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A government of the many, not a government of money
February 5, 2014 12:30 PM   Subscribe

The “Government by the People Act”, proposed by N. Pelosi and J. Sarbanes in a WP op-ed, is presented as one of the first concrete steps towards the removal of the influence of quasi-unlimited money in US politics. The act doesn’t limit the amount of money that corporations, PACs, etc can pay but rather takes the opposite approach, by encouraging and subsidizing citizen participation. The influence of money on American politics has exploded since the Citizens United ruling… resulting in often disturbing bias.

A good source of information on the influence of money on american politics is Lawrence Lessig (one of the founders of Creative Commons), and his organization, Rootstrikers.
posted by Riton (52 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
The funding for these changes should come from closing tax and regulatory loopholes that are the decades-old legacy of special-interest influence in Congress. It’s only fair that those responsible for breaking the policymaking machinery in Washington should bear the cost of fixing it.

Would legal challenges arise from closing loopholes, in that subsequent redistribution of campaign donations would restrict the speech of wealthy donors?

Would throwing more money into the mix address the core of the problem? Would this expand corporate welfare programs for media companies that broadcast or print advertisements on behalf of political candidates?

Interesting post, thanks for putting it together.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:46 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


So - is this like in Wisconsin, we have this bill to legalize pot, written by a Democrat... While the complete apparatus in power is dominated by Republican power.

Granted, this is only the house, but the fact remains... How, exactly, do they plan on this ever going forward? I get that when you're out of power you don't really have a hack of a lot of options, but why do you go for the big bold maneuvers when you don't have the power to do so, except as PR for your fucking party/side? I believe similar things happen with the extreme on the other side.

Call me when you're back in power and push this through both houses, k?
posted by symbioid at 12:48 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


yeah i side with you symbioid. People be making bills all day long, doesn't mean much.

Equality is what's at issue, but the american dream is not about equality, it's about "i got mine", which requires a certain amount of intentionally ignoring the people who it was got from.
posted by rebent at 12:52 PM on February 5 [5 favorites]


The purpose of sponsoring bills while in the minority isn't to get it passed, it's to keep the drumbeat of attention going so that one can pass it when the majority is seized.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 12:55 PM on February 5 [17 favorites]


This kind of reminds me of giving a few bucks to my very young child so she could buy me a Christmas present.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:02 PM on February 5 [11 favorites]


Given the trend of bills to mean the exact opposite of what they enact, I'd have expected the “Government by the People Act” cedes complete control to our Robot Overlords.
posted by NiceKitty at 1:04 PM on February 5 [12 favorites]


This is interesting. I think the organization has accurately identified a serious problem, but their means of addressing it doesn't go nearly far enough, to my mind, and I think this is a case where half-measures might not be better than nothing. This plan for the subsidizing of citizen donations is just another instance of the increasing financialization of public life and of the relationships between citizens and structures of power. It would move the system further in the wrong direction.

What we really need, I think, is a system for making decisions about political office that is not marketized, that is explicitly non-marketizible. There should be a way to choose candidates and to enable them to express their intentions without permitting the entrance of private money whatsoever. I think we should have strictly and completely publicly-funded electoral processes, whereby people who have already been selected for candidacy by a democratic contest are all given the same resources to express their messages, and mandatory voting coupled with a federal holiday.
posted by clockzero at 1:08 PM on February 5 [16 favorites]


When Bush was president we heard about HR 676 (Medicare for All) and the Employee Free Choice Act. Once Obama was in office they were never heard from again. This sounds like that kind of act, nothing more.
posted by graymouser at 1:11 PM on February 5 [5 favorites]


Listen up folks, it doesn't matter who's in power, if the people clamor for something like this (which I think is not the best way to go about it but perfect is the enemy of good, etc.), if it starts to look like some bums will be thrown out if they vocally oppose it, then there'll be an about-face and suddenly it will be the most important piece of legislation on the docket. Saying, 'republicans control the house, so let's not do anything 'til the putative day that the dems take it,' is counter-productive.

Go ahead and agitate and educate and eventually things turn, regardless of which party holds the reins at the moment.
posted by Mister_A at 1:12 PM on February 5 [8 favorites]


Now I may be a little biased here, because I believe that the corrupt influence of corporate/special interest money is the single largest and most pernicious problem we face as a country. Many of our other problems have their roots in the money problem.
posted by Mister_A at 1:15 PM on February 5 [6 favorites]


All you need to do in order to get campaign finance fixed is for all the major newspapers to agree to start calling campaign donations 'bribes,' all at once.

"Senator Pelosi is leading the bribe race with $16 million in bribes from SuperPACs, but her opponent is working hard to secure bribes from corporate donors to catch up." "Presidential candidate Smith is working to get small bribes from a large number of people, while his opponent Jones is focusing on seeking large bribes from smaller numbers of corporate donors and PACs."

It's the collective delusion that there's nothing corrupt about public officials seeking bribes that keeps the gears of the machine oiled and humming along.
posted by mullingitover at 1:15 PM on February 5 [16 favorites]


This does nothing to address outside groups that are nominally non-coordinated with the candidate's campaign. Even if 350 Americans get $25 to spend on the candidate of their choice, do you think the big money folks can't outspend 8.75 billion measly dollars?
posted by rikschell at 1:16 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


All you need to do in order to get campaign finance fixed is for all the major newspapers to agree to start calling campaign donations 'bribes,' all at once..."Senator Pelosi is leading the bribe race with $16 million in bribes from SuperPACs, but her opponent is working hard to secure bribes from corporate donors to catch up."

They would immediately be sued out of existence for libel, and quite rightly so. Bribery is a crime, and such donations as you mention are perfectly legal.

And that's the problem.
posted by clockzero at 1:19 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]


Go ahead and agitate and educate and eventually... nothing happens anyway.

Save whatever energy you may have for more worthwhile endeavors, like buying a banana and eating it. Or an apple, if you prefer crunchy fruits. Liquor is probably also good.

Large Money always wins, always will win, and raising the "floor of irrelevance" up by $25 doesn't affect anything.

You'll still be irrelevant, it's just that now you'll be able to donate $25 to prove it.
posted by aramaic at 1:24 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]


Bribery is a crime...

It's a sad indicator of something-or-other that my reaction to that was shock at remembering that yes, bribery actually is a crime. That doesn't seem to fit with the values our government and society has been working under, as illustrated by the Citizens United case.
posted by Foosnark at 1:25 PM on February 5


I'm not sure that we want to look at the nuclear arms race as a model for cleaning up the government.
posted by Etrigan at 1:25 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


...but why do you go for the big bold maneuvers when you don't have the power to do so, except as PR for your fucking party/side?

Yeah, all the lights on my Switchboard of Cynicism lit up when I read the FPP. First, Nancy Pelosi. Second, the proposal does nothing to limit corporate purchases of congresspersons, it just attempts to add more money from non-corporate sources. In other words:

3). Profit!
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:25 PM on February 5 [6 favorites]


clockzero: "They would immediately be sued out of existence for libel, and quite rightly so. Bribery is a crime, and such donations as you mention are perfectly legal."

Fair enough--they simply need to add a footnote (or even better, dedicate entire editorial articles to the change in terminology), "To clarify, while discussing campaign bribes in this article, we are referring to the de facto legal bribes that make up the campaign finance system, and although they have the same effect as illegal bribes, due to pervasive, institutionalized corruption they are not illegal."
posted by mullingitover at 1:30 PM on February 5


One of Lessig's more interesting points was that essentially, most members of the government make decent, but not 'get rich' money.

However, one of the traditional career paths is to stay a few years, make some connections, understand the mechanisms, then move on, ten, twenty years later to being a lobbyist. You know everyone, so the job's easy for you. And you make big bucks.

So, by voting for a 'real' proposition to end corruption in the US government, they would essentially shoot their chances of 'becoming rich' in the face.

And, be it democrat or republican, I don't know many people who'd do that.

So, structurally, the hope of something like this going through are slim - and would have to come from a huge tidal wave of support from the people, who are tired of paying 4 to 5 times what they would pay in Europe for their medicine, who are tired of the government softening all bank regulations before they actually come into effect, etc etc...
posted by Riton at 1:35 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


How, exactly, do they plan on this ever going forward? I get that when you're out of power you don't really have a hack of a lot of options, but why do you go for the big bold maneuvers when you don't have the power to do so, except as PR for your fucking party/side? I believe similar things happen with the extreme on the other side.

No. The Democrats don't go nearly far enough. Instead, following the sort of thinking demonstrated above, their opening serve is usually something utterly neutral (which is to say, reasonable, not a big ask) in hopes that it might have a chance of passing ... only to see it still get rejected by the Republicans. Then, some years later, they come back with a new draft that includes every compromise the Republicans demanded, and still get denied. Repeat one more time with a bill that's thoroughly backwards. Then, of course it passes; the Republicans couldn't have drafted it better themselves, though they'll still be yelling on Fox News about how it's a travesty.

