9 things we learned at the Janus Campaign Finance Debate

As politically and socially active as Brown is, three (vastly important) words rarely enter the myriad of debates and discussions taking place on the Main Green, in classrooms, dorm room floors and, because this is Brown, at parties on Saturday nights: campaign finance reform.

Everyone sort of knows what it is (“we need to get money out of politics!”), but few talk about the specifics. How are we going to get money out of politics? Exactly why is that so vastly important? Is it an attainable goal?


The Janus Forum sought to answer this question by organizing an informal debate between Harvard Professor of Law Lawrence Lessig and UCLA Professor of Law Eugene Volokh. Both are outspoken members of the campaign finance reform debate, Lessig an advocate for overhauling our current campaign finance system (he recently started a grassroots PAC to support candidates pledging to reform campaign finance laws), Volokh, an eminent critic of reform.

What ensued was a nuanced and in-depth discussion of not only the theoretical problems and solutions (or lack thereof, according to Volokh) but also of tangible steps forward. Here are the highlights.

1. The word corruption has real constitutional and political weight. 

Lessig was big on this, and for good reason. The First Amendment can be abridged if speech is deemed corruption. Now, there are two types of political corruption: corruption that is applied to members of the government (think anything in House of Cards, like inducements, threats, etc.) and corruption that is applied to the people. Corruption operating on members of the government is by no means free speech, nor constitutional, and is regularly (although not as regularly as one may hope) prosecuted.

However, the now-infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision asserted that influences corrupting the people, such as corporate influence in political battles, cannot be deemed corruption but merely free speech. In other words, despite the fact that an unequal monetary influence on elections may be distorting the political process, from a constitutional standpoint, we’re on our own. Inequality of speech is not equal to corruption.

2. While money isn’t speech, it isn’t exactly not. 

A common argument against campaign finance reform (and logic that has been frequently used in the Supreme Court recently) is that donating money to a political campaign is an exercise of free speech. Some on the left find this a reprehensible claim, taking fault with the equation: money=speech.

In order to do most things in America, however, one needs money. Thus, Volokh made the point that restricting spending money on an exercise of a right is a restriction on that right. He used a particularly compelling example (he definitely knew his audience), envisioning a law that capped the money that could be spent on an abortion at $100.

A critic would say that money is not an abortion; therefore, it’s okay to restrict it. But there is an obvious logical fallacy here. While money is not an abortion, one can usually only access that right through the exercise of financial means. So, while money isn’t speech, it isn’t exactly not.

3. Here’s the deal with Super PACs. 

The term is ubiquitous in political discourse–but how do they really work?

First, one must understand the distinction between contributions to candidates and expenditures independent of candidates. Buckley v. Valeo, a 1976 Supreme Court decision, continued to restrict money directly given to a candidate but also deemed that money spent independently of a candidate cannot be capped. For example, if you, not working in tandem with a candidate’s campaign, want to buy an advertisement to support or censure a candidate, there is no legal spending limit.

Super PACs are just a pooled version of this. And Volokh argued that pooling your money is just fine, especially because some of the largest movements in our country have started by likeminded people gathering resources together (see: abolitionist movement, environmental movement).

Many from the left believe independent expenditures and direct contributions are the same because they ultimately serve the same function (and have the same corrupting power).

4.  We take for granted our bizarre system of government. 

The average Congressperson spends between 30 and 70 percent of their time campaigning for reelection because campaigns are privately funded. This wasn’t always the case in America–in fact, not even 20 years ago.

5. Everyone should know what the term “relevant funders” means. 

Here are some statistics:

  • In 2010, .26 percent of Americans gave $200 or more to a federal candidate.
  • .05 percent gave the maximum amount to a federal candidate.
  • .000042 percent of Americans gave 60 percent of the Super PAC money spent in the 2010 election cycle. That is 132 people.

This is what Lessig means when he says relevant funders. Instead of elected officials relying on the support of all their constituents, this political corruption (see how important #1 is?!) forces Congress to develop a different dependence–a dependence merely on the funders, who, as you can see, represent a dangerously small slice of America. This creates a green primary, an informal primary only candidates with formidable financial support from people with specific business and personal interests can pass through. In this system, Lessig argues there is only an illusion of choice in our democracy.

