The Money Problem

By Terry Bouricius

This is Chapter 7 of Building Progressive Politics: The Vermont Story, a 1993 pamphlet by Marxist Terry Bouricius that chronicles how the only successful left third party in the U.S. today was built over the course of three decades. The remaining chapters will be published on this blog in the coming days.

It is obvious that the private funding of elections on a national and statewide level is a barrier for progressive politics, not just because private money corrupts and buys politicians, but as a matter of class politics. In a class society, with vast disparity of wealth, unless elections are removed from the influence of private money, challengers to class privilege are stymied.

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It must be noted, however, that this is not necessarily true for smaller local race. In Vermont, State House races can be won for one to three thousand dollars, in part because there is a practical limit to how much money can be poured into a tiny district.1 Progressive candidates have occasionally out-spent their major party opponents in Burlington.

In larger campaigns, however, Progressives face a marked disadvantage. The first hurdle is related to the “wasted vote” concept. Why donate to a candidate who can’t win? As we have discussed, Sanders overcame this hurdle but only because he could plug into a national funding pool through direct mail. Sanders raised more money in 1992 than his Republican and Democratic opponents combined. But this should provide no solace to other prospective Independent/Progressive candidates around the country. Future candidates will be competing with Sanders by tapping into the same limited pool of “left money.” The simple truth is that the “right money” is vastly larger than the pool of “left money.” The only hope, playing this game, is to pry the unions away from the Democratic Party. In Vermont, union contribution lists now includes progressives, Sanders especially, but the Democrats remain the main beneficiaries.

Since progressives generally lose the money game we should change the game. The history of past campaign finance reform is pretty dismal. Disclosure laws seem to accomplish very little. An environmental political action committee (PAC) that donates to a pro-environment candidate is clearly a different entity from a pharmaceutical industry PAC that donates to two candidates who are running against each other, but both contributions are reviled in advertisements as PAC money.

Vermont campaign finance disclosure laws are straightforward. Campaigns must report every expenditure, total contributions, total debts, and the names of all contributors who give more than $100. In Vermont, the amount of out-of-state money received has been a campaign issue – particularly since Sanders receives most of his money from small out-of-state contributors.

Disclosure is fine as far as it goes, but it does not significantly affect the flow of money. Vermont passed a very weak voluntary campaign spending limit bill in time for the 1994 elections. The law has no teeth and hopes to simply embarrass candidates into agreeing to limits. Recognizing the advantages of incumbency, the law allows challengers a 10% higher ceiling. The law provides no public financing.

The Supreme Court has ruled that now law can restrict how much a candidate spends on his or her own election.1 States that have instituted some form of public financing have essentially bought candidates’ agreement to limit expenditures by offering public money in exchange for such a commitment. Only an incentive approach can completely eliminate the advantage of raising private money. Taxing campaign contributions (including from the candidates themselves) to provide equal funding to opponents is an example.

The Supreme Court has ruled that no law can restrict how much a candidate spends on his or her own election.2 States that have instituted some form of public financing have essentially bought candidates’ agreement to limit expenditures by offering public money in exchange for such commitment. Only an incentive approach can completely eliminate the advantage of raising private money. Taxing campaign contributions (including from the candidates themselves) to provide equal funding to opponents is an example.

Under such reforms alternative parties would immediately face problems with the distribution methodology. The major parties have lobbied to limit state financing to major party candidates, so as not to waste tax dollars on frivolous candidates. Some threshold requirement is probably necessary. Threshold requirements that favors the status-quo parties are: a certain percentage vote in the previous election; and matching private contributions, as is currently done in Presidential elections. A threshold requirement that would be fairer to alternative parties with low-income supporters is requiring a certain number of signatures on a petition, or a threshold number of qualifying contributions of, say, $5 or $10 each. If the number were set too high, of course, rich individuals would still have an advantage because they could simply hire professional petition gatherers.

Campaign finance reform is not generally seen as a sexy issue, but it may have potential. Can we create a pro-democracy movement in the United States, arguably the least political and least ideological of all developed nations? Most Americans embrace the concept of “fair play.” Is it possible to create in the public mind the understanding that campaign contributions are equivalent to bribes? Can we create such disgust that voters will accept and even compel their government to provide for public financing of elections? This reform could lead to real change.

Footnotes:

  1. Television stations often won’t accept advertisements for such local races. Once voters have received several campaign pieces from each candidate there are diminishing returns – and even some voter resentment.
  2. As Ross Perot, who gained instant credibility as a candidate because of his wealth, admitted – he planned to “buy” the Presidency for the people “because you can’t afford it.”
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One response to “The Money Problem

  1. Pingback: How America’s Only Influential State-Level Left Party Was Built: The Story of the Vermont Progressive Party | People's War

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