As our federal budget goes into yet another crisis, the Federal Election Commission must consider how our political process got us here. For nearly 90% of Americans, the answer is obvious. So should it be to the FEC.
Many of us are beginning to realize that campaign finance lies at the root of the problem. Special interests – including businesses, unions, foundations, academic institutions and other nonprofits – directly or indirectly receive money from the government, rather than earn money by selling goods and services in a free market. These special interests lobby for government contracts, programs and other expenditures, and contribute generously to political parties and “independent” political expenditures, to back up their lobbying efforts.
Meanwhile, special interests get special access to key decision makers in return for political expenditures. According to a recent story in the New York Times a $500,000 contribution to one particular “independent” organization is enough to get a meeting with the President of the United States. Meetings with other federal officials presumably come with a lower price tag. The organization, set up by alumni of the President’s reelection campaign, is poised to fundamentally influence Administration policy over the next three and a half years, and is actively soliciting “donations” at the same time.
This “pay to play” problem is not unique to the present Administration. This problem grows as campaign expenditures grow in size and scope, and as all branches of government grow, as well. It is clear to many observers that there has been an enormous increase in the size and cost of government and in the cost of political campaigns over the past few decades. For many of us, this is an explainable correlation, and not a mere coincidence.
During a recent conference at Willamette University FEC Chairwoman Weintraub acknowledged the danger that candidate-specific super PACs pose to our democracy. Chairwoman Weintraub explained that the FEC’s bipartisan composition was intended to find compromise. But this is not a partisan issue; both parties are part of this problem just as both parties are to blame for big and expensive government. Both parties have become dependent upon the campaign funding of special interests, many of which in turn thrive at taxpayer expense. “Pay to play” means special interests and politicians play the campaign finance game while the rest of us pay.