We must reform our campaign finance system

We must reform our campaign finance system

Sam Jefferson

“Four or five men get together, they think up some way to fool the emperor, and they inform him of whatever he must approve…. As Diocletian himself used to declare, an emperor –– good, careful, the very best –– is put up for sale.” – Historia Augusta, c. early fourth century A.D.

Due to a limit on how much I can write in one column, I will forgo explaining the U.S. electoral system and all of its complexities and minutiae. Instead I will, in one word, inform you of how one comes to hold office in this country: money. A political campaign can be one of the most expensive endeavors one can take on. Aside from the fact that a candidate is required to pay for all expenditures related to their campaign, they are typically running against an opponent. While it may appear that the office is awarded to the candidate with the most votes, it is worth considering that perhaps the office is instead given to the highest bidder.

However, there is rarely a candidate who can bankroll their own campaign. Most rely on donations. These donations typically come from Political Action Committees (or PAC’s) and are subject to regulation by the Federal Election Commission. In short, a series of supreme court cases over the past century have established the rules of the donation process, placing caps on how much money may be given and determining how that money is acquired. In 2010, the case Citizens United v FEC gave rise to Super PAC’s, which are independent expenditure committees that are un-capped but are not allowed to contribute directly to a candidate or party.

That being said, should the interests of these Super PAC’s align with those of a candidate, whose to say couldn’t lend a helping, albeit “independent,” hand.

Imagine a candidate as a running back and a Super PAC as a lineman. While the running back isn’t allowed to just hop on his blocker’s shoulders and be carried into the endzone, they can follow their blocker as he creates a hole that enables him to break into open field.

This notion gives rise to a terrifying question. Is the United States government for sale? The implication being that due to the reliance on corporate funding, government is subject to the will of companies instead of the people it represents. To answer this lets look at a localized example, the state of Alabama.

Mike Hubbard, the former representative of Alabama’s 79th district in Lee County and former Speaker of the House of Representatives, was indicted on 23 felony corruption charges. The most pertinent details of the investigation revolved around the alleged laundering of $1.5 million worth of gambling money from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians into the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Despite his recent removal from office, Hubbard had lasting effects in the realm of Alabama politics. His illegal activities have been exposed and are being dealt with, however, some of his legal actions tell an even more depressing story. For example, according to 2015 reports, Hubbard received $37,835 in campaign donations from the Payday Lending industry. This is an industry that practices predatory lending and is toxic to low-income communities. As a result of this donation, and many others (specifically to members of the senate banking committee and house leaders), the industry has remained unregulated in the state and continues to harm a vast number of impoverished areas. *link to predatory lending column

So, I believe it is not exactly a stretch to say that the U.S. government is for sale, just look at our relationship with oil in the middle east. Corruption is widespread and sadly is not surprising these days. But has it gone too far? Has this country become dependent on corruption in order to get anything done? The very basis of representative democracy is the power to elect officials and if that is as tarnished as it appears to be I fear for the future of this country.

Systematic importance, a term that typically relates to the nature of large financial institutions, is a dangerous concept. When an entity is poised to collapse the entire system should it falter, it is considered systemically important. If one were to consider our government as such, the notion that it is “too big to fail” implies a disturbing level of arrogance. For pride comes before the fall and as history has shown us, the sun sets on every empire.

Sam Jefferson is a junior majoring in economics. His column runs biweekly.