Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Loser Generation: Part Six

Let’s start with looking at campaign finance reform and the money it takes to get things done.

The problem for many of us is scale. Two teachers making $45 thousand per year won’t earn six figures even with their dual income. For this couple, $200,000 is a lot of money. When governments deal in millions, billions, and trillions, it can seem incomprehensible to process. Running the government of the third largest country on earth costs vast amounts of money. For example, the U.S. spends about $700 billion on its military – the most of any country. China, which has five times our population, spends $120 billion, making it the second in the world. The U.S. spends $830 billion on Medicare and Medicaid. That number, in turn, is about half of California’s GDP; if California were a country would be the world’s ninth largest economy. The national debt, meanwhile, is a rising $15 trillion. Given these enormous amounts of money, should we, then, be concerned with a (comparatively) “measly” $5.3 billion dollar election?

A startling statistic: over 90% of recent House and Senate elections since the 1990s have gone to the candidate who spent the most money. Regardless of the relative amounts being spent on these elections, money in these elections is clearly playing the most important role in determining who wins elections. If you think a free market approach is an acceptable way of running Congress you still have to consider the consequences of constantly fundraising. Individuals can give up to $2,500 to a candidate. If our Representative requires $10,000 a week to get reelected, which is the national average today, then he needs at least four major personal contributions secured every week. A Congressman’s job is basically paid on commission. Instead of doing his job on the House or Senate floor he’s constantly trying to raise money. The consequence of the current system basically is designed to keep the Representatives from doing their job – legislating and debating the important and difficult questions facing the country.

Turning on the news, news commentary, and comedy news shows on the TV brings a familiar refrain: the government is too bloated, it isn’t nimble enough to effectively handle problems, and the bureaucracy is out of control. While this may be the case in other branches, or overall, it isn’t true of the House: constitutionally the proportion originally was one Representative for every 30,000 people. If this proportion held true today there would be 10,387 Representatives. An act in 1929 capped the size of the House at 435, with a little over 200,000 people per Representative at the time.  Now each Rep stands for an average of 700,000 people. Our legislative body comes down to 535 people in the Congress: .0001% of our population. Those who have the money to give to these very few hold tremendous sway and influence over an individual who constantly needs to raise money. Congress isn’t a bureaucracy so much as it is a bottleneck.

Nor does it reflect American opinions. The majority of Americans, across 19 polls, consistently prefer taxing the rich. A majority of Americans polled support gay marriage. Exactly half of the country supports legalizing marijuana, an all-time high. A majority of Americans favor government support for Planned Parenthood. If Congress were really reflective of America then Washington would reflect American attitudes and opinions – yet they don’t reflect this at all, and certainly aren’t passing legislation echoing our sentiments. In keeping with this trend it’s not surprising that a majority of citizens, regardless of affiliation, support campaign finance reform.

One of the most promising bills, the Fair Elections Now Act, was proposed in 2011 by a bipartisan group of Representatives. Limiting contributions to $100, the candidate would first have to get 1,500 contributions from their state to show support. After they’d proven their supported base they’d be given a fixed sum of about one million dollars, 40% to spend on the primaries and 60% on the main election. It would cost about $850 million to implement nationally – a far cry from the billions we currently waste on our elections.

Congressional money, of course, can come in forms more opaque. Consider in 2003 when Republicans attempted to bribe party members for their votes on a Medicare bill on November 23. So, too, are to be considered the periodic ethics scandals regarding finances on both sides.

So too have earmarks increased in recent years. In the mid-1990s an already troubling $10 billion was set aside for some 1,430 projects. Within a decade the number of such project passed by Congress had increased to 10,656, totaling $22.9 billion[1]. The figures are still in the $20 billion a year ballpark in recent years. By means of comparison $20 billion dollars is the total amount BP spent to clean up the Gulf Coast Spill, one of the worst and costliest environmental disasters in history. Or four times the entire United Nation’s annual budget.

The 2004 election is a good example of how wealthy candidates can rely on their existing assets to squeeze out any competition. Rodney A. Smith explains the situation in Money, Power & Politics:

“In December 2003, during the early stages of the 2004 presidential primary campaign, Senator John Kerry was mired in a crowded field with the support of only 9% of Democrats nationally. He was running a distant third in Iowa and was over 30 percentage points behind in New Hampshire, his cash reserves were running low, and his campaign was $3.8 million in debt…

“Caught in this do-or-die situation, Kerry quietly set up a $6.4 million dollar personal line of credit for his campaign, using his home in Boston as collateral. Immediately thereafter the campaign borrowed $2.8 million dollars in December 2003 and $3.5 million in January 2004, for a total of $6.3 million just prior to the Iowa caucuses. This quick injection of cash gave Kerry the financial resources he needed to win a come-from-behind victory…

“While neither Senator Kerry nor campaign did anything illegal or unethical in setting up a bank loan, this large infusion of cash at just the right moment vividly demonstrates the importance of money in politics, particularly to a campaign that’s struggling.” [2]

Smith, who served as the National Finance Director of the Republican National Committee, concludes that it would have taken a competitor, making phone calls under the best possible circumstances, working ten hour days, until mid-May to have raised the same amount[3].

The inability to defeat incumbents is also getting worse. Smith cites that the average length of a Congressional term, historically, has been 4 years, but as of 2000 it had swelled in the House to 14, and the Senate 18 years of service. Since the Campaign Finance Reform bill in 1974, the number of no-contest House elections has increased 15%, just as the number of semi- and not-competitive races have also each increased by 5%. These numbers are identical for the Senate.[4]

Arguably, then, campaign finance reform is the single most important problem to fix in the United States. Until the legislative branch reflects the people’s will we cannot claim to have a real democracy. I cannot over-emphasize the most important statistic in this whole problem: whoever has the most money almost certainly wins the election. Whoever the deep pockets want to win, therefore, will win. But the problem does not exist in a vacuum – it is intimately connected to the role of lobbyists. This, almost certainly most powerful role in Washington will be examined in the next section.

[1] Mann and Ornstein, The Broken Branch, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
[2] Smith, Rodney A., Money, Power and Politics, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
[3] Ibid. (Smith)
[4] Ibid. (Smith)

1 comment:

Jessica said...

I like the citations.