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Ben Smith picked up on a blog post* by Lauren Hepler at the Center for Responsive Politics about out-of-state money, noting:

The numbers are interesting on the merits, though the general, bipartisan flow of money from big metropolitan areas to powerful members from smaller, poorer places is hardly a surprise. The data is also pretty much made for attack ads.

Ben's final point about attack ads is an example of how out of step our perceptions about virtuous politics are with reality. If we want to argue it logically rather than intuitively, we need to establish and defend three premises:

  1. All in-state or in-district money is inherently "better" than out-of-state/-district money
  2. Conversely, all out-of-state money is inherently pernicious or distorting.
  3. Campaign finance legislation, which is subject to influence by the same powerful interests whose power it's attempting to curtail, can be sufficiently well-written to be both politically viable and achieve its aims.

It turns out that there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about these premises, both collectively and in isolation.

To begin with, a government that is entirely funded by local interests more likely to create a gridlocked republic than a virtuous one, especially given current Senate rules. Moreover, it's an equilibrium state that's highly (and narrowly) cartelized and accordingly hostile to change, which further decreases the likelihood of meaningful action in Washington D.C. Finally, because barriers to entry are high, voter choice suffers. Out-of-state money creates the potential for change by giving candidates who are outside of local fundraising networks a viable path to elected office (See: Tea Party). That can be good or bad, but that's a question of the ends to which that money is applied, not the fact that it exists.

To take the second premise seriously, you have to ignore the "federal" aspect of our federal government. Legislators from outside your state or district often vote for or against laws that affect you. If you don't live in their state or district, your means of indicating your approval or disapproval of their actions are limited to activism or fundraising. And while there's a natural, tribal reflex against people from outside [arbitrary boundary] making themselves a part of the electoral process inside  [arbitrary boundary], the decisions we make at the polls affect them. It's a speech issue, and protected as such.

The third premise gets at the tension underlying Larry Lessig's "economy of influence" argument. As I wrote a long time ago, the problem with the argument is that it goes to great lengths to establish that Congress is broken, hopelessly captive to special interests, and so on. Then Lessig argues for federal legislation to address this issue. See the problem? If, as Lessig asserts, legislators have a clear idea of their self-interest (usually preceded by a $ sign), why on earth would any given leader act against it? At the most basic level, how do you persuade someone that money they've already gotten is less valuable than money they might get in the future? Unclear.

What really matters is not where the money comes from, geographically speaking, but what its source is and how clearly that information is tracked and disseminated. If Candidate X is extensively funded by the local chapter of Baby Eaters Anonymous, we should probably care about that more than the fact his opponent, Candidate Y, gets large checks from Americans for the Laughter of Children, based in the neighboring state. Or, put simply, the problem with Citizens United v. FEC isn't that it allows huge spending by corporate interests–the old system allowed that–but rather that it provides no disclosure requirements. That's why the fate of the DISCLOSE act (59-39! Stunning defeat!) is arguably more troubling than the ruling it addresses.

*The CRP post misuses the phrase "begging the question," which is a huge pet peeve of mine. To "beg the question" is to assume your conclusion as a premise and thereby make a circular argument, not to beg someone to ask you a question. Also, I stole the title of this post from a Bon Jovi song. That's just how I roll.

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