I rarely agree with Ezra Klein but today I think he put up a thoughtful post on campaign spending and why politicians don’t want to really change things. I do have to quibble with a part of the thrust of his piece.
Some of that money has come from small donors, people who felt strongly about the direction of the country and dug into their own pockets to make it better. That’s all for the good. But much of it has come from corporations trying to buy access with winners, secret donors trying to purchase the votes that will make them richer and ideological hit-groups that delight in the scurrilous attacks that candidates themselves would never make. I almost feel bad for our politicians – it’s an unpleasant business they’ve chosen.
I can get on board with most of this but what about the union money? It’s been widely and accurately reported that the biggest spender this year is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is the biggest donor this time around. They’ve given $87.5 million to date.
If you’re going to get your undies in a bunch about corporations donating, it would seem you might find some room to question union donations. And therein lies the entire problem with trying to regulate campaign donations. Everyone sees a donation from those with whom they agree as a responsible exercise in civic responsibility while donations from those not favored are viewed as callous attempts to buy an election.
Each attempt to “limit” the amount of money spent on campaigns inevitably mutates into legislation that attempts to provide an edge to certain groups, usually in furtherance of the preservation of the status quo. Over time either the rules are gamed or the courts wisely remind those who would manipulate the system that there is a prejudice towards free speech and the right to petition the government in the Constitution and money flows in more abundance as all manner of constituencies attempt to advance their interests.
Naturally, this results in wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and articles from Ezra. He’s right to say it’s demeaning, a waste of time and probably keeps good people out of politics, but what else is new. So why do we keep agonizing over this when the solution is pretty clear.
Just forget trying to dictate who can and can’t donate and require full and instantaneous disclosure. We have something called the Web which is a marvelous place to post data. Put up a list of who gave every dollar to your cause and let the blogosphere go crazy. You want transparency in politics, well just put those numbers up and I guarantee you that there will be so many lists, graphs and posts floating around that no one will be able to hide.
So, while Ezra and others call for campaign finance reform, I suggest we forget about it. Quit trying to find ways to limit one of the most important activities the citizenry can engage in and let the money flow in accompanied by a lot of sunlight.