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The Root of All Evil?

Many progressives assume that removing money (such as campaign donations from corporations) from politics will clean things up, but that is not necessarily so.

Consider India, where in 1967 prime minister Indira Gandhi outlawed corporate contributions to political campaigns. Unfortunately, this removed one of the few legal (and transparent) methods of financing political races. Instead, a network of corrupt patronage and favor-swapping from individual donors became established. For example, politicians started receiving massive kickbacks from defense and infrastructure contracts.

The law set public campaign contributions so low, that politicians turned to so-called “unaccounted” funds, which largely means money from criminals. In fact, many of the candidates are criminals themselves, who dole out their ill-gotten money in return for votes.

More than a third of the candidates in a recent election were facing criminal charges, including for murder, rape, kidnapping, and extortion. Many of these criminals win their elections. Of the 545 members of India’s lower house in Parliament, 162 have criminal charges against them.

Of course, India is not the US, but there is still a lesson here. I’m not sure if campaign finance reform will solve the problem, since people will always find ways to get around the law to get money. I think a better first step would be to allow unlimited donations (even from corporations), but enforce complete transparency.

All money used for political purposes, whether for political campaigns, political parties, or even just issue advocacy, should be publicly traceable to the donors. In addition, the Government Accounting Office should publish information for each bill, detailing who will benefit from the bill and how much money they have spent on political activities. It will be like race cars, which bear the stickers identifying their sponsors.

It may be impossible to eliminate money in politics, so the next best thing would be to make it transparent.



  1. How about this: we also finally limit how long campaigns can go on?

    All primaries must take place on the first Saturday of May, and no ad can legally be placed for an individual candidate prior to exactly 2 months before the primary day. (Caucuses can be started during the month prior to the first Saturday in may, but must be completed at the state level by that date).

    We keep the date for the national election, but make it illegal to advertise for any one candidate prior to two months before the election day.

    Ads for issues can still be done whenever, but no connection could be implicitly or explicitly drawn to any one candidate.

    Do that, make the money transparent, and the result might just be an intense, but controlled, election season with little time for the worst of the corruption.

    (Oh, and yes, this would forbid “campaigning” during those times when the ads are forbidden…which would give us the summer off during the election year and would stop this weirdness of starting the election campaigning over a year prior to the election date. This is only a thought, but it much create enough of a pressure cooker that some of the worst of the back-room deals just wouldn’t have the time to happen. Maybe. )

    Sunday, March 11, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink
  2. Iron Knee wrote:

    That’s a good idea, but I’m not sure if you could enforce it through regulations or laws. The problem is that the media benefits greatly from the long campaign seasons, making tons of money. I’m sure they would find a way around any such law.

    We are also seeing where some candidates run for office as a way to make money (and for ego gratification). In this category I would definitely include Donald Trump, although there are elements of this in Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and even Herman Cain.

    I think the only way to get shorter election seasons is to do what they do in most parliamentary countries, where there are no fixed terms. Instead, new elections happen when there is a vote of no confidence, or when the party in power thinks they have the best chance of winning an election (with a time limit). Elections are typically scheduled with only a few months advance warning, which leads to your desired short but intense campaigns.

    Sunday, March 11, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  3. David Chess wrote:

    In general I think campaign spending limits are, while well-intentioned, far to easily exploited by the very bad guys that they’re supposed to be reigning in. What it amounts to, after all, is giving the government (i.e. the incumbents) the power to regulate the money raised and used by candidates (including especially people who might want to challenge the incumbents). Leading to all sorts of fun crime and corruption and stuff.

    Transparency would imho be much better. On the other hand it does have its downsides; when things are bad, having to reveal that you’re giving money to reformers, for instance, could actually be dangerous!

    It’s a hard puzzle. The best solution is to have votes sufficiently well-informed that simply having lots of money doesn’t win you elections. But that’s hard!

    Sunday, March 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink
  4. Rhakka wrote:

    disagree. Agreed that you can never beat corruption entirely. However the answer is sufficient public financing and exposure to mount serious campaigns without corruption. Then the ‘good guys’ stand a chance.

    Imagine mandated airtime on public airwaves for candidates: no expenditure necessary. Sufficient funding for other outreach efforts. Well developed minimum standard “election web network” for informing the public where candidates can share their statements/videos… with fact checking/fraud protection built in.

    and fund accountability/investigative efforts to ensure compliance.

    perfect? no. but a lot better than just accepting that selling our campaigns to the highest bidder is the “best we can do”. countries all over the world do at least as well as we do with more control over campaign spending than we offer. They don’t equate money with “free speech”… they recognize that’s a ridiculous argument. Shouldn’t we?

    Sunday, March 11, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  5. JamesM wrote:

    You might look to the UK and other civilized nations. Required equal air time. Set limits on spending. Some governments provide a fixed amount of funds and you do it within that budget. Some think that would increase government spending but overall it would decrease the total amount a nation fritters away on silly arguments.

    What we have now has got to stop. It is way out of control.

    There are very few people who manage to get into a serious elected office in the USA without first being a millionaire, and they all seem to leave much richer. Fortuitous investments and opportunities seem to come there way more often than the man on the street.

    If tomorrow you wanted to be president you seriously don’t stand a chance, because you don’t already have serious money or ‘personal’ associates with very very deep pockets. ( I take it you not a friend of the Koch brothers)

    Until then we will be electing the ever more rich and powerful, who will help the laws and government favor the rich and powerful become evermore rich and powerful. The rest is just a dog and pony show for the boob tube.

    Sunday, March 11, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Permalink