The Democrats need to start grossly overshooting, and including a lot of ducks and hairy arms that can be 'compromised' to appease the Right while still ending up moving the country in the right direction. The Overton window is so far to the Right that it's on the wrong house.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:37 PM on February 5 [17 favorites]


I don't get this at all… wouldn't politicians still take just as much money from large interest groups, and then stack the government-subsidized donations from citizens on top of that, making the cost of campaigns even higher?
posted by designbot at 1:38 PM on February 5


Unions outspend anyone by a margin of three to one…
posted by Blogwardo at 1:40 PM on February 5


The fact that Obama got money from both Google and Comcast helps to explain why he's both for and against net neutrality. (kidding)
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:40 PM on February 5


designbot, these funds are only available to those that forego the PAC money etc. The gist of it is to give longshots a little more share of voice vs. moneyed incumbents. I prefer the tack of removing all the money from these races, but I am glad someone is at least talking about the problem.
posted by Mister_A at 1:41 PM on February 5


Also, Blogwardo's links are from 2010 and may have limited applicability to the current state of affairs.
posted by Mister_A at 1:43 PM on February 5


The money in the process is the problem as wherever there is more money there is more temptation for individuals to try to capture it dishonestly or to use it as a form of soft political power. Putting more money in the process is not going to solve our problem, which is the increasing normalization of the corrupting attitude that money should legitimately equate to political influence. We can't run our political system as more or less a special case of capitalism in practice and expect it to be able to solve the problems capitalism creates for us, and that's essentially what we're doing by accepting the premise that access to more money should be allowed to confer more de facto political power to some. There should be a strict wall of separation between our democratic processes and commercial activities.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:47 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]


It's a sad indicator of something-or-other that my reaction to that was shock at remembering that yes, bribery actually is a crime. That doesn't seem to fit with the values our government and society has been working under, as illustrated by the Citizens United case.

Too true, foosnark. The effective legalization of bribery is a serious challenge to democracy and justice, and one whose effects are being widely felt but whose common source isn't widely identified.

Fair enough--they simply need to add a footnote (or even better, dedicate entire editorial articles to the change in terminology), "To clarify, while discussing campaign bribes in this article, we are referring to the de facto legal bribes that make up the campaign finance system, and although they have the same effect as illegal bribes, due to pervasive, institutionalized corruption they are not illegal."

I'm not a lawyer, nor a media consultant, but I am skeptical that this is something newspapers would feel inclined to do, though I agree that it's the kind of thing they really should be doing, in that it draws attention to and frames the problem in strong terms.
posted by clockzero at 1:48 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


As of this week, Americans for Prosperity has spent more than $27 million on ads since August, putting it on pace to far outstrip its overall $38.5 million budget for the 2010 midterms.
posted by T.D. Strange at 1:52 PM on February 5


We can't run our political system as more or less a special case of capitalism in practice and expect it to be able to solve the problems capitalism creates for us, and that's essentially what we're doing by accepting the premise that access to more money should be allowed to confer more de facto political power to some. There should be a strict wall of separation between our democratic processes and commercial activities.

Yes, exactly. We need to defend our democratic processes from extant forms of power, not further integrate them. That principle is exactly why we have the separation of church and state. We need a separation between money and state in the constitution too.
posted by clockzero at 1:54 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]


So this would actually increase the amount of money in politics?

(And I presume the amount of candidate spam in my inbox?)
posted by 3.2.3 at 1:58 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


Does this get us any closer to donations going to the race instead of an individual candidate?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:03 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]


That would be the simplest solution of all, right there. All donations go into a general pool and are evenly divided among candidates qualified on the basis of popular petitions and other non-financial qualifying conditions. That would actually solve the problem. But that's not going to happen.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:07 PM on February 5 [6 favorites]


Huh, so while unions spent $9.7m in 2010 and AfP spent $38.5m, the unions are apparently outspending everyone else 3-1 (somehow). Am I missing something that makes this not just PAC versus PAC, campaign finance wise? Are unions just classified somehow as "individual contributions"? Not to sidetrack the conversation too far, but I've been hearing this drumbeat a bit lately and I can't reconcile it.
posted by Kyol at 2:08 PM on February 5 [9 favorites]


When corporations became "people too"....in spite of the absence of proof of citizenship....the American system of government, already eroded almost to non-existence anyway, became as dead as the Roman Empire that we'll soon totally emulate.
posted by chuckiebtoo at 2:15 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


BMW - if anyone has seen a Draft or a key points summary, please link. Bill is not posted anywhere I can find and my lefty emails are pitching some pieces slightly differently.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:16 PM on February 5


Given the constraints imposed by the first amendment, this is a pretty reasonable response.
posted by jpe at 2:28 PM on February 5


So this would actually increase the amount of money in politics?

