distinctio¬ns, to grant titles, gratuities¬, and exclusive privileges¬, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society–t¬he farmers, mechanics, and laborers–¬who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves¬, have a right to complain of the injustice of their government¬. President Andrew Jackson.

    The 1st Amendment does not guarantee our freedoms but it does prohibit Congress from writing laws that would abridge them. The 1st Amendment was added to the Constitution because some State representatives to the Constitutional Convention feared the power of an over reaching Central Government. State Constitutions are where protections of our freedoms of speech, press and assembly are found. The 14th Amendment attempts to extend Federal protection to the Bill of Rights and in this instance is misconstrued. Only Congress can violate the 1st Amendment and the Federal Campaign Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act violate the prohibitions of the 1st Amendment. Federal Campaign laws abridge freedoms of speech, press by limiting how much money individual citizens and citizens groups can donate to their candidates and issues, and they abridge freedom of assembly by declaring it a crime for candidates, political parties and grass roots organizations to coordinate their advertising campaigns.

    The solution to limiting corporate influence and restoring flesh and blood citizen’s control of politics is not limiting how much individuals and grass roots organizations can spend communicating. There is no Constitutional basis for making political coordination a crime? Does a candidate for office have the responsibility or authority to tell a citizen or citizens group they cannot simultaneously put out campaign materials from the candidate and a grass roots organization that supports the candidate? Where in the Constitution does participating in politics require a candidate or citizen to give up 1st Amendment freedoms of assembly and association?

    UNITED STATES v. ASSOCIATED PRESS – Decided June 18, 1945
    It would be strange indeed however if the grave concern for freedom of the press which prompted adoption of the First Amendment should be read as a command that the government was without power to protect that freedom. That Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society. Surely a command that the government itself shall not impede the free flow of ideas does not afford non-governmental combinations a refuge if they impose restraints upon that constitutionally guaranteed freedom. Freedom to publish means freedom for all and not for some. Freedom to publish is guaranteed by the Constitution, but freedom to combine to keep others from publishing is not. Freedom of the press from governmental interference under the First Amendment does not sanction repression of that freedom by private interests.

    But corporate media can be part of the solution if they walk their talk:

    The commercial press is the most well-known promoter of campaign reforms to get money out of politics. Among reasons given is the need to level the playing field for challengers.

    Since the only thing campaigns produce is information for public distribution and the cost of distribution is the origin of much of the need for money in politics, why don’t the commercial media offer to publish and broadcast candidate and issue ads for free?

    Not likely: there is speculation Obama may raise a billion dollars and Republicans 750 million. Campaign season is Christmas for media corporations.

  5. um, that is not a comment, it’s an article.  I totally agree that campaigns should be totally financed by the public/givernment.  I think that it could be done by the govt. using tax dollars to set up various venues in which every candidate would have time to speak on national TV, and other venues.  I suppose that giving each the same amount ofmoney might work, but, why should it involve money at all?  The public is who should run the elections, including how the candidates communicate their message.  In any case, the way it’s been done has got to stop.  Anyone who looks at the issue can quickly see that it’s unfair and does not serve the electorate.

  6. Would a competent person write a bill that we can all get behind. I like Shawn’s comment. The only money spent should be absolutely necessary, like secretarial help and campaign mamagement. I would like to see caps on all moneys spent and on the length of campaigns. Can we demand free and equal media coverage for all viable candidates be donated by the media. Also demand that a candidate’s policy and plans be presented,   but provable distortions of the opposition, and downright verifiable lies be punished.
    Our campaigns must be the laughing stock of the whole world.
    What can be legally done. Please reply.

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