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The Limits of Good Government

Getting the money out of politics won't solve all of our problems

By Dylan R. Matthews

The most interesting result of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court case that struck down limitations on corporate political advertising, may not be the growth in corporate political action it spurs. Indeed, it is unclear that such growth would even occur. Before Citizens United, corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money on ads blaring, “Candidate X is an immoral, incompetent liar.” Because of Citizens United, those ads can now say, “Candidate X is an immoral, incompetent liar. Vote against him.” The difference is real, but not transformational.

The more important consequence of the decision has been a remarkably vibrant discussion of how best to get money out of politics. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig has called for a constitutional amendment reversing the decision combined with public financing of elections. Congressman Chris Van Hollen and Senator Chuck Schumer have proposed requiring corporations to subject all political spending to a shareholder vote, which would presumably cause such spending to grind to a halt. Yale professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres suggest denying federal contracts to corporations that engage in political spending, and Ackerman and Congressman David Wu have formulated a bill giving $50 campaign contribution vouchers to every taxpayer to balance out corporate influence.

These proposals’ prospects vary widely. Both of Lessig’s are subject to supermajority requirements in the Senate–67 votes for an amendment, and 60 to break a filibuster on public financing–where minority leader Mitch McConnell has been a staunch opponent of all campaign finance reform efforts, and so chances are dim. Same for Ackerman and Wu’s bill, the cost of which should alienate swing Republicans. Van Hollen and Schumer’s and Ackerman and Ayres’ more modest suggestions could attract more support, though it’s always safer to bet that Congress will find an excuse not to act. But all are worthy, and all would shrink the influence of money in politics more than Citizens United grew it.

The question is whether they’re enough. Experts have for years tried and failed to prove a relationship between the strength of campaign finance laws and levels of corruption and public trust in government. Some of this is no doubt due to the subtleties of how money infiltrates the political process. Outright corruption, though real, is less common than implicit quid pro quos or even looser expectations of reciprocity. However, if the bills have failed to reduce corruption, which is easier to study and identify, how likely is it that they have significantly clamped down on means of influence that are harder to pin down? Especially given the amount of effort campaigns and their donors have spent finding loopholes in even the most comprehensive campaign finance reforms, it is not unreasonable to conclude that merely limiting the influx of cash does not stop it from dominating the process.

It may be time, then, to stop money from entering at a different point in the process. As its name suggests, campaign finance reform is premised on the notion that legislators’ actions are largely influenced by who donates to their reelection committees. This is true, but not the whole story. Another equally troubling entry point for corporate influence is in the lawmaking process itself. Interested parties do not merely participate by donating to campaign committees. They hire lobbyists to argue their case with Congress by session. These lobbyists do not convince just due to force of their arguments. Sometimes, yes, they offer help with reelection or threaten to back a challenger. Other times, they provide information other sources cannot and become an asset to Congressional offices.

Lobbyists’ most important means of influence, however, is personal. Lobbying firms and organizations are overwhelmingly composed of former House and Senate staffers of both parties and even former Congressmen and Senators. Take the health care debate as an example. The Senate health care bill was largely the baby of Senator Max Baucus, who, as Finance Committee chairman, had jurisdiction over the issue. Health industry interests, including pharmaceutical and insurance companies, hired a total of seven former Baucus aides to lobby him, including at least two of his former chiefs of staff. In total, the Washington Post counted at least 51 former staffers connected to the Finance Committee working as health care lobbyists. It is one thing for the committee’s members to take the industry’s money and vote against them. It is another for them to talk to close friends and colleagues and proceed to reject them.

Limiting this phenomenon, perhaps by banning staffers from registering as lobbyists until their member has left Congress, has not been tried, and I cannot predict its effectiveness. But with campaign-based reform faltering, a new method is needed to prevent corporate cash from further eroding our democracy.

Dylan R. Matthews '12, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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