Washington Post columnist and notorious arbiter of denim-wear, George Will, wrote a column yesterday criticizing a recent hearing on the Fair Elections Now Act, legislation that would help to put government back into the hands of everyday people.
In doing so, he joins the plutocrats’ freak out on any legislation that would help to raise the voice of everyday voters in a political system increasingly dominated by wealthy interests.
There’s a lot to digest in his piece, so I’m just going to focus on a few things.
- Will writes, “this has nothing to do with Citizens United, which had nothing to do with contributions to candidates or the funding of their campaigns.”
He’s dead wrong that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC had “nothing” to do with contributions to candidates. It does, in fact, affect candidate fundraising. Now faced with the threat of increased outside attacks, candidates will have to spend more time raising money and less time with voters. And they aren’t raising money from their district—but from Washington, D.C. lobbyists, Wall Street bankers, etc.
- He then goes on to trot out the most tired argument in the books against legislation like the Fair Elections Now Act. “Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate Republicans, correctly says that taxpayer funding of politics has been the subject of the largest, most sustained and accurate polling in American history The polling occurs every year when Americans have a chance to check a box that will give $3—without increasing their tax liabilities—to fund for the presidential campaigns.”
Less than 10 percent do check the box. Can we assume then that Will believes that since 99.9 percent of Americans don’t give big private donaations to political candidates, only one in every thousand Americans supports the current private system?
Moreover, to conflate the 35 year-old presidential financing system, which has never been updated, with Fair Elections is disingenuous at best and purposely misleading at worst. You don’t use the same car seat as 35 years ago, so why should candidates use a 1976 system in a post-Citizens United political world?
- Will goes on to quote Cleta Mitchell, the self-described “consigliere to the vast right wing conspiracy,” who testified at the hearing about what she believes are problems with the funding mechanism for Fair Elections—a fee imposed on some of the country’s largest government contractors like G.E.
A company like G.E.—which got $3.9 billion in government contracts in fiscal year 2008 and made $14.2 billion in profits in 2010—would have to add about .01% ($500,000) to their government tab to go into a larger fund that would then pay for the system.
Everyday, we’re paying for earmarks, tax breaks, and oil company subsidies due to our broken political system. This would be a welcome change.
- He quotes Cleta Mitchell again, where she compares members of Congress having to spend so much time raising money to her own job of getting clients. “There is nothing wrong with Senators having to go out and mix among the people,” she says.
The people? Washington, D.C., a city with one lone non-voting delegate in Congress, accounted for $262 million in campaign contributions in the 2010 election cycle. Small donations—those of $200 or less—historically make up less than 10 percent of a candidate’s total fundraising. On average, House members raise only 20 percent of their money from their actual constituents. By “the people,” maybe she means well-paid lobbyists and their election lawyers.
- Will writes, “advocates of government-funded campaigns want Americans to be distressed about the supposedly shocking amount of money spent on campaigns that determine who will enforce their laws.”
While I’d like to take all the credit for the fact that Americans, in poll after poll, believe members of Congress are sold to the highest bidder, it really doesn’t take much effort to make the case. Remember the Wall Street collapse that came after years of deregulation by Congress?
And anyway, it’s not the amount of money that’s the problem. The problem is that too often this special interest cash comes from deep pocket interests with strings attached—and everyday people can’t compete. I can’t get a member of Congress to return my phone call, but the Koch brothers and their counterparts among the Democrats certainly can.
- And finally, in one of my favorite moments in the piece, Will says of our political system, “That sum, representing healthy-mass participation in politics, is about half the sum Americans have just spent on Easter candy.”
Easter candy. That’s right. Nobody should be concerned about the special interest money flowing into our political system, and the damage its doing to our democratic institutions, because Americans spend more on jelly beans.
Sitting in his Chevy Chase, Md. townhouse, a zip code whose residents spent $4 million on contributions to candidates in 2010 (103 times that of the average zip code), George Will finds it all too easy to deride those who believe candidates should be accountable to their constituents and not their big donors.