Well, that makes more sense. I thought I was in Bizarro America there for a minute.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:30 PM on February 5


Politics is the exercise of power. And in a capitalist economy power is inextricably linked with money. So removing money from politics in any meaningful way would require the complete restructuring of politics or the dismantling of capitalism. Or both.

With that said, a similar contribution matching system has had great success in NYC opening up the playing field for city positions and reducing the power of traditional political machines. It's one of the few modern campaign finance efforts that hasn't backfired. I'm not sure how well it will scale though. A competitive congressional or statewide campaign simply costs too much to be funded entirely by small donors.
posted by willie11 at 2:35 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]


So this would actually increase the amount of money in politics?

It can't be decreased without an incredibly unlikely amendment. Since the problem is speech dilution, the only answer is to amplify those dililuted voices.
posted by jpe at 3:29 PM on February 5


I'm not sure how well it will scale though.

In Minnesota, you can donate $50 to campaigns and have the state pay you back by simply filing a form. How cool is that?
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:47 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


willie11: many other Western democracies already have campaign finance systems that work more or less the way described above. It scales up fine.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:49 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Actually, let me back off that comment some. Other systems offer public financing and impose very strict limits on direct contributions. They aren't necessarily pooling the funds and distributing them equally, but their aim is equality of spending power.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:55 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


I think this issue is important.

But I don't think we should despair. Why? Because for all of the talk, the GOP way of raising money from rich people and maxing up with them doesn't work, because (1) it doesn't win; and (2) it raises less money. And nothing ends a way of doing things like it not working.

What a bunch of smart Democrats figured out was that one of the biggest predictors of whether or not someone is going to vote for your candidate is whether or not they donate to you. So they turned fundraising on its head. Rather than the contribution paying for the ads to get the voter, they let the contribution itself get the voter.

One of the secrets of the Obama campaign in 2008 was the way it interacted with donors. My cousin is a family man and not rich. But somehow the campaign figured him out. It would send him an envelope saying "thanks for your original donation, can you drop $5 in this envelope?"

Seems not cost effective, but those people who contributed voted for Barack Obama.

So its important to realize that we do have a lot work to do, but we should acknowledge that we're winning and not give in to despair. One of the worst things is how people always want to throw their hands up and act like their phone call to any member of Congress won't help a thing. It helps a lot. Do it. Tell your friends to do it. They log those calls.

And its worked. Remember SOPA? That thing was sailing through one minute and going down in flames the next. Because people communicated instantly and en masse. You just have to put a little bit in.

What we really need to do is import this funding method into campaigns for office down to the dog catcher. Which in fact is happening. They have all these programs where they teach you how to run a campaign. My very close friend's sister ran for city council where I live, a city of 625,000. Some kid ran the campaign for her all from "Nation Builder" some campaign management software. It was a fucking campaign in a box. They don't have that. They don't have smart young people willing to get paid a little and work long hours to win.

Future campaigns will be built on an experience platform, which is to say they are supposed to have some identity/something-to-do quality about them where the object of a canvass is basically to ensure the people who show up to canvass are locked in as voters.

But hey, that's actually the way politics used to be and was lost in the time of mass culture. Now we're getting it back.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:57 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]


But I don't think we should despair. Why? Because for all of the talk, the GOP way of raising money from rich people and maxing up with them doesn't work, because (1) it doesn't win; and (2) it raises less money. And nothing ends a way of doing things like it not working.

So how do you explain the rise of the Tea Party, exactly?
posted by clockzero at 4:16 PM on February 5


The Tea Party had a lot of grassroots mixed in with the astroturf. They actually turned people out because lotsa people cared. I know its de rigeur to say it was all a big front, but that's revisionist history.
posted by jpe at 4:21 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


saulgoodman: A lot of our political money problems in America stem from the intricacies of our odd form of republicanism's regularized elections (rather than votes of no confidence for example) and relatively weak party structure.

Compared to many western European democracies or NYC council elections, congressional or statewide elections cover such a high number of people and large geographic area that the costs for campaigning are just astronomical compared to a Manhattan city council campaign. That's where scalability comes into play, I worry.

