Say to hell with campaign finance laws, publicly fund campaigns?

This is very much going to be a thinking-out-loud post, one where if you tell me it’s an idiotic post there’s a very good chance I’ll end up agreeing with you. A couple days ago, Ed wrote:

I have become convinced that the influence of money in politics is the single most important issue today. It is the issue that underlies all the other issues, that so distorts the incentives in our political system that we are, for all practical purposes, no longer a democracy. Government is responsive primarily to the rich, not to the people.

The question is what to do about it. The Citizens United ruling became something of a cause celebre among liberals, but I could never muster the outrage. Halliburton may not technically be a person, but neither is the ACLU. Do we really want to say that because the ACLU is not a person, the government can pass laws to screw over the ACLU willy-nilly? As Glenn Greenwald wrote at the time:

But the speech restrictions struck down by Citizens United do not only apply to Exxon and Halliburton; they also apply to non-profit advocacy corporations, such as, say, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, as well as labor unions, which are genuinely burdened in their ability to express their views by these laws.  I tend to take a more absolutist view of the First Amendment than many people, but laws which prohibit organized groups of people — which is what corporations are — from expressing political views goes right to the heart of free speech guarantees no matter how the First Amendment is understood.  Does anyone doubt that the facts that gave rise to this case — namely, the government’s banning the release of a critical film about Hillary Clinton by Citizens United — is exactly what the First Amendment was designed to avoid?  And does anyone doubt that the First Amendment bars the government from restricting the speech of organizations composed of like-minded citizens who band together in corporate form to work for a particular cause?

Also, talking about the fact that the law that had been struck down exempted media corporations:

That’s what restrictions on political speech almost always do:  whether intended or not, they favor the views of certain factions while suppressing others.  In this case, it allowed the views of News Corp., GE, and Viacom to flourish (through their ownership of media outlets) while preventing the ACLU and Planned Parenthood from speaking out.

Underlining the point about media corporations: Stephen Colbert has put a lot of energy into mocking the ridiculous system that has come out of Citizens United with his own Super PAC, but it’s been pointed out that the real reason he can get so much attention for what he’s doing is not the Super PAC’s ability to spend unlimited money, but the simple fact that Colbert has his own TV show (duh).

A better solution, it seems to me, would be to simply publicly fund campaigns. I don’t have a firm opinion on how to do the details, but I understand other countries do this and it works reasonably well. It wouldn’t “get money out of politics,” but it would mean a politician who flipped off money would still have a chance at winning the election.

While we’re at it, let’s give congressfolk much more money for hiring congressional staff. One theory of the role of lobbyists and congress is the legislative subsidy theory, which basically says that congressfolk have no idea WTF is going on, don’t have large enough staffs for the staffs to give them all the help they need figuring out WTF is going on, so they rely on lobbyists to tell them WTF is going on. That problem could be solved by giving them much more money for staff, and also maybe bringing back things like the Office of Technology Assessment.

(Note: when I first got the idea for this post, I didn’t say to myself, “I’m going to link to Ed and Greenwald and Yglesias because I said they were may favorite political bloggers.” It’s just what happened. Hmmm… I know myself better than I realize?)

Notes on Robert Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract
Socking a queer in the goddamned face: William Buckley and nostalgia
Harry Potter and the problem with genre deconstructions
How selfish are voters?
  • Pteryxx

    For your consideration:

    Slovenia’s ambassador apologizes to her children and her nation for signing ACTA, calls for mass demonstrations in Ljubljana tomorrow

    I signed ACTA out of civic carelessness, because I did not pay enough attention. Quite simply, I did not clearly connect the agreement I had been instructed to sign with the agreement that, according to my own civic conviction, limits and withholds the freedom of engagement on the largest and most significant network in human history, and thus limits particularly the future of our children. [...]

    At the same time, I am tackling a workload that increased, not lessened, with the advent of the current year. All in line with a motto that has become familiar to us all, likely not only diplomats: less for more. Less money and fewer people for more work. And then you overlook the significance of what you are signing. And you wake up the following morning with the weight of the unbearable lightness of some signature.

  • drlake

    The problem isn’t really the spending of money for political purposes by corporations or those who can afford it. The problem is the lack of transparency and accountability involved. If it were clear who was paying for all political expenditures, there would be much less potential for corruption. If shareholders had control over corporate spending for political purposes, I would be much less bothered by such spending. There are also loopholes in the tax code that make it possible for corporations to illegally deduct political and lobbying expenses as though they were business expenses, even though political contributions are not deductible.