Furthermore, the process destroys any semblance of political accountability. Politicians become accountable only to those who help them get reelected and therefore are more likely to push their agenda than anyone else’s.

6. Lessig’s (and other’s) fix? Vouchers. 

If you haven’t heard of the voucher solution before, don’t worry: neither had I until yesterday. Lessig’s plan is simple; if the problem is dependence on too small a group of Americans, “politicians should spend less time fundraising from a wider slice of America…expanding the funder influence.” This idea has been around for a long time but just beginning to creep its way into national discourse.

Lessig’s voucher system would look something like this. Assuming every person eligible to vote contributes at least $50 to the federal treasury (through tax dollars), the government would rebate that $50 in the form of a voucher. That voucher can be used to support any political candidate. If each American contributed $50 to a campaign, that would equal $7 billion.

In other words (Lessig’s words), “the voucher is democratic power rebated to us to allow us to participate equally.”

7. There are some problems with the voucher idea. 

Volokh, as well as those gosh darn argumentative Brown students in the audience, were quick to point out that the voucher system isn’t infallible. Some issues with the voucher system to keep in mind:

  • How can you ensure people won’t buy and sell vouchers, much like they did with votes during the Tammany Hall era?
  • The voucher system presupposes that by having the voucher, one will be interested in politics. According to American Community Surveys, only 41 percent of eligible voters actually voted in the 2010 midterm elections.

However, Volokh did say he wants to see the voucher system tried out at the state and local level.

8. Citizens United doesn’t matter as much as we think it does. 

“If we think Citizens United shot the populating body, the body was already dead.”

For a harsh opponent of our current campaign finance system, Lessig was awfully easy on Citizens United, going as far to say that “systemically, it isn’t mattering that much. After Citizens United, corporations discovered free speech.”

Lessig used the example of Target’s $150,000 contribution to an antigay candidate in Minnesota, for which they received serious backlash and economic boycott.

9. Despite the fact that it’s not the juiciest of topics, campaign finance reform should be at the forefront of Brown students’ minds. 

And here’s why. Issues of race, gender, class and sexuality are beyond prevalent on Brown’s campus, and for good reason. However, what many fail to understand is that the issue of campaign finance reform is entangled with these quests for justice. The question of how we fund our campaigns is the question of how the average American’s needs and wants, not just the mega-wealthy’s, can be accurately and vocally represented in our government.

Without proper finance laws, we are living in the same country we were in 1776. It’s time to (in an informed manner!) start talking about taxation without representation again.

1 Comment

  1. Politicians don’t just respond to special interests, they also respond to their party and their own beliefs, as well as public opinion. But some corporations will donate to both sides, to make sure they are taken care of by all politicians.

    When you vote for a candidate, you’re voting also for the interest groups that support him/her. A voucher system would shift the balance of power towards citizens, but wouldn’t disempower those powerful interests.

    The great problem, for a candidate who refuses special interest money and relies on small dollar individual donors, is that he will be thoroughly outspent by candidates who accept influence money and buy lots of mainstream media advertising. Because too many unthinking or lazy voters only consider heavily promoted candidates, most contestants feel compelled to raise as much money as possible, and many media pundits and voters assume that poorly funded candidates cannot win.

    The mutual fear of the opponent’s campaign spending is a terrible trap stopping us from removing the corruption. Democratic and Republican voters must recognize this trap we are in, and then stubbornly refuse to allow that fear to push them into voting for bought politicians who seem “electable” because they are heavily marketed.

    Public discussion about campaign finance usually has the unspoken assumption that voters won’t consider a candidate who does not have tons of advertising and endorsements. That does not have to be true, especially because voters can use Google to easily learn about all the available candidates, and give them equal consideration. Granted, this requires people without Internet-connected devices to go find a way to access the Web. It also requires people to figure out what to type into the Google search box (something like “Presidential candidates”?), and how to dig through the results. My opinion is that it’s reasonable to demand that effort of anyone who will bother to vote; people who can’t be bothered to look at the full range of choices should not vote.

    There’s a saying: “In every democracy, the people get the government they deserve”. We’re getting abused because we choose the wrong representatives. It’s our fault, and it’s our responsibility to change that.

    There’s also a saying in business: “Management is always to blame.” In a republic, the voters are the topmost level of management, because they choose the politicians.

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