Friday, September 30, 2011

A Specific Proposal for the Occupy Wall Street Protest: A True Campaign Finance Fix

Much has been said about the Occupy Wall Street protests lacking specific goals or proposals. Politically speaking, one of the fundamental problems is the out of control influence of money in our political system. Whether it's hedge fund managers or wall street firm barons or large corporations, it all comes down to the price of access. More crudely stated: most if not all of our elected officials are "bought." To be sure, it's not always corrupt or nefarious. Running a campaign costs money...a lot of it…Democrat, Republican whatever. And that system forces our elected officials to spend a larger and larger proportion of their time with their hands out. And the donors expect, and get, access for their giving. The result is the average American ends up having FAR less than average access. When Joe Schmo calls his Congressmen, will he get a personal call back? Or will it be the fund manager who bundled millions of dollars of contributions on Wall Street that year? Or maybe it will be his company's lobbyist who gets a personal lunch date that week. But it's the 99% that are left in the cold.

I came up against this first-hand when I ran for New Jersey State Senate in 2003. My solution was to accept no contributions larger than $100 so that the playing field was equal among all donors. But in the end I wound up hurting myself with an under-funded campaign. I stuck to my guns for the principle of the thing and maybe today with a more developed internet-savvy population things would be different. But forcing principled candidates into under-funded Quixotic campaigns just yields victories for the monied candidates and access to the 1%.

Of course public financing is the way to go. In the 1980 Presidential race Carter and Reagan took no private money: the entire campaign was publicly financed. But it's just not as simple as that debate anymore. The Supreme Court has established that political campaign contributions are the same as protected First Amendment speech. The First Amendment is first for a reason. If that interpretation persists, we're not going to see a change in private contributions anytime soon.

So the question becomes: how can we address the problem but not run afoul of the First Amendment implications? Answer: a federal clearing house for campaign contributions. Run it under the FEC. Call it The Federal Election-Contribution Clearing House (F.E.C.H.) Call it whatever. Fund it through the optional $1 Presidential Campaign donation on Americans' tax returns. Take all the limits off: anyone can give what he wants with no caps. But here's the key difference: The money is, for lack of a better word, laundered. You write the check, it goes into the clearing house, where any connection to who's giving is removed -- laundered -- but the designated candidate gets the money placed into his campaign account. You want to tell the world you gave a million bucks to Mitt Romney, go for it. Maybe he'll believe you. Maybe four hundred other people will say the same thing. But the candidate will technically never know who gave what or how much. Now, my bet is we'll see a steep DROP in campaign contributions when the givers know they won't get automatic access and payback. Their First Amendment right to give (and blab about it) remains in tact. Here's another bet: because the flow of dirty money will end, we'll then start a real debate about public financing. We've got nothing to lose. It's time for radical solutions. And this is one everyone just might accept.