  • Chris Hallquist

    drlake, I don’t think that does it. It doesn’t solve the problem of campaigning for public office being expensive, and it also doesn’t solve the problem of politicians needing to know WTF they’re doing.

  • davidjordan

    I’m personally in favor of laws denying politicians access to anything more than Public Access for pimping their campaigns. We have laws about where tobacco companies can advertise, why not politicians?

    I don’t learn about my politicians via a 30 second TV ad. I go to their websites, I read political blogs, I search out information so as to choose the candidate that I think is best.

    I realize that I’m dreaming of Utopia when I expect the rest of the populace to do the same thing, but I am honestly quite tired of people being elected more on their looks/popularity contest than on the issues that both sides complain about regularly.


  • Paul Durrant

    In the UK we do it by having strict limits on the amount that individual candidates can spend, and on how much a political party can spend.

    If a UK political party put up a candidate in every constituency (all 650 of them), the maximum amount they and their candidates could spend, combined, is about £30 million.

    Third parties are also limited in the amount they can spend. Any individual or group can spend a maximum of £10,000. (Not £10,000 per candidate – in total.)

    Which makes the amount of money spent in US elections, even given the much larger population and land area, seem ridiculous to us.

    It also helps that in the UK the whole election, from dissolving parliament to the new Prime Minister coming into No. 10 takes about three weeks (17 working days).

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    I like the idea of public financing of campaigns. It would level the playing field, make candidates less beholden to the folks with the money, and tend to make campaigns less expensive.

    As a slight derail, I also like having campaign time limits like in Britain. It’s illegal to actively campaign for political office earlier than six weeks before the election.

  • F

    Get the marketing out of campaigns. All the spin, speech writing, advising, etc. Give the candidates a channel to speak their positions on issues. Whatever volunteers hand out, the candidate writes. Remove the need for money.

  • Chris Hallquist


    Thanks for that. I didn’t know the details of UK election law. But how does the 10,000 pound limit affect groups who want advocate on specific issues, rather than for/against a candidate? If that’s not regulated, do you have a problem with “issue ads” (i.e. thinly veiled attacks which evade regulations by claiming to be about the issue, not the candidate)?

  • Svoboda

    I bring problems and not answers. I have misgivings about the success of public funding of campaigns without limiting free speech. For example, suppose candidates and parties are limited in what they can spend. Will private organizations like companies, the ACLU, the NRA, HRC, or others be allowed to speak for or against candidates? For or against issues? Will individuals be allowed to buy ads to disseminate their views pro or con these issues?

    For better or worse, people who have tons of money can “exercise” their rights better than people who don’t, whether it is buying an ad, buying guns, or buying a better lawyer for criminal defense. The larger question is, how do we prevent unfairness while still allowing people to exercise their rights. And when I use unfairness here, I am generally talking about the ability of those with the money to effect government change to the detriment of most Americans, not “I think it is so unfair that so-and-so won that election instead of my favorite candidate”.

  • Pteryxx

    Relevant to this discussion:

    Can we have a democratic election?

    Serious attempts to regulate the amounts of money that could be contributed to candidates began in 1974 in the wake of Watergate, when slush funds and hidden contributions collected by Richard Nixon and his wealthy backers turned up in the hands of thugs; they were blatantly used to buy ambassadorships, and as payoffs to fix legal cases and even to influence where the 1972 Republican Convention would be held. The 1974 law established public financing of presidential campaigns and set limits on contributions and expenditures in congressional elections. It limited the amounts that candidates could spend from their personal funds.


    Restrictions on the use of soft money in federal elections went back a very long way. Contributions of corporate money had been barred by a law enacted in 1907, during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Union dues were barred in the 1940s, and individual contributions had been limited by the 1974 post-Watergate campaign finance reform act. But in the 1970s soft money started to creep into federal elections, at the behest of the political parties, and with the approval of the Federal Election Commission, which had been set up to be ineffective by the 1974 act.

    The McCain-Feingold Act, passed in 2002, limited the use of soft money, and the Supreme Court upheld this landmark reform in 2003. But after Samuel Alito replaced Sandra Day O’Connor in 2006, the Court took every opportunity to chip away at McCain-Feingold and then, in January 2010 in Citizens United v. FEC, by a vote of 5–4, it stripped away virtually all the constraints on the activities of corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals with respect to federal elections. The Court thus overturned a century of law.

    Article also covers the Republican push for voter disenfranchisement.