Tag Archives: money in politics

This Isn’t Democracy…

Tim Wu recently had an interesting–albeit depressing–op ed in the New York Times.

Wu disagreed with the constant emphasis on American polarization and division, pointing out that there is really remarkable consensus among voters on a number of policy issues.

About 75 percent of Americans favor higher taxesfor the ultrawealthy. The idea of a federal law that would guarantee paid maternity leave attracts 67 percent support. Eighty-three percent favor strong net neutrality rulesfor broadband, and more than 60 percent want stronger privacy laws. Seventy-one percent think we should be able to buy drugs imported from Canada, and 92 percent want Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices. The list goes on.

The defining political fact of our time is not polarization. It’s the inability of even large bipartisan majorities to get what they want on issues like these. Call it the oppression of the supermajority. Ignoring what most of the country wants — as much as demagogy and political divisiveness — is what is making the public so angry.

There is considerable research confirming this point. The opinions and desires of even large majorities of ordinary American citizens are far less likely to be the basis of policy than the desires and opinions of the wealthy and well-connected.

As Wu notes, this state of affairs is generally defended by arguing that “rank and file” of Americans aren’t experts on economic issues, and that economic policies should be developed by those who are.

It is true that policymaking requires expertise. But I don’t think members of the public are demonstrating ignorance when they claim that drug prices are too high, taxes could be fairer, privacy laws are too weak and monopolies are too coddled.

It is also true that majorities sometimes want things — “like bans on books, or crackdowns on minorities — that they should not be given.” But the issues under discussion do not implicate the restrictions imposed by the Bill of Rights. And many of these same policy preferences were legislated during the Progressive period.

In our era, it is primarily Congress that prevents popular laws from being passed or getting serious consideration. (Holding an occasional hearing does not count as “doing something.”) Entire categories of public policy options are effectively off-limits because of the combined influence of industry groups and donor interests. There is no principled defense of this state of affairs — and indeed, no one attempts to offer such a justification.

It is “the combined influence of industry groups and donors” that is the problem; those interests wield far more clout with lawmakers than We the People. They have effectively bought the federal government ‘s lawmaking apparatus–and the governments of the states have not been exempt.  (Thanks to gerrymandering and vote suppression, they have largely been able to ensure the electoral success of the candidates they’ve purchased.)

There is some hope that candidates who raise most of their funds from small-dollar donors will eventually “crowd out” the big-money interests, but it is unlikely that things will change much unless and until the Supreme Court overturns its previous decisions equating money with speech–or in the alternative, there is a constitutional amendment to that effect.

Meanwhile, we can argue about the proper terminology to apply to our governing system–plutocracy, oligarchy, kakistocracy–but we need to recognize that it is neither a republic or a democracy.

This Won’t Pass–But It Should

In addition to her Corporate Accountability measure, discussed yesterday, Senator Elizabeth Warren has introduced an “anti-corruption” bill, based on the highly dubious theory that We the People are capable of learning from our mistakes.

Nothing about Warren’s Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act should trigger Congressional outrage, but I predict that the blowback will be fierce; the Act’s assault on money in politics is pretty much guaranteed to enrage the plutocrats who are used to buying Congressional votes for their policy preferences.

As Vox describes it,

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) envisions a United States government in which presidential and vice presidential candidates must — by law — disclose eight years’ worth of tax returns and place any assets that could present a conflict of interest into a blind trust to be sold off (neither of which President Donald Trump has done).

Those two provisions are just the beginning.

Her proposed fix envisions a Washington where the president, vice president, Cabinet members, and congressional lawmakers have a lifetime ban on becoming lobbyists, and other federal workers have restrictions — albeit less severe — on entering lobbying firms. The act would also bar federal judges from owning individual stocks or accepting gifts or payments that could potentially influence the outcome of their rulings.

And in Warren’s plan — laid out in a new bill called the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act— this would all be overseen by a new US Office of Public Integrity, which would go after violators and usher in a new era of ethics law enforcement.

The idea is to “isolate and quarantine the ability of big money to infect the decisions made every day by every branch of our government,” she said in a speech on Tuesday. That means all three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.

