Monday, January 09, 2006

Free Speech, Paid Speech

As the Congressional corruption indictments slowly begin to mount and the Justice department probes continue, I'd like to take a moment to agitate on behalf of some meaningful campaign finance reform.

A lot of conservatives--as well as a lot Republicans who are anti-reform simply because they control every branch of the government and want to keep it that way--are hostile to current restrictions on campaign donations much less to any expansion of them. In a rare embrace of the First Amendment for such folks, they argue that private contributions, PAC contributions, corporate commercials etc. are free speech and as such must not be regulated by the federal government.

By and large, that argument is nonsense. Giving money to a candidate isn't the same as exercising one's own right to free speech. If you've got something to say, say it. If it's persuasive, people will listen. If it's so unpersuasive that you have to give money to a candidate to say it for you, then it's probably a bad idea. More to the point, it's not free speech. It's paid speech. There's no constitutional right to pay a Congressperson to say what you want said. And, as we all know, it's a short jump (if any at all) from paid speech to paid action--i.e., to a bribe.

But, you may be saying, surely it's people's right to give money to the candidate who says--and does--things that they support. If I want to send Dennis Kucinich $25 to tilt at windmills in 2008, who has the right to stop me?

Well, it's possible that by 2008 the Bush administration will have some sort of Alien and Sedition Act in place that gives the Marines the right to stop you from donating to Democrats. But, for now, you do have that right. I've exercised that kind of right in the past, and, so long as the system doesn't change, I'll do so again.

But I'm not sure that's all that good for America in the long run. I'm starting to think that I'd rather see all federal elections funded entirely and exclusively by the taxpayers as a group rather than as special interests.

Let's take the Presidential race as an example. People would be barred from officially campaigning until they declared their candidacy. Once they declared their candidacy, they would have (say) three months to prove that at least 2% of registered voters would seriously consider voting for them in a primary election. (During that time they could raise and spend money from voters or their parties.) If they could meet the 2% threshhold, the FEC would give them $10 million to spend in the lead-up to the primary. If they won the primary, they'd get $100 million dollars to spend on the general election. And they'd not only be entitled to it but limited to it--no outside sources allowed at all, not party, private, corporate, whatever.

To avoid financing totally hopeless candidates but to support all halfway legit third-party candidates, any candidate whose party could prove that more than 4% of registered voters would consider voting for a candidate from his or her party would be entitled to the $10m primary money. If a candidate's party couldn't do that before the election, but if the candidate could get himself or herself on the ballot in either 1/3 of the states (17) or in states whose total populations account for 1/3 of the country's population, then that candidate would also be entitled (and limited) to the $100m general election funds.

In Congressional elections, the polls would be for the districts or states in question. In terms of money, Senate candidates would get 1/15th the presidential amounts ($666,666 for primaries, %6.6m for general elections), and House andidates would get 1/3 what Senators get ($222,222 for primaries, $2.22m for general).

You might argue that this would be expensive. But it wouldn't. Not in the long term. Over the course of a decade, there would be 2,175 House races, 167 Senate races, and 2.5 Presidental races. So, let's assume eight candidates for each House and Senate primary and ten for each presidential primary. Let's also assume there would be three candidates for each office in every general election. Over ten years, these elections would cost taxpayers about $18.3 billion for the House, $4.23 billion for the Senate, and $1.0 billion for the Presidency, for a total of about $25.6 billion. That's $2.6 bn per year.

Now, $2.6 billion is a lot of money. But it's only about one-tenth of one percent of the approximately $2.4 TRILLION annual federal budget. If, every year, having BOTH less corruption in Congress AND less need for Congressmen to bribe their constituents with pork spending, we'd save way more than $2.6 billion per year. And, since decreased corruption tends to stimulate economic growth, we'd probably turn a profit on taxes (either as a nation or as individuals paying reduced taxes).

Some will argue that federally financed elections would stifle free speech by making it illegal for interested voters or interest groups to declare their support for a candidate by mounting independent campaigns for or against or to mount issue campaigns that influence particular races.

But they wouldn't. The right to proclaim one's support for a candidate or an issue is definitely a free speech right and absolutely should not be infringed. But the right to coordinate your support with a particular candidate's campaign is not such a right, and all such coordination should definitely be curtailed. If the SEC can monitor insider corporatae trading (and it does so pretty well despite being underfunded and hamstrung), then the FEC could monitor insider election dealing. Just as a healthy the stock market requires investor confidence that a cabal of insiders isn't gaming the system to benefit themselves, a healthy electoral system depends on voter confidence that groups and individuals aren't buying special access by running non-independent "independent" media campaigns.

Nothing's going to end corruption, but this might make it rarer.


At 11:25 AM , Blogger Xanthippas said...

I agree with you absolutely here. The only real solution would be to publicly fund all races, and bar politicians from taking any money (or at least over certain amounts, or from non-individuals, or "bundled", etc., etc.) Money absoulutely taints the electoral process in our country, and the very same money that taints it also prevents reform.


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