In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed in his State of the Union Address that “the need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish if Congress provided an appropriation for the proper and legitimate expenses of each of the great national parties.” Nearly 112 years ago, upstanding politicians like President Roosevelt feared the corrupting nature that lobbyists were having over the political process.
Lobbyists, working on behalf of big donors, funnel money into the political system, creating a sense of indirect manipulation over our elections and our legislature. Lobbyists who come out on the other side are disgusted with the insider Washington politics. Mandating public financing of elections and ridding our politics of lobbying would safeguard us from donors shaping the outcome of our elections.
America touts itself as a great nation, a beacon of democracy. A great nation, however, shouldn’t stand idly by while its government is being run by a corporatist system. A great nation loses a piece of its integrity when it lets a conjunction of elite powers blueprint our nation’s legislative agenda. Public campaign financing will place honest candidates and their elections on a level playing field, shifting American politics away from corporatism and closer towards serving the political interests of the individual.
Lobbyists in this country shape the outcome of elections, while politicians have become reliant upon these political mercenaries as sources of campaign money. This campaign money is funneled in primarily by corporations, trade groups and non-profit organizations, who shape legislation as they see fit. But these corporations and groups aren’t just campaigning on behalf of candidates; in 2011 the International Conservative Caucus Foundation (ICCF) doled out $100,000 to send four congressmen on an African safari with their families, yet interestingly enough there was enough time to make a slight detour to a Volkswagen factory. Spoiler alert: Volkswagen is a major donor to the ICCF.
Those who have quit the industry further attest to the graft saturating the American political establishment. Jimmy Williams, a former lobbyist, told of his experiences with the system in a 2018 Vox article. Williams recalled, “I was a lobbyist between 2003 and 2010 in Washington, DC. I quit in disgust. Years of legalized bribery had exposed me to the worst elements of our country’s political workings. Not even my half-million-a-year salary could outweigh my conscience. In my years as a lobbyist, I worked for the alcohol industry, for the racing car industry, I met with hundreds of Congress members.”
Individual people giving money to candidates who represent their values is not inherently wrong. But that’s not how our political system works. Individuals confer directly with candidates to influence their platforms, sometimes making backdoor deals which go against promises these candidates have made to their constituents. In 2014, Congressman Duncan Hunter hosted a luxurious weekend retreat at Montage Laguna Beach resort while Senator Ben Cardin hosted a golf weekend at The Inn at Perry Cabin later that same year, inviting other legislators to join in the festivities. Unsurprisingly, these events were paid for by political action committees.
One major way in which lobbying efforts negatively affect our political system is the way that it stacks the deck against small business owners. Small business owners don’t have armies of lobbyist lawyers maneuvering them around the tax codes. Small business owners can’t influence copyright laws to extend intellectual property ownership. Small business owners can’t slide past minimum wage laws, state licensing requirements, safety and health acts, and FDA regulations. Their political clout just doesn’t extend that far. Public campaign financing doesn’t just mean a level playing field for political candidates, it means a level playing field in an American economy whose government is too often picking winners and losers, and showing favoritism. Through public campaign financing we can make positive reforms in our election system and our economy, bringing honesty and fairness to the public and the private sector.
Fortunately, there are ways to change this corrupt system. Public campaign financing has been introduced in a number of states, including Arizona, Connecticut and Florida. Unfortunately, these public campaign financing programs are inherently flawed and they don’t go far enough. Firstly, these states can’t require candidates to use public funding so candidates who use these programs might find themselves at a disadvantage against candidates raising funds from private donors. Secondly, individual states only allocate these programs to certain types of campaigns. For example, Arizona allocates public campaign funding options for governor and state legislative races but not state supreme court races.
Those who defend unlimited campaign spending tend to argue that to place limitations on campaign donations is unconstitutional, and that outlawing private donations would be infringing upon an individual’s rights. Any free citizen of this country should, as they argue, be allowed to spend their own money how they so choose. In 2009, the supreme court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.
There are plenty of other ways, however, in which the purchasing power of Americans is limited. Any regulations limiting or outlawing certain substances or weapons, for example, represent a form of telling Americans how they are allowed to spend their money. These items are ostensibly regulated in the interest of public safety (ie., firearms, narcotics, offensive clothing, etc.), but, arguably, campaign spending should fall into a similar category. The fact that a select few people are allowed to funnel money into politics and silence the voices of millions of voters ultimately also represents a threat to civil rights and should be limited. In the same way that people don’t want drugs pouring into their communities, I don’t want money pouring into my politics.
A democracy is not a democracy if the true power lies with a small elite class of wealthy oligarchs who use their money to control our politicians on puppet strings. This republic was, sadly, founded on the basis that only white male landowners would be taking part in political process; it would be a sad thought to think that America’s politics have not progressed since.