Uncommon Sense

November 29, 2021

One More Time!

Note—This was written almost a decade ago but it seems worthwhile to repost it from time to time. SR

Campaign Finance Contributions:
A Form of Political Speech or Influence Peddling?

A White Paper by Steve Ruis
February 2012

Obviously the federal government is bought and paid for and, unfortunately, not by you or me. In the past 40 years the political deck has been stacked in favor of the very rich who have gotten very much richer and against the rest of Americans who have benefitted minimally in comparison. This is undeniable. So, the question of political corruption is a natural one and all such discussions quickly lead to its source: donations of political monies to campaigns. It seems like the wealthiest people and corporations have made greater contributions to our representatives than have we, so those officials are doing what they want rather than what we want. It is a proven fact of psychology that if someone gives you a gift, you will feel grateful and will feel a need to reciprocate. So, such “contributions” automatically generate the need to reciprocate if the system didn’t reinforce that need (which it does).

But when are such gifts “ordinary” a part of the political process and when do they constitute influence peddling, which is illegal? This is the core question.

One solution to the political money conundrum is a simple concept, namely that money for a candidate or an issue may only be raised from people who live in the affected jurisdiction. For mayor’s races, funds may only be raised within the city’s limits. Candidates for U.S. Senator may raise funds from anyone in their state. Presidential candidates my raise funds from anyone in the U.S. House of Representatives candidates may only raise funds in their districts. Water district commissioners may only raise funds from residents of their water district, and so forth. Opponents of a ballot initiative may only raise funds in the district that initiative, should it become law, would have an effect.

In this manner only the people who that candidate will represent or who that law will apply to may fund the political efforts that determine whether that campaign will succeed or fail. This is critical, because people who live in the jurisdiction will be represented by that candidate or affected by that initiative or legislation, and people who live outside that jurisdiction will not. This draws a clean line between ordinary political speech and influence peddling. Outsiders cannot justify political contributions as the person or issue at stake does not affect them directly, consequently all such donations of money, that is from “outsiders” (literally), are de facto attempts to buy influence and should be illegal.

Outsiders will still have their say. They will speak on the airwaves (television, radio, blogs, newspapers, etc.) and their speech is free. They could even rent a hall in the district and deliver speeches. All of this is free speech. But in any circumstances in which that speech isn’t free of cost and where political money comes into play, that must be regulated. There have been myriad efforts to determine the sources of the funding for such political efforts, but the laws, in effect, protect such anonymity. Groups are allowed to form with names like “Americans for Liberty” and “Moms for Apple Pie” and “Citizens United” who then become political actors. All efforts to require disclosure to date have been somewhat easily avoided.

But if we think like voters, the solution is straightforward. As a voter, I want to know whether the person(s) paying for the ad/brochure/event is/are a stakeholder or an outsider. If the ad doesn’t come from a group or individual in the jurisdiction using funds collected in the jurisdiction, it must be clearly labeled “Paid for by Outsiders.” If they want to go on and also state that the ad was paid for by “Americans for Freedom” they may certainly do so, as part of their free speech right, but the “Paid for by Outsiders” must come first and be more prominent than any other such identification. And such efforts may not be coordinated with official “in district” campaigns.

This gives voters the information they need. It also has an amazing array of secondary benefits. For one, the burden of raising funds for any political office, except for President, will be greatly lessened. Official or unofficial campaigns may only raise funds in a candidate’s district. Candidates do not need to be negotiating deals with all kinds of sources of out-of-district funds, as this would be illegal. In order to get constituents to donate, there must be communication explaining why the money is needed and what it is to be used for and what services the candidate is offering voters. This is clean and open politics.

Lobbyists would have much less influence because their speech would be in the form of just words and not money unless the ones hiring them came from a legislator’s district. (One cannot borrow or hire someone else’s primary residence for the purpose of making political donations just as one cannot buy someone else’s vote.)

This policy puts a burden on a candidate to build a base in the district in which they intend to run for office. No more, for example, would candidates from out of state be moving in short-term to establish residency and then using out-of-state funds to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, then moving to Washington with no connection whatsoever with the communities they represent. Candidates will probably need to build up a local reputation based on deeds to constituents in order to raise funds with them, all in all a good thing. Otherwise they won’t get elected to higher office in the first place.

The total amount of money involved in campaigns will decrease and so the money actually raised and spent will have to be spent more wisely (one hopes on higher quality communication than “attack ads”).

