Campaign contributions are as seductive as personal gifts to those in power; federal government should look to states for reform
by Chuck Hassebrook, Center for Rural Affairs, email@example.com
Washington is once again awash in scandal and talk of reform over free gifts from lobbyists.
But no reform will reduce the excessive influence of money in politics unless it reduces the dependence of both political parties on moneyed interests and personal wealth to finance campaigns.
The current debate seems to assume that acceptance of personal gifts from lobbyists is more corrupting than the way campaigns are legally financed. But is it?
Most individuals elected to high office are more interested in securing power than personal wealth. There are better ways to make money. They have chosen to pursue power – whether for its own sake or to do good. Given that reality, most elected officials can be seduced at least as well by campaign cash as personal gifts.
Policymakers frequently take positions or avoid stands based on their impact on campaign fund raising. Weeks ago, the staff of an elected official acknowledged to me the enormous popularity of Nebraska’s anti corporate farm law – Initiative 300 – but said they would not take a stand because it would hurt campaign fund raising.
It’s affecting each of us. Campaign contributions are having a profound influence on a wide range of policies from regulation of meatpackers to drug companies.
We’ve almost come to accept what should be profoundly troubling. But we cannot accept it. For the democratic process to have integrity, it must be responsive to all citizens, regardless of their capacity to write large checks.
No less important, elected office must be reasonably open to qualified citizens dedicated to public service. But today, many who would provide excellent representation for ordinary Americans would not even think of running because they cannot raise and do not have the money.
The use of personal wealth in campaigns has equally troubling effects. It puts ordinary citizens at a disadvantage in running for office and has left us with a U.S. Senate of millionaires.
Furthermore, elected officials fear the wealthy in their districts because they know their next credible opponent will most likely come from their ranks. Most ordinary citizens don’t pose that threat.
The most promising models for taming the excessive influence of money are in the states. In Nebraska, candidates who agree to abide by voluntary limits get matching funds if their opponents exceed them. The law needs fine-tuning to allow more effective enforcement and to provide matching funds when independent groups campaign against a candidate who abides by the limits.
Most people who run for office want to do good and serve their neighbors and country well. But the campaign finance system often pushes them in the wrong direction. If we want democracy to work well for all Americans, we have to fix it.
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Center for Rural Affairs
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