Module 4: Answering the Critics

By Joan Mandle, Democracy Matters

 

1. NOT WITH MY TAXES, YOU DON’T.

 

Many people are concerned that public financing will raise taxes. But taxpayers actually save money if politicians were not funded by special interests in return for tax breaks, special favors, and government bailouts. Only public financing can ensure that tax dollars are spent in the interests of all the people, not wasted in order to pay back campaign contributors.

 

It is estimated that public financing would cost less than $10 a year for each taxpayer in the United States. It would mean that politicians would be working for all the people, not just those who fund their campaigns. Ten dollars a year seems little to pay in order to ensure a true democracy, where everyone has an equal say in the votes cast by elected officials.

 

2. I DON’T WANT TO SUPPORT CORRUPT POLITICIANS OR HATE SPEECH.

 

Public financing will support all eligible and serious candidates. Criteria are set to make sure that candidates with no real support cannot qualify for public funds. However, all serious candidates would have an equal chance to qualify for public financing, regardless of their views. This is real democracy at work – everyone has an equal chance to air their opinions, as well as to object to the views of others.

 

Voters in this system will have a real choice among a wide diversity of candidates. If a politician is corrupt or uses hate speech or has loathsome views, challengers supported by public financing will be able to communicate this information to the voters. Right now these folks can run as long as they have money. Public financing facilitates an electoral process with more information and more choice of candidates. Together these create a strong democracy.

 

3. NO ONE CARES ABOUT CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM.

Polls consistently indicate that a large majority of the American people believes that there is much too much private money in politics, that politicians’ decisions are influenced by campaign contributions, and that we need campaign finance reform. Polls show that these citizens are strongly against the Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon that dramatically increased the political power of corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. Large majorities of Americans are in favor of both public financing of election campaigns and Amendments to the Constitution.

4. I WON’T SUPPORT WASTEFUL SPENDING.

The best way to rid our government of wasteful spending is to eliminate the dependence of politicians on wealthy donors and special interests who want a pay-back for their support of campaigns. This is the heart of the corruption that regularly returns incumbents to office because they have a huge fund-raising advantage over challengers. Typically 95%-99% of Congressional incumbents are re-elected. The average House of Representatives incumbent typically outspends their challengers by 4 to 1, while Senate incumbents outspend opponents 5-1. Challengers really don’t have a chance since the vast majority of races are won by whoever spends the most money! With public financing, the playing field is more even among candidates, and when publicly financed candidates are elected our tax dollars can go where they belong – to public needs rather to pay back monied interests. That’s the real source of waste.

 

5. THE RICH WILL ALWAYS PREVAIL BY OUTSPENDING EVERYONE.

 

The system of public financing is voluntary. A candidate who refuses to take public funds and abide by spending limits can raise and spend as much as he or she wants to. However, public financing offers other candidates the chance to get their message out to the public to win support. After a certain point, additional spending does not mean as much. In addition, publicly funded candidates can and should point out that unlike those dependent on private funding, if elected they will be beholden to all the people and not just to big campaign funders. Maine and Arizona have shown that publicly financed candidates can be elected even if outspent.  

 

6. THIS HAS NEVER WORKED BEFORE.

 

Systems of partial public financing have been part of our political process for a long time: in a dozen states, candidates for office can receive matching public funds. This is also the case in such cities as Los Angeles, New York, Oakland CA, Boulder CO, and Tucson AZ. Decades worth of experience has shown that public financing enhances the democratic nature of election campaigns. In almost all democratic countries other than the United States, including Canada, Australia, France, and Germany, extensive systems of public financing are in place. And in Maine, New Mexico, North Carolina, Vermont, and Arizona full public financing schemes – Clean Money – have recently been instituted. In all these places, public financing has worked, creating more competitive elections, more diverse candidates, and real choices for voters.

 

7. I AM TOO BUSY WORKING TO PROTECT THE ENVIRONMENT, FOR WOMEN’S AND CIVIL RIGHTS, FOR HEALTH CARE, OR GLOBAL JUSTICE.

 

The growing power of wealth to ‘buy’ our candidates and elections affects ALL the issues mentioned above and hundreds of others as well. Public financing is the reform that allows all other reforms to be accomplished. It ensures that elected officials are responsive to the majority of the electorate rather than to the tiny proportion that funds their campaigns. By providing public funding for campaigns of those who care about the environment, about heath care, about America’s role in the world, and about civil rights, we will get legislatures willing to vote in the reforms that the majority of Americans support.

 

8. IT’S UNCONSTITUTIONAL.

 

The courts, including the Supreme Court in its Buckley v Valeo decision, have consistently expressed concern about reforms that would limit the amount of contributions to or spending in campaigns. Even the courts, including the Supreme Court, have declared public financing constitutional. They have done so primarily because of free speech considerations – the argument that to constrain contributions or spending would limit the political discourse.

 

Public financing does just the opposite. It allows for more political speech by a larger and more diverse group of candidates. In that sense, it enhances free speech by providing more individuals an opportunity to get their political message out to the public and perhaps be elected to office as a result. With the fair funding that public financing represents, not only those who can call on wealthy special interests to fund their campaigns can speak, but anyone who is a serious candidate. Rather than limiting it, public financing broadens the political dialogue and in this way enhances democracy.

 

9. HOW DO I CHOOSE AMONG DIFFERENT REFORMS?
Disclosure laws that seek to make public the names of those contributing big money are of course important. However, the fact is that we already know a great deal — thanks to www.opensecrets.org and others — about who contributes how much. Unfortunately, that does not in any way discourage big donors from their efforts to influence politics with their wealth. So disclosure laws do little to curb the impact of political spending.

