Monday, January 05, 2009

Patriot Bucks

Well, the New Year has rolled in, and the New Administration is on the way (fifteen days and counting). Now's a good time to take a good look at what the November elections wound up costing us. According to this Los Angeles Times' op-ed piece, the total contributed to all of the campaigns in the federal election exceeded $6 billion dollars. That, to use the lingo of the article, is a lot of doughnuts.

Written by "recently retired" political fundraisers Pamela Finmark and William D. Chalmers, the column is an interesting look into the activities and motivations of the fundraisers and the donors they obviously prefer. Embedded in the piece is the fact that these fundraisers get 10% of what they bring in, so the motivation is pretty clear. That they don't spend hours chasing $250 donors when they can spend a single hour with a bundler who will bring in thousands certainly makes sense. While the internet facilitated the raising of funds from us lower level donors, the authors point out that all this did was add to the totals, not change the system one bit.

As a result, we and our clients ended up spending a lot of face time with major donors ("Mojo's"): Wall Street investment bankers, real estate developers, CEOs, trial lawyers, union bosses, oil company executives, Hollywood celebrities, PAC board members and K Street lobbyists. America the plutocracy.

Pretty sad, that. It means that the access will still be wider for the "Mojo's" than for the rest of us, even though we elected a lot more Democrats. So, what's the answer? Now that they're retired, Finmark and Chalmers suggest a possible way out of the "buy a politician" system we currently have:

The best solution we have heard of is called the "patriot dollars" plan, put forth by Yale law professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres. Basically, it eliminates all hard contributions to candidates. Period. Instead, each voter is given a $50 ATM card so that he or she can literally vote with their dollars and contribute their $50, in part or in whole, to their choice of federal candidates. Simple enough. Let's do the math. We spend about $5 billion to $6 billion collectively on all federal elections. If the approximately 131 million who voted in November also had voted with $50 worth of patriot bucks, the donations would have equaled -- surprise -- $6.5 billion! That money would cover presidential, Senate and congressional races.

That would put us political consultants, err, fundraisers, out of a job, and quickly and simply revolutionize the gridlocked political system. Think of it: A level playing field where candidates actually would have to listen to their real voting constituents versus only listening to their wealthy donors, lobbyist friends and corporate givers.

I suspect a lot of howls of protest over such a plan, the loudest having to do with the cost involved. $6.5 billion is, after all, a lot of doughnuts to be coming from the federal budget. I would simply point out that at least that much money, and probably much more, could be saved by cutting out the the money that has flowed from congress critters to their donors in thank-you legislation. Furthermore, if those same congress critters didn't have to spend so much time continuing to dial for dollars after they were elected in anticipation of the next election, a lot more of the people's work might actually get done.

Overall, I think the proposal is a sensible one, and one that ought to be seriously considered. It just has to be superior to the system we currently have.

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Blogger nihil obstet said...

Eliminating the power of the rich to give money to candidates would probably run afoul of the Supreme Court's ruling that money is speech. Like the internet contributions, I think this would just add money to the campaigns.

My pet reforms are, first, to outlaw giving funds directly to candidates. All funds must be contributed through an agency that protects the identity of the giver. If you want to give scads and scads of money to a candidate, you can, but he or she would have to take your word that you actually did put in the contribution. Just watching the games that would result would be enormous entertainment, as everybody claims to have contributed lots of money to candidates. All bundlers could do would be to hand out forms for contribution, not handle the contribution itself.

And the second reform would be to require broadcast stations as a condition of their licenses to provide free air time to candidates. That would cut the worst of the costs of campaigning. My preference would be that each station provide ad vouchers equal to a percentage of their net income that can be used as ad buys without discrimination (in other words, the stations can't charge the candidates more than commercial businesses, as they frequently do now). The candidates can use the vouchers as they wish -- lots of 15 second ads or put it into an hour infomercial, primetime or off hours.

9:13 AM  

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