Nuanced view of corruption: money doesn't buy elections, it buys influence

Jonathan Soros, son of George Soros and heavy donor to campaigns to get money out of politics, writes a nuanced account of what huge, open campaign contributions do to electoral politics.

After a certain point, spending doesn't make a huge difference in electoral outcomes (one study says that doubling funding shifts the needle by one percent), but because politicians are entirely beholden to their funders to reach that certain point, the electoral agenda becomes about their donors' priorities. And once in office, every argument is couched in terms that are set by those donors (as Barney Frank quipped, "[Congress are not] the only people in the history of the world who, on a regular basis, took money from perfect strangers and made sure it had no effect on them."

Soros points out that money was corrupting politics — albeit less openly — long before Citizens United, and calls for a radical campaign-spending reform to minimize the reach of large campaign donors' priorities on political discourse.

One way forward is the Government by the People Act, recently reintroduced in the House of Representatives with more than 140 cosponsors. It would provide candidates with funds that match small contributions from constituents.

A version of this worked for 40 years in presidential elections. It supported the winning candidacies of three Republicans (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush) and two Democrats (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton).

It's still effective in states and municipalities that have invested in similar systems. It works as long as there is enough funding so that one candidate doesn't have so much more money that it creates a decisive advantage.

When the presidential campaign-funding system failed to meet that test in 2008, Obama opted out. Unless it is updated to provide enough funds to run a modern campaign, the system, which is still on the books, will never be used again.

To make citizen-funding work, rules must be implemented and enforced effectively enough to keep up with the lawyers and political operatives who will inevitably seek to skirt them. At the federal level, that means redesigning the Federal Election Commission.

Soros: Big money can't buy elections – influence is something else [Jonathan Soros/Reuters]

(via Lessig)

(Image: Freedom of Speech, after Norman Rockwell and the US Supreme Court, Mike Licht, CC-BY)