Is Our Campaign Finance System Broken Beyond Repair?

First, let me preface this discussion with a statement in support of clean money. I wholeheartedly support it, and think it is one of the key reforms that brings the state towards a functioning government. Despite the first amendment restrictions placed upon campaign finance regulations, clean money has been fairly successful where implemented. It is a worthy reform that would improve our political system, tone, and tenor.

That being said, clean money alone is clearly not enough to fix California’s broken campaign finance system. While I have argued from the day I read the decision in law school through fairly recently  that Buckley v. Valeo was decided incorrectly, until it is overturned it is the law of the land. Clean money really isn’t all that clean when there are loopholes for “issue ads” and other independent expenditures.  We can’t even enforce the relatively lenient laws on the books now, are we sure the FPPC or any other government body could enforce the clean money laws.  

Continue reading over the flip…

From today’s Sac Bee:

Political interests are funneling massive sums to California’s elected leaders through methods that “legally circumvent” contribution limits, the state’s nonpartisan political watchdog has found.

“The mad scramble for special-interest dollars continues to create profound concerns for the future of representative democracy,” the Fair Political Practices Commission said in a report released Monday. (Sac Bee 4/14/09)

There’s a smattering of these stories today, as the FPPC announced that over a billion has been raised for political campaigns since Prop 34 was passed in 2000 to limit this money.  Well over a hundred million of that money runs through the Governor in some form or fashion. He has a labyrinth of campaign accounts, plus a few “nonprofits” on the side.

About $300 million or so of the billion has flowed to non candidate campaigns that are controlled by candidates or elected officials.  These ballot measure campaigns have no limits, and end up being slush funds to dole out cash or to use for some other campaign to get themselves noticed.

Money shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as an evil, after all there’s always the old Jess Unruh saying:

If you can’t drink their booze, take their money, screw their women & vote against them in the morning, you don’t belong in this place.

But appearances matter, people like to see the business of governance operate smoothly without needing a few million bucks to grease the wheels every couple of months. Until Buckley is overruled, truly clean money is really a mirage in the desert.

And if that weren’t enough, David Sirota highlights another form of the not so clean system of politics that we now operate under: reward politics. To put it simply and using his analogy, it is the cookie after the deed. Instead of giving campaign bucks up front, groups offer the possibility of high-paying lobbying gigs after the members leave office. While this is a problem at the federal level (see Lott, Trent), term limits make the problem far more acute here in California.

The biggest problem with this reward corruption is that it can’t be stopped via legislation, and after the electeds leave office there is no political pressure to not take the gigs. We just can’t legislate that once you are an elected official you can never again work for anybody who had a position on any piece of legislation before you.

All of these structural dysfunctions (i.e. term limits, campaign finance loopholes, etc.) all mix and mingle to make things worse.  We need to get a clean money system, but that is far from the final goal. If democracy is really going to be owned by the people of California, there must be a grassroots demand for it. The Clean Money Campaign has done a lot to move this conversation forward here in California, and Larry Lessig and are doing a lot on the grassroots front on the federal level, it just isn’t enough at this point.

Is it time to simply toss our hands up in the air and say forget it? Do we leave democracy as a playground for those wealthy enough to play in the sandbox? No, I’m not that cynical yet, but as we pass this $1 Billion milestone, it should give us all pause as to the direction of this fight. It is the underlying fight for every other issue fight; solidly progressive reforms just cannot compete. Take a look at Prop 72 if you have designs upon reforming health care. Or the litany of good bills that die in the legislature at whim of the Governor’s veto pen.

I’m not sure I really can present any way to actually achieve a truly clean campaign system, but I know we must bring attention to the failures of the current system at every opportunity. And I know that we just cannot give up on fixing it.

3 thoughts on “Is Our Campaign Finance System Broken Beyond Repair?”

  1. You correctly point out a lot of problems with the system we operate now and that traditional public financing systems don’t have good answers for “issue ads” and other independent expenditures.

    But Clean Money, Fair Elections public financing systems are different.  Whenever participating candidates are attacked by independent expenditures or their opponent benefits from one, they get matching funds on a dollar-for-dollar basis to respond (up to a limit).

    The California Fair Elections Act, which will be on the ballot in June 2010 to set up a pilot project providing Fair Elections funding to Secretary of State candidates, has pretty good language to make sure of that.

    Issue ads are handled by specifying that any ad that “names or depicts clearly identified candidates” are considered independent expenditures, and that they have to sign a statement under penalty of perjury whether they intend to support or oppose the candidate.  The candidate will get matching funds within 24 hours, up to 4x their base funding.

    This means no candidate has to be afraid of being defenseless against IEs or other outside attacks.  In Arizona, in fact, IEs against Fair Elections candidates dropped nearly 60% from 2002 to 2006 because they learned that candidates would be able to respond so they’d better only do it if they had something important to add.

    So Fair Elections public financing won’t solve everything, but it will mean that most candidates won’t be raising or spending private money on their campaigns and that issue ads will always get a response, stopping anybody’s ability decide elections by throwing money at them.

    And that means that candidates won’t have to be beholden to their campaign donors for their past or future elections, which should make a huge difference.  It’s made a difference in Arizona and Maine.

    For more details go to:

    And be sure to sign the petition urging our leaders to support the California Fair Elections Act while you’re there.  It was regular people that got it on the ballot in the first place by pushing the legislature to pass AB 583 last year!

    Trent Lange

    President of Board of Directors

    California Clean Money Campaign

  2. First there is no chance in the world that the section giving matching funds for independent expenditures will stand up in court.  If you read Buckley (or anyone of a dozen other Supreme Court cases) the reason for allowing unlimited independent expenditures is supposedly free speech with the main point being that the founders were extremely concerned that the less successful would simply steal from the more successful.  So to stop that they specifically talked about the need for upper classes to be able to use their wealth to express themselves.  

    It took an interpretation of a constitutional amendment to overturn the law limiting the vote to people with property and it will take a constitutional amendment to change Buckley and our current campaign laws.   I would support such an amendment.  The problem is that until it happens, campaign reform traditionally hurts those that are on the outside trying to change things.  The so called “clean money” programs have not been successful at anything where they have been tried except for reelecting incumbents.  All you have to do is look at the City of Los Angeles which has what would on the surface seem to be a very good political finance system but which this past year saw no incumbents facing a serious challenge even though every elected official no matter what their politics has poll numbers that would make them likely losers in any other locale.  But in LA they don’t even face a challenge.

    Why is that?  The reason is simple.  The special interests hire $500 an hour attorneys to figure out loopholes every time the law is changed and average grassroots activists are never able to develop ongoing organizations with structures that regular voters can reach and access when they want to.   So the rich continue to control things and so called campaign reform simply gives them more power not less.  Instead of trying to take the politics out of politics, lets limit the discussion to what would really have a chance of working.  A constitutional amendment to overturn Buckley with the inclusion of some sort of ability to regulate IE committees.  

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