Some thoughts on lobbying and campaign finance

The Occupy Movement generally seems to be opposed to crony corporatism, and of course so am I.  So suppose we can sweep the nation in a fiery populist movement and get something done — how precisely would we get rid of cronyism?

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to suggest that the Occupy Movement sees the problem as super-rich individuals and large corporations using their vast wealth to buy access to politicians and legislators, if not to bribe them outright.  It seems to follow that restricting the flow of money from private actors to legislators (and candidates) ought to fix the problem.  This line of reasoning gives us campaign finance reform, and if CFR has worked it would seem to indicate that similar rules should apply to sitting legislators.

There’s just one problem….

[C]ampaign finance reform, to a very large extent, simply hasn’t worked. That is, every time a government tries to enact a specific contribution or spending limit to reduce the amount of money in elections (FECA, BCRA, you name it), innovative donors and candidates figure out ways around it. […] This is part of the reason that, despite decades of campaign finance reform, the amount spent in campaigns continues to rise, much faster than inflation.

What’s more, all this regulation has a price. If you want to know who contributed to the campaign of a president or a senator or a state legislator, it’s not as easy to figure it out as it used to be. All these webs of committees that have cropped up to get around campaign finance limits end up obscuring the path of the money. […] Who’s backing a candidate? It’s almost impossible to tell nowadays.

The end result is that these reforms designed to reduce the role of money in campaigns not only don’t end up reducing the role of money in campaigns, but they actually reduce accountability and transparency.

(Emphasis added.)

This is why I’m utterly indifferent to the zOMG teh corporate! consequences of the Citizens United ruling, among other things of that ilk.  There are just too many ways for folks with money to get to folks with power, and the more hoops we make the former jump through the harder it gets for less-wealthy people to make their voices heard.  Campaign finance rules, intended to be progressive tools to limit the influence of the wealthy upon the powerful, end up being regressive.

Now, you might object to all this “empiricism”, with its “observations” and “conclusions drawn from data”, and suggest that (like communism) the problem with campaign finance reform is that we just haven’t figured out how to do it right.  If enough sufficiently bright minds — you and your drinking buddies, say — put in the effort and figured it out, they could craft a bulletproof campaign finance control system that would prevent the wealthy from taking over politics.  Let’s be uncommonly charitable and suppose that this is actually true.

Brandon Berg, in comments over at the League, points out why even this can’t work:

If a lobbyist [represents] Acme Corporation, a firm which employs 50,000 workers in a particular representative’s district, that representative is going to listen to what he has to say. And if the lobbyist says that Acme could hire another 10,000 workers if the government could just help them out a bit with expanding the plant, then that representative’s going to listen, because those 10,000 jobs are going to help him get reelected.

This is corruption in the sense that it’s a corruption of the legislative process. And it leads to bad policy, because politicians aren’t qualified to be picking winners and losers. But there’s no bribery. It’s all on the up-and-up. The representative isn’t even going to keep quiet about it—he’s going to brag about it in his campaign speeches. And so populism becomes the handmaiden of corruption.

Legislators have a lot of power, and that gives those affected by that power plenty of incentive to try to capture it.  Legislators also respond to incentives — like looking good and getting reelected, but also the usual things like comfort, sex, and money — which means that they can be influenced in how they use their power.  CFR proponents and the Occupy Movement want to restrict the incentives that the wealthy and powerful can offer to legislators, which might work if the restrictions actually do what they’re supposed to and if those wealthy and powerful don’t find ways to offer other incentives.

The perceptive reader will not be surprised to discover that I’d prefer to reduce the legislators’ power, lowering the stakes.


2 Responses to “Some thoughts on lobbying and campaign finance”

  1. 1 perlhaqr
    November 3, 2011 at 07:51

    Yeah, I’m not quite sure why (other, perhaps, than a sheer love of government power) it is nearly goddamn impossible to convince folks of a lefty stripe that the solution to rich people buying government power isn’t to limit how much they can spend, but rather to eliminate what they’re trying to buy.

    Given the existence of the Well of Nigh Infinite Power that government represents these days, of course people are going to try to control it. No amount of legislating will alter that basic human behaviour. But if you eliminate the source of temptation, people will stop seeking it.

    • 2 perlhaqr
      November 3, 2011 at 07:55

      Actually, now that I say that, I wonder if it’s not true instead of merely snarky. Leftists and I are operating from significantly different positions. (Well, rightists and I, too.) Lefties and righties don’t want to eliminate government power, they just want it to be controlled by the “correct” people. I want to get rid of it.

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