The bill is designed to completely overhaul a system that has benefited politicians in both political parties. No more revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street, no more hiding tax returns, no more benefitting from inside information affecting stock ownership… Here are some of the key provisions:

  • lifetime ban on lobbying for presidents, vice presidents, members of Congress, federal judges, and Cabinet secretaries.
  • Multi-year lobbying bans for federal employees (both Congressional staffers and employees of federal agencies). The span of time would be at least two years, and six years for corporate lobbyists.
  • Requiring the president and vice president to place assets that could present a conflict of interest —including real estate—in a blind trust and sell them off.
  • Requiring the IRS to release eight years’ worth of tax returns for all presidential and vice presidential candidates, as well as requiring them to release tax returns during each year in office. The IRS would also have to release two years’ worth of tax returns for members of Congress, and require them to release tax returns for each lawmaker’s year in office.
  • Banning members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries, federal judges, White House staff, senior congressional staff, and other officials from owning individual stocks while in office.
  • Changing the rulemaking process of federal agencies to severely restrict the ability of corporations or industry to delay or influence rulemaking.
  • Creating a new independent US Office of Public Integrity, which would enforce the nation’s ethics laws, and investigate any potential violations. The office would also try to strengthen open records laws, making records more easily accessible to the public and the press.

The Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act can be viewed as a companion, of sorts, to Warren’s  Accountable Capitalism Act, described in more detail in yesterday’s post.

Elizabeth Warren is often labeled “left-wing,” a description that says more about how tribal our politics has become than it does about her policy proposals. (Efforts to protect consumers from predatory business practices and the American public from corruption are neither Left or Right–unless you categorize upholding the rule of law as “Left.”)

Each of these measures goes to the heart of the problem being addressed; neither “nibbles” around the edges of systems that have outlived whatever utility they may once have had. Their virtue is that they “blow up” and replace systems that have become corrupted.

That virtue, of course, is also their fatal flaw, and why neither is likely to pass.

The Rich and the Rest

Recently, Paul Krugman considered the disconnect between Republican candidates who continue to attack Social Security and the overwhelming majorities of American citizens who support the program.

His explanation? It’s all about the big money.

Wealthy individuals have long played a disproportionate role in politics, but we’ve never seen anything like what’s happening now: domination of campaign finance, especially on the Republican side, by a tiny group of immensely wealthy donors. Indeed, more than half the funds raised by Republican candidates through June came from just 130 families.

And while most Americans love Social Security, the wealthy don’t. Two years ago a pioneering study of the policy preferences of the very wealthy found many contrasts with the views of the general public; as you might expect, the rich are politically different from you and me. But nowhere are they as different as they are on the matter of Social Security. By a very wide margin, ordinary Americans want to see Social Security expanded. But by an even wider margin, Americans in the top 1 percent want to see it cut.

The study Krugman references is fascinating–and deeply troubling.

Titled “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” it confirms the old adage that “the rich are different from the rest of us.” A few sentences from the abstract are instructive.

We report the results of a pilot study of the political views and activities of the top 1 percent or so of US wealth-holders. We find that they are extremely active politically and that they are much more conservative than the American public as a whole with respect to important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation,and especially social welfare programs. Variation within this wealthy group suggests that the top one-tenth of 1 percent of wealth-holders (people with $40 million or more in net worth) may tend to hold still more conservative views that are even more distinct
from those of the general public. We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for why certain public policies in the United States appear to deviate from what the majority of US citizens wants the government to do. If this is so, it raises serious issues for democratic theory.
Cliff’s Notes version: the minuscule number of obscenely rich donors who are financing Americans elections are intent upon “buying” their preferred policies. It doesn’t matter what American voters want or think. (And thanks to gerrymandering, in most districts, those voters cannot show their displeasure by “throwing the bums out.”)
And that is, indeed, a “serious issue” for democracy.

A Consensus that Doesn’t Seem to Matter

I don’t recall which American humorist first delivered the line, “I’m not a member of an organized political party; I’m a Democrat” but for many years, “disorganized” was one of the kinder descriptions of the Democratic party.