Demos has a good write up on this legislation.
posted by willie11 at 4:22 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


The Tea Party had grassroots support but it was the grassroots of the GOP. I was in the middle of it in North Carolina when the Tea Party came about in 09. I went to rallies and meetings to check out what was happening and I have to tell you that it was the same old group of GOP county party activists, bloggers, the occasional Ron Paul guy, evangelical church folks, and astroturf groups funded by business. Same precinct chairs as before. Nothing new but the branding.
posted by willie11 at 4:27 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


The Tea Party had a lot of grassroots mixed in with the astroturf. They actually turned people out because lotsa people cared. I know its de rigeur to say it was all a big front, but that's revisionist history.

Yeah, no. Every major Tea Party organization was started and is still largely run by GOP operatives: Americans for Prosperity was started by the Koch brothers, FreedomWorks was started by Dick Armey, and the Tea Party Express was started by Republican consulting firm Russo, Marsh, and Associates. It's a front for people who believe in most or all of the GOP's ideals but want to claim that they're "independent." For a group that claims they're all about the economics, they have an amazing tendency to be almost-fanatical social conservatives of a racist, homophobic, misogynist, and generally pro-conservative/anti-centrist-and-liberal bent:
Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.

What’s more, contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession. Many Americans have suffered in the last four years, but they are no more likely than anyone else to support the Tea Party. And while the public image of the Tea Party focuses on a desire to shrink government, concern over big government is hardly the only or even the most important predictor of Tea Party support among voters.

So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.

More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.
posted by zombieflanders at 4:49 PM on February 5 [8 favorites]


I don't know, this seems like going into a machine gun battle armed with a slingshot. And while I have to assume they've put some thought into this and crunched the numbers, etc. I can't believe that there aren't loopholes that would be found and exploited pretty quickly.

Now I may be a little biased here, because I believe that the corrupt influence of corporate/special interest money is the single largest and most pernicious problem we face as a country.


I fully agree with this. I haven't heard much about the effort to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizen's United lately, but I would personally prefer to see anyone who has any influence over anything to throw their weight behind that. I don't think it would take much effort to get broad bipartisan support because for all we hear about the Kochs et al, Democrats benefit as much from PAC money, if not more, than Republicans. Even fucking News Corp gave more to Dems than the GOP in 2012.

So yeah, armed with a few facts, I think an amendment could definitely happen. But, then again, the GOP never let facts stand in their way before, so there's that.
posted by triggerfinger at 4:59 PM on February 5


The problem with the amendment idea is that the only versions capable of getting a broad base of support just don't appeal to the people that feel super strongly, who would see anything short of elimination of corporate personhood as not even worth it.

Most people don't really care about this issue, so you really need people with passion to keep it going.
posted by jpe at 2:57 AM on February 6


"They would immediately be sued out of existence for libel, and quite rightly so. Bribery is a crime, and such donations as you mention are perfectly legal."

Given the recent discussion of the libel lawsuit over the "Climategate" fraud allegations, and that all the politicians are de facto public figures, that'd probably be a harder lawsuit to win than I would have thought even a week ago.

"So its important to realize that we do have a lot work to do, but we should acknowledge that we're winning and not give in to despair. One of the worst things is how people always want to throw their hands up and act like their phone call to any member of Congress won't help a thing. It helps a lot. Do it. Tell your friends to do it. They log those calls.

And its worked. Remember SOPA? That thing was sailing through one minute and going down in flames the next. Because people communicated instantly and en masse. You just have to put a little bit in.
"

Yeah, though I was just part of a pretty big discussion on a listserv for progressive techies, and the actual demonstrable efficacy of direct outreach to electeds is actually pretty low. SOPA was more of an edge case because it was bad law that didn't have a ton of strong inherent support — it was mostly going to sail through because of horsetrading. So, to abuse a metaphor, the big public eruption there was spooking the horses. But for things like environmental regulations, CIR, r even campaign finance reform, the current wisdom is that you get more mileage out of campaigns aimed at media sources that electeds read rather than direct outreach to electeds; a lot of the "call your congressperson!" is about list building for non-profits rather than about getting results from the congressperson. (I still call my reps and senators and the like, but it's only ever been effective in state politics, and even then, not as effective as dedicated lobbying.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:35 AM on February 6


A good source of information on the influence of money on american politics is Lawrence Lessig (one of the founders of Creative Commons), and his organization, Rootstrikers.

Do not anger Lawrence Lessig.
posted by homunculus at 4:03 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]


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