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The Rot of Political Campaign Financing

Systematic corruption in the U.S.

July 2010

American politics at the highest level is quite simple: There are large staffs of professional bribers, foreign and domestic – we call them lobbyists – in Washington, D.C.  Their job is to bribe elected politicians, often with a promise of funds for their next election campaign.  All they want in return is what all political bribers want:  extralegal influence over official policy.  And of course they get it, though politicians don't come cheap – we'll give them that.  The odd thing is, all this bribery is perfectly legal, legalized by the politicians themselves.
To us Americans, "corruption" usually suggests some nasty business that happens elsewhere:  In Africa, Eastern Europe, the Far East... It's known to every businessman that in many countries you're expected to grease the palms of functionaries in order to get done even the most routine bureaucratic task, such as processing a form.  Firms operating in such countries keep a special fund for such extralegal payments.  In the U.S., we've largely moved beyond such nuisance corruption in the civil service.  What we have instead is the far more serious corruption – practiced systematically in the open and under cover of law – of our lawmakers and political leaders.  We just don't call it "corruption" in the U.S.  We call it "election campaign financing."
Mark Twain wrote, in Following the Equator (1897): "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress."
There is really nothing new under the sun.  So let's suppose for a moment that you really are a member of Congress.  I already know one thing about you:  You like it there.  You like it in Washington, and you want to stay there.  You belong at the seat of power – you've coveted power, that's why you ran for office.  Now one day you're asked to draft election finance rules.  This will be a law for the putative purpose of ensuring that challengers for your seat in Congress will have a fair and equal chance to win and send you home.  Sound silly?  No, no, this is what happened:  It was you and your cronies in Congress that made the election finance laws.  What they came up with, as a fair and evenhanded system, was the buy-a-politician system that we have, based on logic like the following (adhering closely to sacred principles of the free market).


  1. Members of Congress have one great desire in life:  The desire to be reelected.  This desire trumps all others.
  2. Getting reelected requires, above all, money.  Big money.  The biggest spender almost always wins in American elections.
  3. Members of Congress generally don't have the big money needed to win the next election, yet they are personally responsible for securing it.  So the desire from (1) above translates into a need for money.  The desire for money now trumps all others.  (We hardly need point out that in the member's mind, his/her desire for election money is in the national interest, since it aims to assure that the best person will be elected.)
  4. Members of Congress do have one asset though, without which there wouldn't be an opportunity for the free market to operate:  They have a vote on bills, and some have actual influence.
  5. Fortunately, the big money needed in elections is not far away.  It's right there in Washington, in the hands of people who might be able to help our penurious members.  There lacks only a nexus.
  6. So, let's see:  The member has one thing – a vote, but lacks another thing – campaign money.  The interests have money, but lack a vote.  What can we do?
  7. O Happy Day!  The Free Market works!  Just like the Barcelona fish market:  You plunk down your money and you get your fish.
Here is a general definition of "corruption:"  Public officials receiving gifts or favors intended to influence their official decisions.  That's plain enough, and it's precisely what goes on in our campaign financing scheme:  When a politician runs in an election, corporations, associations, and individuals give gifts to the politician, who uses the gifts for the purpose of his/her self-promotion and reelection.  In turn the major donors expect "understanding" of their views on regulations or legislation, i.e., they expect to influence the politician's official decisions.  (Back to the definition.)

And this will come as no surprise:  The campaign finance laws written by the congressional incumbents favor incumbents.  The current members have a vote worth paying for, while challengers can only offer a potential vote.  Naturally, when a firm commits real money for a vote, a real vote has greater value than a potential vote.  So incumbents raise more money and are therefore more successful at hoodwinking the electorate.

Let's call this what it is:  The U.S. "system" of campaign financing is, from top to bottom, the very definition of corruption.  The inescapable conclusion is that practically all our politicians are corrupt, because they partake in this system of their own devising that permits them, in full view, to accept money gifts in return for improper influence by the donors.  It's our own fault, occasioned by the usual public lethargy, by our aversion to governmental regulation, and by a misplaced trust in the workings of the "free market," that we have not publicly identified private contributions to politicians as corruption.  We can't simply blame it on the media's failure to expose this sordid business.  Our toothless media have had every chance to call this spade a spade, but of course modern American media corporations are entwined with other interests in super-corporations, which have their own donors and lobbyists in Washington.  So the modern media dig dirt only where they're comfortable with what will sprout.  Exposing the corruption inherent in our campaign finance system has not been within their comfort zone.