Contemporary Democrats remain ideologically diverse, but these days, the divisions are far deeper in the Republican party, where extremists elected to Congress from some 80 deep-red (often gerrymandered) districts are far, far to the Right of most Republican voters.

Just how much does this fringe depart from the policy preferences of the Republican rank-and-file?  If we are talking about issues of campaign finance reform, a recent poll strongly suggests the answer is “pretty far.

Americans of both parties fundamentally reject the regime of untrammeled money in elections made possible by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and other court decisions and now favor a sweeping overhaul of how political campaigns are financed, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

The findings reveal deep support among Republicans and Democrats alike for new measures to restrict the influence of wealthy givers, including limiting the amount of money that can be spent by “super PACs” and forcing more public disclosure on organizations now permitted to intervene in elections without disclosing the names of their donors.

And by a significant margin, they reject the argument that underpins close to four decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence on campaign finance: that political money is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. Even self-identified Republicans are evenly split on the question.

The poll confirms that most Americans–Republican and Democrat alike–reject the Court’s sunny conclusion that money does not corrupt the process or allow the wealthy to “buy” policies favorable to their interests.

The broader public appears to see things differently: More than four in five Americans say money plays too great a role in political campaigns, the poll found, while two-thirds say that the wealthy have more of a chance to influence the elections process than other Americans.

Those concerns — and the divide between Washington elites and the rest of the country — extend to Republicans.

Three-quarters of self-identified Republicans support requiring more disclosure by outside spending organizations, for example, but Republican leaders in Congress have blocked legislation to require more disclosure by political nonprofit groups, which do not reveal the names of their donors.

Republicans in the poll were almost as likely as Democrats to favor further restrictions on campaign donations, even as some prominent Republicans call for legislation to eliminate existing caps on contributions.

Perhaps if the more extreme partisans sent to Washington from safe, deep-red districts had to answer to more moderate–and more representative–Republican voters, their legislative behavior would be different.

Perhaps if a couple of the eminent scholars on the Court had ever run for or held political office, their lofty abstractions might be tempered with, and informed by, real-world experience.

And perhaps, if pigs could fly…..

MayDay

MayDay is a cry for help–an internationally-recognized distress symbol.

It’s also the name of a new–and very different– crowdsourced SuperPac to end all SuperPacs, intended to get money out of politics. MayDay is the brainchild of Lawrence Lessig. Most of us know of Lessig through Creative Commons, and his work to keep information free, but he has also had a longstanding concern about political corruption and the influence of money in politics. Here’s his bio:

Lawrence Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and founder of Rootstrikers, a network of activists leading the fight against government corruption. He has authored numerous books, including Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Our Congress — and a Plan to Stop It, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Free Culture, and Remix.

Lessig serves on the Board of Creative Commons, AXA Research Fund and iCommons.org, and on the Advisory Boards of the Sunlight Foundation and the Better Future Project. He is a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Association, and has received numerous awards, including the Free Software Foundation’s Freedom Award, Fastcase 50 Award and being named one of Scientific American’s Top 50 Visionaries.

Lessig holds a BA in economics and a BS in management from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in philosophy from Cambridge, and a JD from Yale. Prior to rejoining the Harvard faculty, Lessig was a professor at Stanford Law School, where he founded the school’s Center for Internet and Society, and at the University of Chicago. He clerked for Judge Richard Posner on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court.

This is not a lightweight, nor someone interested in gaining political celebrity. (He’s also not someone who can be labeled and dismissed as just another Leftist academic; he would hardly have clerked for Posner and Scalia if he were.) You can find  his video explanation of what MayDay is trying to do–the Plan to Get our Democracy Back–here, along with several other videos.  Early this month, MayDay passed the $5 million dollar mark and ceased fundraising for this cycle.

Will this plan work? Who knows? Lessig is the founder, and probably the best-known of the MayDay group, but several of the other participants listed on the website are equally impressive. I noted Trevor Potter–previously head of the FEC (not to mention the Colbert Report’s satirical SuperPac series)–and a number of younger entrepreneurs adept in social media.

I sent a few bucks. Couldn’t hurt.

I can’t remember a time when yelling “MayDay” seemed more appropriate…