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How to start solving the problem of money in politics

REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

In a recent article by Eric Black, he talks about the migration of donors from President Barack Obama to possible presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He ends with a weary observation:

In the corrupt world of big-time fund-raising the help of Priorities USA will bring plenty of potential conflicts of interest between the fund-raisers, donors and lobbyists.

I think there is a lot of disappointment on the left with how much money has flowed through the Obama presidency. And I don’t think fans of good government are at all pleased with how easy it is for businesses to influence how the rules are made. I’d like to offer some suggestions on how to do a better job of picking a presidential candidate to do some actual cleaning. 

Pick bipartisan rules

The first step is to pick out some simple, bipartisan good-government regulations.  Some suggestions:

  • One of the most effective ideas I’ve read is found here from Glenn Reynolds.  The basic idea is that government employees in policy positions would face additional taxes on earnings that are higher than what they earned while in government employ. The idea is to blunt the edge that lobbying groups and companies can gain by buying influence.
  • Perhaps there should be a rule where candidates for high office (House of Representatives, Senate, president and vice President) must make their taxes public each year. And maybe for some period prior to candidacy, like five or 10 years. We don’t elect people so that they can become rich in office. Let’s see what money they’re receiving.
  • There was some embarrassment recently when we learned that Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Norway knows next to nothing of the country. It seems he was picked more as a reward for fund-raising than for talent. This is a bipartisan tradition and it should be stopped. Maybe we’d be better off if the State Department sent annual lists of people who were qualified to be ambassadors.

These strike me as nonpartisan or at least not of any obvious partisan advantage over the long term. Maybe they don’t appeal to you, or you have different ideas. It almost doesn’t matter what is put out there as long as it’s a fairly straightforward, nonpartisan, ‘good government’ idea. Ideally, there would be at least three or four good bills put forth.  That’s step two.

Put them on record

Step three is the big one. Every presidential candidate should be on record regarding each plan. If it’s someone like Elizabeth Warren or Rand Paul, then we’ll have their votes. If it’s someone like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, then we need to make sure they’re asked and interviewed until we know where they stand. The best way to find someone who won’t use the presidency as a cash register is to find someone who will bind their own hands before they get there.

Yes, I can hear people out there muttering about Citizens United. I don’t think that the Citizens United decision has had much effect on letting big money into politics. Or in other words, people like Karl Rove would still be raising and using large amounts of money even if the Supreme Court had ruled the other way. In any case, the issue is contentious and those on the right don’t trust those on the left here. If you won’t act without overturning Citizens United, then you simply won’t be acting. 

The key is to find a plan that should appeal across the aisle. Candidates shouldn’t be able to dodge by saying that any such bill would only help the opposition. Good government measures are supported by people of all political stripes, and it shouldn’t be too hard to craft ways to fix things. 

Peder DeFor, of Minneapolis, writes the blog Peder D4. This commentary originally appeared on the blog.


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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/31/2014 - 09:18 am.

    “mother’s milk”

    With recent (and past, for that matter) history providing ample evidence that “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” I despair of ever really eliminating its influence on our electoral process. Citizens United is pernicious in this regard, but wealthy individuals and corporations determined to buy influence would surely find other ways to do so, even if the decision were reversed this afternoon.

    So, if getting money and its influence out of politics doesn’t seem possible, we should, at the very least, know who’s responsible for those checks flowing into political bank accounts. It can be called “transparency” if you like, or make up your own name (i.e., Godless Commie perversion), but a friend of mine, a former state governor, admitted to me once that “no one gives you a quarter million dollars for a campaign and expects nothing in return.” “Good government” is something that many who decide to go into politics admire in the abstract, but seem much less friendly toward once they’re in office.

    To that end, I can’t find anything seriously wrong with Peder’s three proposals. The devil, of course, would be in the details of implementing them.

    It is, in fact, a bipartisan tradition going far back into the 19th century that ambassadorships are essentially political plums, awarded to financial and political allies. I’m on board with at least some shred of ambassadorial credibility being established. Getting on the proposed State Department list would be something of a political high-wire act in itself, but there’s nothing wrong with sending the president a short list of 3 to 5 candidates deemed by foreign service professionals to at least have the potential to represent the United States and its interests satisfactorily in a foreign country.

    Making tax returns public would go a long way toward the transparency I mentioned earlier. Someone who’s spent a decade as a lobbyist for ‘x’ cause can’t be expected to be very even-handed when some proposal involving cause ‘x’ gets to her/his desk. Complaints about privacy have some legitimacy, but to me, at least, are superseded by the public’s right to know where a candidate’s income is coming from. I think of it as one of the tradeoffs a candidate must make if they want the perks and power that go with national (and even state-wide) office.

    I’m also on board with purposely placing a glitch in the infamous “revolving door” between government service and private reward. Limiting income would surely be challenged in court at some point, and might well be ruled unconstitutional, but even if that were the case, the publicity generated might be enough to have the corporate overlords and their minions have second thoughts. It might even be enough simply to require the sort of transparency mentioned above. I’ve seen little evidence of the old-fashioned concept of “conscience” evident in the corporate world in recent years, but who knows? Perhaps this would spark a revival.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/31/2014 - 09:22 am.

    A simpler rule

    I generally oppose any laws regarding campaign financing because I believe that any limits are a restriction on the citizenry’s right to free speech. However, there is one rule I could get behind.

    Limit all political contributions to the geographical area of that office.
    – Candidates for mayor can only receive contributions from the people of that city.
    – Candidates for congress can only receive contributions from residents of that district.
    – Candidates for governor or U.S. senator can only receive contributions from the people of that state.
    – Candidates for president can only receive contributions from U.S. residents. Obama allegedly received hundreds of millions of dollars from foreign sources in 2008.

    Anyone caught violating that rule would have to pay the money that was illegally collected to his opponent’s political party.

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