Friday, November 17, 2017

The Rent Motive of Campaign Funding

A little over a year ago, 60 minutes, reported that members of congress spend an average of 30 hours a week in a call center soliciting donors. The prospect of it seemed completely absurd to me. Our elected officials basically have a part time job as telemarketers on top of their neglected constitutional duties. Part of the problem is due to the fact that the 540 people that congregate on Capitol Hill are pulled from the upper echelons of society and don't reflect the SES composition of our nation. According to the Census Bureau, the median household income, as of 2015, is $55,775. Millionaires make up about 4% of the general population. In comparison, the majority of congressmen are millionaires who make a cushy 6 figure salary. People tend to sympathize more with those who are more like them than those who are less like them; that's basic human nature. So it's not hard to understand why a group of people who are well off and financially secure might have trouble sympathesizing with the average person who lives pay check to pay check with less than $1,000 in savings. The other part of the problem is that major donors, non-profits and for profits alike, aren't contributing to campaigns out of the kindness of their hearts; they expect a return on their contributions when their candidate wins. The norm of reciprocity - the universal social instinct to repay benefits with benefits and injuries with injuries governs interactions between people who aren't genetically related. The same instinct that allows us to form non-kin social organizations allows informal quid pro quo arrangements between politicians and their donors to flourish without necessarily becoming outright bribery. This unspoken and unwritten rule does not necessarily need to be acted on consciously. Behaviors that we are continually habituated to become second nature over time. Institutions that we have been familiar with since birth sink into the background and become entrenched in our thinking. For the same reason, we've come to accept some of the corruption in Washington; we've come to accept the party duopoly and along with it a government that plays favorites in the businesses world, enforces its laws selectively, and ignores its constitutional restraints. Breaking this vicious cycle requires altering the perverse incentives involved in running for office in the first place.

The first step toward changing the incentives for running for public office should be to change the source of funding for candidates. Ultimately, the myriad of PACs, SuperPACs, and other private fund raising organizations should be banned and replaced with one donor - the state or federal government- for each individual candidate running for any elected office, at each level. To keep every Tom, Dick, and Harry from running, we would apply the already existing 5% rule for federal funding. Each candidate that meets or exceeds this requirement, aside from the requirements enumerated in the constitution, would receive the same funding. A poll tax could be instated at either the state or federal level to generate the revenue necessary for elections at the state or federal level respectively. There are several perks to publicly funded elections. First, we would put the lower and middle class on even footing with billionaires like Tom Steyer, Jeff Bezos, George Soros, the Rockefellers, the Kochs etc. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that these people have more sway on Capitol Hill than your average Joe calling his senator's office every now and then. Second, if candidates don't have to worry about fundraising, they would have more time to work out their policy positions and instead of the constant barrage of attack ads, we might get more substantial policy orientated ads. Third, if officials didn't have to worry about raising money for re-election, they would have more time to do their jobs (term limits on members of congress would also reduce this incentive). Imagine if congressmen spent those 30 hours a week conducting the business of the U.S. instead of soliciting donors in party call centers. Fourth, putting all candidates on an even playing field would allow us to break the duopoly. Most people are not satisfied with having only two viable choices when they go to the polls. Having elections that are only publicly funded would allow third parties to gain a foothold in the electorate and eventually result in coalition governments in congress like what many European parliaments have. Imagine if the Republicans had to compromise with the Libertarians on defense spending in order to pass tax reform? Having third parties present in congress would go a long way to reducing the typical group think and would create resistance to the gradual erosion of our civil liberties (the Libertarian and Green Party are pretty solid on these issue). Fifth, without having SuperPACs that can spend an indefinite amount on ads, elections would be far cheaper. Public funding for individual campaigns would allow us to set expenditure limits on candidates.

Given the Supreme court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo and Citizen's United v FEC, a constitutional amendment would be needed for exclusive public funding of elections for both state and federal offices.

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