Sitting representatives will need to tend to constituents more closely as they are the only sources of funds for any re-election campaigns. This is to the good.

And, I am sure, more benefits will come to your mind as you consider this policy further.

The recent Supreme Court decision (“Citizens United”) to allow corporations unfettered political spending is certainly problematic. But if the Court thought it wise to take a business fiction (that a business can become a person) and apply it to politics, we need to carry that to its obvious conclusion. Just as individuals have a “primary address” that determines the districts they vote in and the offices they vote for, this should also be the case for “corporate citizens.” Let us say that the U.S. corporate headquarters shall be the “primary residence” of the corporation and this establishes the districts of residence that determine to whom they can donate political money. Of course, they can still form groups to get their “free speech” rights for topics of concern to them, but they cannot contribute directly to any out of district candidates or issue groups and any “free speech” messages beamed into those other districts must be clearly labeled “Paid for by Outsiders,” because that’s who they would be. Employees of the corporation who live in a particular district could make donations as they wanted but the corporation itself could not, unless that district contains the “primary residence” of the corporation. Nor could the corporations instruct employees to make donations or provide funds for them to do so.

This would apply to labor unions and all benevolent organizations as well.

Now some might claim that this could emasculate political parties as they couldn’t steer events by collecting money from whatever sources and then pouring it into wherever they wanted. Quite the contrary, what would be required of any such body: political party, PAC, Better Business Bureau, etc., is that they become better organized and that they develop local bodies of constituents in districts to collect funds for them and distribute them. Funds earmarked for national offices, like President, could flow through to the national office of the organization but for “in state” offices the funds would have to stay in state, etc. And funds collected for in-state candidates could not be funneled to other states.

Political parties and unions can still support their “people” with web sites, phone calls, advice from experts, etc, as long as everyone pays their own communication bills. If they call a candidate with advice, that is free speech, if they call voters with a message, it must begin with “This Message is Paid for by Outsiders.” Talk and written communication aren’t being regulated, political money is. Experts could give advice but not work for a campaign unless the campaign paid them for their work. (It is a fine line, but something is better than nothing. Advice is speech but having someone come in and organize one’s campaign office, set up their computers or phone bank, etc. is donated labor.)

Organizations who could not get people to work for them could not substitute money for bodies unless that money was local. Rich people and large corporations would still have a great deal of influence in their localities but would they want to pay very large sums of money for smallish elections? Probably not. Currently we have billionaires using large amounts of money to leverage entire national elections. Their influence would be greatly curtailed by this proposal. They could still pay for a great many communication pieces to exercise their free speech rights and as long as they were labeled “Paid for by Outsiders,” they would be within the law.

If one wanted to be really tough, a pre-election audit might be required but the spirit of this proposal is more in the line of post-election audits. If someone was found to have significantly (not trivially) violated this law, their election could be invalidated. This would encourage people to “do it right” from the beginning. (England has just recently invalidated an election to the House of Commons because a candidate lied about his opponent. Taking money from outsiders illegally and then claiming one did not is a very significant lie (and would be illegal) which should be punished.)

This proposal would require legislation to implement and since it affects everyone it can be expected to draw fire. Since it creates a level playing field but one which still greatly favors incumbents (Who else is in a better position to do good work for their constituents?) contrary arguments by sitting politicians would be hard to rationalize. Politicians who vigorously oppose such legislation would clearly be doing so because they are beholden to monied interests as the power of those interests would be greatly curtailed. That is where the major opposition will come from.

What is more American, more constitutional, more revolutionary than re-establishing the sanctity of “one man, one vote” and free speech? At the time of the creation of the Constitution, a secret ballot was considered highly objectionable. The people needed to know who voted for whom and for what. (This ideal still holds in our Congress where votes are all public.) Secret ballots only came in much later in our history, which makes our support for “anonymous” political money all the more puzzling. Anonymous political speech was practiced by almost every one of the “founding fathers” (by writing under nom de plumes, for example) but if someone were to have paid them for their “free speech,” they would have been strung up from the nearest tree.

It is time to control political speech/money as we control regular speech. It is considered illegal to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater with no fire involved. Such speech is not protected by the First Amendment. So, let’s clean up politics and simply by erecting a firewall between political outsiders who are not directly represented in an election and the candidates and constituents who are.

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