The corrupting influence of money in elections depends on two factors: 1) the size of the donation, and 2) recognition of the donor.  If you or I give ten dollars, or even a hundred, this is not directly corrupting, since the amount is too trivial to influence any decision.  Our purpose is merely to help our favorite candidate win the election.  If no campaign donation exceeded $100, we would have no corruption problem with private funding of campaigns.  But with substantially larger individual donations, the donor is typically known to the politician, and some reward is expected.  Rewards for individual donations are often mere vanity-stroking:  Industrialists or the newly-rich, eager for enhanced social status, gain access to the politician's circle.  Typical in form, though record-setting in numbers, was the ever-expanding circle of "Friends of Bill," the donors who were rewarded by Bill and Hillary Clinton with nights in the Lincoln bedroom of the White House and with invitations to social functions.  Such rewards, though inappropriate and troubling – they do make use of public funds to reward a personal favor – are not seen as serious corruption, though they do represent a culture of quid pro quo in political financing that invites overstepping into serious corruption.  Certainly, this line was crossed by Clinton when he used his power as President to issue pardons for crimes committed by his and his wife's political donors as well as family members.

The matter of corporate donations is far more serious, as firms or associations have their agenda which their lobbyists politely "suggest" to their chosen politicians, accompanied by the promise of campaign help.  As we know, raising funds for their own reelection is the primary day-to-day concern of politicians.  Their bread and butter, so to speak.  And learning which side to butter, and who has the butter, is key for the politician who wants to stay in office.  While it might seem that large contributions to a politician by interested parties would be considered prima facie evidence of efforts to bribe, the Supreme Court, far from cracking down on such efforts, made the situation far worse when the Court's current majority of "juridical conservatives" issued an execrable decision in January of this year (Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission) which removed all restrictions on the amount of money that corporations and associations can spend to influence an election. (The decision rested on the justices' very logical joining of two screwy notions: 1. That the Constitution requires that a Corporation be considered a "Person" even with respect to election laws; and 2. That any legal restriction on spending money on campaigns is equivalent to restricting this "person's" right to free speech. Thus, logically enough, a corporation must not be restricted from spending money on election campaigns. Nothing could be simpler.)

What then?  With even the Supreme Court on the side of graft, is it possible to achieve a campaign financing system that does not include the bribing of politicians?  It's admittedly hard to find cause for optimism:  The changes would need to be made by those who benefit from the current system – incumbent members of Congress.  We have recently seen how our politicians' public display of faux outrage at the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United failed to result in any legislation to deal with that which supposedly outraged them.  The closest Congress came was a bill that died in the Senate (the "Disclose" Act), but which would have done nothing to reduce the money flow, merely requiring the corporation buying campaign ads for a candidate to state that they've paid for it.  Even such a toothless and ineffectual bill was too hard for our politicians to swallow.  Naturally, their handlers (oops, I mean donors) counselled against it, and they were right:  The Citizens United ruling was a gold-laying goose for incumbents.

There's really only one way to get the improper and corrupting influence of money out of our election system,and that is through public financing of campaigns, as President Obama also has made clear.  Designing a good and fair system is not as hard as our politicians make it out.  (They are almost unanimously opposed to public financing, evidently because it would tend to give challengers and even additional political parties a fair chance.)  A workable system can be as simple as awarding the same sum of money to each qualified candidate (determining qualification of candidates is the trickiest part) and leaving them to spend it on their campaign as they please.  I personally favor a change that may seem more radical – but is really just getting back to basics, trying to solve at the same time the unconscionable length of current U.S. election campaigns (which are beyond comparison with the rest of the world) and the inanity of the campaigns (which likewise are without peer): 

  • First, prohibit the use of private money for electioneering.
  • Second, set aside a one-month (or so) period for the campaign.  In the case of Congress or legislatures, this ought to be during their recess time.
  • Third, free us from endless, mindless campaign commercials designed to deceive the voter.  Instead, provide substantial (and equal) public and donated private radio/TV/Internet time to present each candidate in a series of in-depth presentations, not controlled by the candidate.  Some of these should be in the nature of job interviews, where the candidate is asked probing questions about background, training, experience, and knowledge appropriate to the job, as well as his or her specific plans, goals, and vision.  These sessions should be tough and should not give the candidate the opportunity to duck the hard questions.  The idea is to rid us of the evil of PR and Ad consultants presenting a carefully managed image of the candidate in TV shorts intended specifically to dupe the voters.

Many organizations are working hard to establish a fair and clean election system.  One is "Public Campaign" at .   Most such organizations, being realists, favor systems of matching public money, allowing candidates to raise private money if they choose.  It may be that such hybrid systems may reduce the improper influence of money in elections, and it may be that they can be used as stepping-stones to a future where money no longer buys elections, but I'm not personally fond of such half-way measures.  The key is to understand that private money does buy influence with the supported politician, and that this is corruption!  Notwithstanding the Supreme Court majority's monumentally idiotic notion that spending corporate money in elections is protected free speech (Citizens United), spending corporate money for the benefit of a politician is bribery.  It is buying influence, and it is corruption.  Yet it underlies – and undermines – our entire election system.  Once we accept that the current system is built on a foundation of corruption, and that the presence of private money is the source of that corruption, the importance of removing this money from our election system becomes obvious and paramount.  But to date the President, who will need to use the bully pulpit to get the needed changes through Congress, has evidently not had much luck getting Congress to see it his way.

That would truly be a change we could believe in.

© 2010 H. Paul Lillebo

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