Democracy for sale

Published 1:56 am Wednesday, October 1, 2008

By Staff
at party conventions
The Republicans and Democrats have finished up their respective party conventions, and we’ve all long moved on, affixed to the latest development in this insatiable 24-hour campaign news cycle.
But the money raised at the conventions — and the access and influence bought there — will stick with us for months, if not years, to come.
This is because Congress has created a special exemption for the Republican and Democratic Party conventions, allowing them to raise money in any amount from pretty much anyone, as long as the money goes toward “promoting the host city.” That is to say corporations and unions are able to write the DNC and RNC host committees checks of limitless size, as long as they benefit the Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul economies.
And they have — in six- and seven-figure amounts.
According to the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan election watchdog, 173 organizational donors — mostly corporations but also several trade unions — have given at least $112 million to the RNC and DNC committees as of Aug. 8, 2008. And some predict this figure will likely top $140 million when all is said and done.
The convention cash is just one part of powerful interests’ multi-pronged strategy to use money to buy political influence, but it is perhaps the most conspicuous and glaring exception in our nation’s campaign finance law, in effect auctioning off our presidential candidate’s most expensive four-day advertisements to the highest bidder.
Then there are the private parties and functions — the hundreds of exquisite events that have become a staple of our national conventions — where many of the same people and corporations spend millions more communicating their “goodwill” through expensive food and liquor. Though new ethics and lobbying laws limited many of the parties to mere hors d’oeuvres this year, the partygoers were able to overcome this obstacle by creating finger food with flare.
At a party thrown by Google and Vanity Fair, attendees were served hors d’oeuvres of fresh lobster, confit bacon, caviar, chocolate-covered strawberries, slow-braised portabella “short ribs” with roasted green pepper pesto on crispy polenta squares and drinks of Absinthe and sparkling wine to wash it down. Not bad for a late-night snack.
But perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the companies who bankrolled the conventions and financed the parties — companies like Lockheed Martin, AT&T and Pfizer — are the same companies that are spending hundreds of millions to influence U.S. policy through company PACs and teams of lobbyists.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, convention-bankrolling companies have given over $180 million to federal candidates and political parties through their employees and their PACs since 2005, and they have spent an additional $1.3 billion to lobby the federal government during the same period.
Clearly this whole process needs to be reformed, starting with a program that curtails big money at the conventions — either through a system of public convention funding or, at the very least, basic contribution limits. But more broadly, we need to address the entire “pay to play” campaign financing system, of which the conventions are just the most prominent example. Billions are now raised through campaign bundling, PACs and third-party 527 groups, with no end in sight. And as private fundraising comes to dominate our democratic process, we run the risk of losing our government to these financiers.
The solution is to provide a system of full public financing at every stage of the election process, and give voters a way to, literally, own the campaigns. In order to work, this system would need to provide a competitive amount of money in both the primary and the general elections, create a matching fund to protect participating candidates from being massively outspent by nonparticipants, and include a small donor matching program that encourages and leverages grassroots participation. But if done right, full public financing would help reduce candidates’ dependence on wealthy special interests and make our elected officials more accountable to the public, changing the entire mentality and culture of our money-dominated elections.
Several weeks from now we’ll know, God-willing, who the next president of the United States will be for the next four years. Whoever it is will inherit a hefty set of obligations from contributors, including $112 million and counting for the conventions alone. But with real reform we can end these ties of power to money, create an alternative financing system paid for by the public and build a system of government befitting of the world’s oldest democracy.