Many reform advocates are working on ways to curb the dominating power of big political money. Many are seeking a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the Supreme Court decision as well as declaring that corporations are not people. These are worthy efforts which Democracy Matters supports.

However, passing a Constitutional Amendment is an extremely difficult task that at best will take at least a decade. That is not meant to discourage the effort, but even if we can overturn Citizens United, we are left with the initial devastating effect of direct money to candidates. Activism for an Amendment is a long term strategy which requires not only passage by Congress but ratification by 2/3 of the states. Public financing of election campaigns is a shorter term goal that can bring immediate change with the passage of a law at the state or local or even Congressional level. It would enable anyone to run for office – not just the wealthy. WE NEED BOTH!! Only with a broad grassroots movement pushing legislators for both public financing and a Constitutional Amendment will we be able to curb the power of big money to control our legislation and our lives.

10. THE PRESIDENTIAL PUBLIC FINANCING SYSTEM IS BROKEN

 

The Presidential public financing system was created in 1976 as part of Federal Election Campaign Act. It was thought that the Presidential race was so important that candidacies should not have to depend on wealth or the ability to raise large sums of money. In addition there was concern that constant increases in campaign spending were spiraling out of control. The Congress voted that candidates could opt to limit their spending and in turn receive public financing – partial matching funds in the primary and full funding in the general election. Every candidate for President since then participated in this public financing system until 2000, when George Bush refused public matching funds in the primary in favor raising private funds for his campaign. And in fact, he raised more and spent more than the limits for publicly financed candidates. In 2004, not only has George Bush refused public financing, but in response, so too have some Democratic candidates.                

 

However, the breakdown of the Presidential public financing system does not mean that public financing can’t work. What it shows is that we need a better system of public financing — like the one that is working so well in Arizona and Maine — full public financing of elections. The 2000 elections in Maine resulted in 71% of the state Senators and 50% of the Maine Assembly being publicly financed politicians. In 2002, the first fully publicly financed Governor of a state, Janet Napolitano, won in Arizona, and in addition publicly financed candidates made up 34% of the state legislature.

 

The lesson is that if you are a good candidate in a well-structured public financing system, you can defeat privately funded candidates and open up the election system to anyone who is a serious candidate – regardless of their wealth. The Presidential public financing system needs to be saved by providing generous public funding to candidates.

 

11. PRIVATELY FINANCED ELECTIONS DON’T COST TAXPAYERS ANYTHING.

 

The actual cost of today’s system of privately funded elections may not come from tax money but the consequences of this system are costing taxpayers millions of dollars. These consequences include myriad tax breaks, subsidies, regulatory exemptions, bail-outs and other favors that elected officials regularly perform for their financial backers. As Public Campaign reported: “Every year, the average American taxpayer shells out more than $1000 in federal income taxes so the government can keep some very important taxpayers on welfare. Those taxpayers are better known as corporations, and according to a trenchant series in Time magazine by investigative reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele, a privileged group of well-connected and savvy businesses milk $125 billion a year out of the U.S. Treasury in grants, subsidies, low-interest loans, tax credits, exemptions, deductions and deferrals. “

 

12. SPECIAL INTERESTS BALANCE EACH OTHER OUT.

 

There is a vast array of “special interests” who try to influence legislation. But some are more powerful than others. We know that while the specific amounts change each elections cycle, pro-energy interests out spend environmental advocates by as much as 50 to 1; opponents of gun control outspend gun control advocates by at least 25 to 1; business supporters outspend labor contributions by at least 10 to 1. And the largest contributors in recent years have been consistently those associated with the financial, real estate, and insurance sector of the economy — dwarfing the amounts given by any other groups.

 

13. MONEY ONLY BUYS ACCESS – NOT VOTES

 

“Senators and representatives, faced constantly with the need to raise ever more money   to fuel their campaigns, can scarcely avoid weighing every decision against the question ‘How will this affect my fundraising prospects?’ rather than ‘How will this affect the national interest?’” former US Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona)

 

“What goes on every day in Sacramento is that the same lobbyist comes in, and on Monday he talks to you about how he’s arranging for a campaign contribution from a client. And on Tuesday he comes back and asks you to vote on a piece of legislation for that same client.” former State Senator Alan Robbins (D-California)

 

“The payoff may be as obvious and overt as a floor vote in favor of a contributors’ desired tax loophole or appropriation. Or it may be subtle…a floor speech not delivered…a bill pigeon-holed in subcommittee…an amendment not offered, or a private conversation with four or five key colleagues in the privacy of the cloakroom.” former US Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin)

 

14. CONTRIBUTING MONEY IS AN IMPORTANT WAY TO PARTICIPATE  

 

Making sure that citizens participate in a democracy is important, but it is just as important to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate. That’s why each citizen has one and only one vote. But because wealth is so unequally distributed in the United States, not everyone has an equal opportunity to participate by contributing funds to candidates. In fact, in our privately funded campaign system, contributing to campaigns violates the ideal of equality in a democracy, for only those with money can spend the maximum and have the maximum influence. In fact, less that 1/10th of 1% of citizens contributes significantly (more than $200) to any political candidate at any level. That means those people and interests use their wealth to have greater influence – to participate more, while others are silenced by the lack of wealth.

 

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These data, examples, and much much more can be found easily on the web. Consult the following websites for more up-to-date information on money and politics:

 

www.democracymatters.org   For “Money on My Mind” – monthly original commentary and information. 

www.publicampaign.org

www.opensecrets.org

www.followthemoney.org

 

 

Next – Module #5: Organizing a Core Group

Back – Module #3: Solutions – Clean Money Clean Elections

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