As the upcoming elections draw closer, let me make three predictions that I personally guarantee. First, they will set a record as being the most expensive ever, even accounting for inflation. Second, all the usual do-gooders and reformers will complain that this money undermines “democracy” and something must be done. Third, all efforts to curtail lavish spending (e.g., limits on individual contributions, public funding of presidential elections, transparency of donations, etc.) will fail, just as before.
This hand-wringing about evil money sidesteps the reasons for the increase. Contrary to what reformers insist, soaring spending is not about an epidemic of donor greed to subvert some “public good.” The sharp increase is about expanding government power — big, fat government itself, not nefarious contributors, is the culprit. In a nutshell, heightened generosity reflects Washington’s growing intrusion into every corner of our lives. Big-money donations are largely defensive. Nobody gives millions unless necessary, and if government can issue a few rules that might devastate your business, out comes the checkbook, and the greater this potential impact, the greater the generosity.
It is no accident that the upturn in campaign donations almost exactly parallels the explosion of Washington’s meddling that began in the 1960s and now seems unstoppable. Indeed, savvy office-holders have long known that the most efficient way to boost campaign donations is to propose an odious regulation. By necessity, the targeted industry will respond by hiring more lobbyists, who will then guide campaign donations so as to defeat the proposed rule. And with the Sword of Damocles always there, the contributions become routine. Accusations of shakedowns aside, everything is perfectly legal and absolutely immune to “anti-corruption” measures.
Consider Washington’s commitment to providing health care, a policy area that until the mid-1960s was almost entirely a state government function. Today, of course, health care is one of Washington’s primary missions, and with hundreds of billions to spend and countless regulations to promulgate, law-making resembles feeding at the aquarium’s shark tank. From doctors and hospitals, from medical device manufactures to insurance companies, from malpractice lawyers to nursing home operators, from charities to Big Pharma, dozens of distinct constituencies proliferate with a stake in the final outcome. This is pay-to-play politics on steroids. Even the slightest rule-change regarding, say, doctor’s fees under Medicare can justify millions in campaign contributions.
The poster child here is Walmart, a business that once eschewed political involvement since, as Walmart’s people naïvely believed, who could complain about just selling cheap, humdrum stuff? They soon discovered otherwise. Walmart may not have been interested in Washington, but Washington was very much interested in Walmart. Between 1998 and 2011, their lobbying expenditures went from nearly zero to $11 million. A parallel huge increase occurred in campaign spending. Walmart’s newly discovered political interests include unionization, employee health insurance, duties on Chinese imports, laws dealing with sexual discrimination, and the employment of illegal workers, among other once strictly internal corporate matters. Countless other businesses, including higher education, have received identical wake-up calls, so be proactive and pay in advance. Build an ambitious federal bureaucracy, and the campaign contributions will come.
Ironically, the same people who clamor for yet more government intrusion — that is, liberals — typically also deplore ever more costly campaigns and lobbying. In other words, they want realtors or doctors to restrain their campaign contributions, all while Washington tells them what to do. Anti-money group like Common Cause must think that it is evil for business to resist government intrusion. Perchance liberal efforts to reduce money in politics ( “too much money hurts democracy”) is a convenient subterfuge to deflect attention away from the equally plausible “too much central government undermines democracy.”
Thus understood, tinkering with campaign finance laws is futile so long as government continues to expand its power. Such laws are more like nuisances, given rock-solid First-Amendment guarantees of free speech. Nor will businesses passively accept yet more government meddling. And don’t forget that the beneficiaries of such generosity are the very same people who write campaign finance laws. Pigs will fly before Congress enacts ironclad laws restricting its own ability to receive campaign donations. Loopholes forever! Political money follows the hydraulic principle — you push it down in one place, and it pops up elsewhere.
One last point about “too much money being inimical to democracy.” This view is far too narrow. Candidates possess multiple potential resources — e.g., ample volunteer labor, celebrity endorsements, having a famous family name, looking photogenic, running as an incumbent, and the ability to generate mass media adoration, among multiple other potential election-related resources. Money is only one asset and often compensates for disadvantages elsewhere. An unknown upstart running against a Kennedy or a famous athlete might have to spend a fortune just to be equal. When all is said and done, if democratic elections require a level playing field, all resources — not just money — must to be equalized. Accomplishing this is, of course, impossible and, if attempted, guarantees totalitarianism. Imagine if a Teddy Kennedy had to run under a different name since his famous lineage gave him “an unfair advantage”!
Yet one more time: if you think there is just too much money in elections, and that this lucre subverts democracy, just eliminate the source of this problem: big government.
Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois.