Speech, Elections And Money: Corrupting Politics

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    An undentified woman hold a poster at a demonstration in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 2012. (Photo/democapital via Flickr)

    An undentified woman hold a poster at a demonstration in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 2012. (Photo/democapital via Flickr)

    Many assume there is no problem with corporations spending money, a lot of money, to make their case during an election. The argument offered is that they are providing useful information and have a right to free speech like anyone else. The problem is that money distorts the election and conduct of public officials.

    Broadening the focus

    Previous columns have pointed out a couple of times that the Supreme Court sees bribery as the only possible problem with money. They mean quid pro quo transactions where there is a specific exchange between an official and someone who wants the official to do something. But this is too narrow. We have to consider both the effect on the electorate in general and the effect on the official after the election.  In both cases, unlimited money distorts democratic choices.


    Whether we like to admit it or not, we are influenced by advertising. We like to claim that we are immune; others may be gullible, but we are too sophisticated to fall for it. Except, apparently, we do fall for it. Ad campaigns certainly sell products. Failing to advertise properly, or in the right way, lowers sales.

    Political campaign advertisements work the same also. Candidates with low name recognition, or without a media presence, do less well.  Of course, the “ground game” of a candidate matters, and there are many choices of media strategy, but a candidate who is significantly outspent tends to lose.

    Massive amounts of advertisements get injected into an election process. Those advertisements, be they about candidates or about issues, are heavily tilted toward information and arguments that favor the wealthy in general, and large corporations in particular. It is not a level playing field where ideas compete simply on the merits. The marketplace of ideas is not “one person, one vote,” but has become “one dollar, one vote.”  It’s not democratic.

    (Design/DonkeyHotey via Flickr)

    After the election

    For all the significant impact of money on the context of debate during an election, what happens to officials afterward is almost worse. Money has a clear, corrosive effect on the ability and willingness of legislators to do their jobs representing the desires of all citizens.

    Many have documented how this corruption works, and it is more subtle than an exchange of gifts or obvious bribery. One good source that describes many of the ways that money corrupts the legislative process is a book by Lawrence Lessig, “Republic, Lost: How money corrupts Congress,” and the insights therein is used in what follows, among others.

    If someone does something nice for you, you feel more inclined to do something nice back. If five people have asked you for a favor, you are more likely to grant the request from the one person who previously did you a favor. All this is human nature. But when the person in question is a legislator and the people doing favors are the constituents with money, then the process of legislation is now going to be skewed away from what the majority wants.

    This is the real issue with “earmarks” – money or laws set up to favor a particular group or company.  They only make up a small percentage of the budget, but they are significant because they represent the ability of legislators to return favors to those who have favored them with large donations of cash.

    Legislators earn a nice salary, $174,000 per year if you are a U.S. senator or congressperson.  But that pales before the amount of money that a lobbyist or partner in a law firm makes. What will a legislator do after they retire or are defeated? Many wind up working for some firm that lobbies Congress.  Makes sense, the former legislator knows the people and procedures of Congress and has friends who will return his phone calls.

    All the lobbyist has to say to the legislator is “hey, we’d love to have you work for us if you get tired of this job.” This can be said sincerely. Maybe it doesn’t even have to be said; legislators have seen others parlay a career in Congress into serious wealth. Again, it is human nature: Why would you offend someone who might offer you more money than you could imagine?

    A key insight here is that money isn’t being used to threaten legislators, like we expect from movies.  Instead it is all promises, temptations, favors and the normal desire to be friendly to those who’ve been a friend.

    Doing the job

    Lessig calls attention to just how much time raising money takes from the career of a legislator. They are running for re-election from the moment they get elected, and they have to. In order to raise the quantity of money you need to run an election now, you have to be raising money constantly – every day, apparently.

    The number of days that Congress is in session and the number of days that committees meet have both declined significantly over recent decades. Think about that: In our increasingly complicated world, at a time of financial crisis, we have a part-time Congress where laws get passed without being read. There isn’t enough time to be a full-time legislator and study the issues and proposed laws: Your time is taken up by raising money.

    There is no invisible hand

    The theory of capitalism has a well-developed argument that if everyone peruses their own personal economic interests then the public economic interest is served also. Competition drives down prices and drives people to produce better products. Everyone benefits by that. Adam Smith called it action of the “invisible hand” that regulates markets and drives the economy forward in a much better way than government control could.

    This theory has much to support it, but what people fail to emphasize is that certain conditions have to be met for this to be true. Just being a capitalistic economy isn’t enough: You have to have perfect competition for this to work. Monopolies spoil the effect. Further, everyone has to have access to information, and both money and workers have to be free to move away from bad jobs and bad investments toward more productive opportunities. Our actual economy only approximates this.

    In the sphere of politics, is the theory even true? If everyone seeks their own personal political advantage, will that take care of the public interest?

    Clearly, the only way this would be true is if the same requirements for effective capitalism were present in the political system. A political system where each person was truly free to seek their personal advantage by lobbying the government and where everyone had an equal chance of access to government officials might also take care of public interests. If some people have 10, or 100 times the ability to promote their own personal interests, then there is no way that the public interest will be served by such a system.

    When Congress responds to money, then the interests of the poor, small businesses, family farms, people with high medical bills, basic scientific research and those in low-paying professions are not going be well represented.

    Can we fix it?

    Can we reverse course? Finding the political will to do so is one problem, but there might be an even more fundamental issue. Will the Constitution allow us to restrict money in elections and reverse this process? It turns out there are some resources in the Constitution that can help, and that is the issue we turn to next.

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