Last week, President Barack Obama participated in an online chat via the social media service Reddit. In the chat he discussed the corrupting influence of big-money campaign donations, especially those by undisclosed Super-PACs. Whatever else one might say about the president, he is absolutely right to vilify this aspect of our current campaign finance system.
While a bit lengthy, Obama’s remarks on the matter bear full quotation:
"Money has always been a factor in politics, but we are seeing something new in the no-holds barred flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs; they fundamentally threaten to overwhelm the political process over the long run and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress - to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who.
"We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change."
There is no dimension of American government more cancerous than campaign finance. Add the veil of secrecy permitted under current rules, and we should expect no good end. Given the protracted budget stalemate in Congress, that end is nigh. Only through a wholesale, system-wide redrafting of campaign finance laws can we rescue our government from the poison now coursing through the veins of Congress.
In an ideal world, corporations would not have the same right to protected political speech that individuals enjoy. Further, in that ideal world, corporations would be altogether banned from making political contributions.
If we honor the value of "one man, one vote," we can no longer permit the undue influence of corporate lobbyists, Super-PACs and robber barons.
We need strict new limits on the amount any one person can contribute.
That said, an individual should be free to give to as many candidates as they choose and to whichever parties, initiatives or efforts they choose to support. Here too, we need limits. The man with $1 billion has no more right to dictate the will of the government than does the man who is homeless. Under current lopsided laws, elections have become commoditized. Gold, rather than rationality, dictates public policy.
What’s worse, the corruption of campaign contributions undercuts the moral and ethical authority of any vote a politician casts.
Take for example the outgoing "Blue Dog" Democrat, Rep. Mike Ross, from my home district (Arkansas’ 4th District). During the health care debate, Ross continually framed his opposition to health care reform in terms of ideological principle. That argument might have held water save for the fact that Ross had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from various segments of the health care industry.
Accordingly, any ideological claim that he may assert lacks face validity. Even if he really does base his stand in principle, the money makes him look bought-and-sold by the health care industry.
Why would any real "leader" want to inhabit such a place. Wouldn’t it make far more sense if all contributions were limited to small amounts or better yet, placed in blind trusts or aggregated into pools? In this way, whatever a candidate’s position on a given issue, they can lay a better claim to it as a product of rational deliberation, rather than blood money.
Not that they necessarily serve as model for much, but the rap group Wu-Tang Clan said it best: "Cash rules everything around me …"
With that in mind, unless we’re comfortable allowing our politicians to financially comport themselves like drug dealers, street hustlers and pimps, maybe we should hold them to a higher standard.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org