Open thread: campaign finance

Writing for The American Prospect, Robert Reich describes the system of campaign contributions in the United States as “the biggest corruption of our political process,” defining corruption as “actions causing the public to lose confidence that politicians make decisions in the public’s interest rather than in the special interest of those who give them financial support.” He claims that the increasing size and importance of these political donations is primarily a reflection of changing economic circumstances:

Globalization, deregulation, and technological advances — especially computers and the Internet — have been the driving forces. They have shifted almost all industries in almost all rich economies from being organized around stable oligopolies, in which competitive advantage derived mostly from economies of scale, toward far more intense competition in which competitive advantage comes from innovation — and from favorable treatment by government.

He argues that the issues that now occupy the bulk of Congressional time are those that affect competition between firms within an industry, as well as those that affect competing industries.

Climatologist James Hansen also identifies campaign finance reform as one of the most necessary steps for producing effective climate change policies in the United States, by reducing the influence of status quo entities like big coal companies.

What do readers think about the claim that political advertising ought to be a form of protected free speech? How much does it matter whether it is funded by the candidate themselves, campaign donors, or some other mechanism? Would we be better off if all candidates got a set amount of free advertising, and were barred from using other means to promote themselves in mass media? Would such a policy just drive them to use different approaches to achieve the same end, such as cooking up forms of advertising that can be reported as news? Does the current situation in Canada differ in important ways from that in the United States?

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

5 thoughts on “Open thread: campaign finance”

  1. “Thomas Ferguson breaks completely with traditional voter centered accounts of party politics. In its place he outlines an “investment approach,” in which powerful investors, not unorganized voters, dominate campaigns and elections. Because businesses “invest” in political parties and their candidates, changes in industrial structures—between large firms and sectors—can alter the agenda of party politics and the shape of public policy.”

  2. There are two things that make the USA uniquely bad:

    1) Unlimited spending by third-party groups.
    2) No time limit on election campaigning.

    I’m undecided on whether the Canadian system is perfect; there is an argument to be made that the caps are too tough. The 30 day law is a fucking godsend, though. The Tories are currently advocating the abolishment of the “political subsidy” which I think is a huge mistake, as it effectively protects the parties right to speak and ties their ability to do so directly to their popular support. The essential element of electoral campaign laws is to ensure everyone is heard; without protection, it’s simply a contest to shout the loudest.

    That said, there is only exists a distinction between “educating the electorate” and outright propaganda if the electorate is smart enough to tell the difference. In a situation like the USA where the public education system is verging on total failure, democracy is fundamentally threatened. I think, because of new communications technologies, electoral reform laws will simply force the propaganda machine to accelerate the transition from traditional TV ads to internet-based media manipulation. This is already underway, of course.

  3. Political advertising in America
    Buying votes
    Nobody loves a tight political race as much as a media firm

    Jun 17th 2010

    The price of democracy in America has risen in recent years. Kantar Media, which tracks political advertising, reckons $2.6 billion was spent on the 2008 general election—up from $1.7 billion four years earlier. It thinks slightly more could be spent in this year’s mid-term contest. In January the Supreme Court removed almost all limits on corporate political giving. For television firms stumbling out of recession, it could not have come at a better time.

    Michael O’Brien of E.W. Scripps, a television and newspaper firm, says Florida’s candidates began to advertise in the first quarter of this year—much earlier than usual. The governor’s office and a Senate seat are up for grabs, with no incumbents running. Such open races, of which America has an unusually large number this year, tend to be both competitive and expensive. And a turbulent, anti-politics mood, stirred by the tea-party movement, is making even incumbents nervous. Harry Reid, Nevada’s long-serving Democratic senator, is already running television ads.

    Firms like Scripps and Sinclair Broadcast Group, which rely on local advertising, are the most obvious beneficiaries. But money will flow more broadly, including to media giants like Walt Disney and News Corporation, which own television stations in the biggest, most lucrative markets. There will be so much demand for local ad slots close to the mid-terms that commercial advertisers will be forced to spread their money around, to radio, cable television and national broadcast TV, says Evan Tracey of Kantar.

  4. So long as we think democracy is about choice rather than about organization, we won’t improve the political system.

  5. “Lobbyists had their biggest year ever in 2009, with expenditures of $3.5 billion, or $1.3 million for each hour that Congress was in session, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The total number of officially registered lobbyists in Washington is now about 11,000, down from a peak of nearly 15,000 in 2007, due in part to new restrictions. But that number doesn’t come close to reflecting reality. Current law requires someone to “register” as a lobbyist only if he or she spends at least 20 percent of the time lobbying. And yet much of the real work of lobbying is not done by registered lobbyists at all but by the rainmaker lawyers and former politicians, like Vernon Jordan and Tom Daschle, who “counsel” private-sector companies on how to thread the needle and achieve their objectives. If you throw in all the people doing “government outreach” and “congressional liaison” at the countless trade associations and advocacy groups, the total number of people in Washington working to influence the government in one way or another actually runs closer to 90,000. There were 2,500 registered lobbyists working on financial-industry reform—mainly against it—or roughly five for each member of Congress. The biggest single lobbying effort last year was mounted by the United States Chamber of Commerce (an opponent of much, if not most, of Obama’s agenda), which by itself shelled out $144 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s more than the total annual payroll for every elected official in Congress. The mismatch in firepower is immense. The lobbyists have so much, and members of Congress can be swayed by so little. Former senator John Breaux, of Louisiana, an unabashed deal-maker, once declared that while his vote could not be bought it could occasionally be rented. He is now a lobbyist.

    The profusion of lobbyists in Washington has posed a problem for every president. It has been a particular problem for Obama, both because of his high-minded and only partly successful effort to diminish their influence (having raised expectations, he left himself open to charges of hypocrisy), and because of their success at delaying and watering down his agenda. Upon taking office, Obama imposed what were arguably the toughest lobbying restrictions of any president, issuing an order barring executive-branch employees who had served as registered lobbyists within the past two years from working on issues related to their lobby. But Obama soon found himself forced to grant waivers to this policy, in order to obtain the expertise of people who had once worn the Scarlet L. More than 50 officials in the administration, including three Cabinet members (the attorney general and the secretaries of agriculture and health and human services), have been lobbyists at one time or another.

    Lobbying gets results. One example: early in the health-care debate, the administration cut a deal with the pharmaceutical lobby (whose opposition had helped doom the Clinton health-care plan 15 years earlier), working out an agreement to reduce prescription-drug costs and promising not to push for re-importation of cheaper, F.D.A.-approved drugs from other countries, which Obama had supported in his campaign. As part of the deal, the PHRMA lobby spent as much as $150 million on advertising to support health-care reform. Another example: under pressure from union leaders, the administration scaled back efforts to tax so-called “Cadillac” health-insurance plans, which many union members have—a tax that some economists saw as an effective way to help finance the bill and rein in costs by discouraging excessive coverage.”

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