Campaign Contributors and Influence

A candidate for County Supervisor has come under fire because much of her funding comes from interests that seem to be at odds with her professed values. In a local public forum she spent much of her opening statement complaining about how she is being treated, and expressing outrage that anyone should suggest that she could be bought. 

Her second line of defense was to point out all the positions she is taking that are against the interests of her contributors, and that she should be judged by her positions and programs and proposals not by her contributors.

Contributors and their money are solid fact, the rest is just words. It is easy to come up with high flown rhetoric, but it is a poor predictor of what you will do when you are elected and have to deal with the day to day grind of actually doing the work. Positions change, often quite legitimately, with changing circumstances. Campaigns are like first dates: everyone is trying to show their best face. Only later do you find out the real truth. 

With regard to the claim that she cannot be bought, I am willing to stipulate that she really believes this to be true, and that she is indeed an ethical person. But that is only to be expected. There is never a quid pro quo, especially at the start. We say politicians are bought, but that is not really an accurate description of what happens. It is much more subtle than that. You cannot usually point to any specific vote or action as having been done in return for a campaign contribution, but there are many invisible ways in which a contributor’s interests can be served. Much of the work of a supervisor is out of the public eye, and often involves monitoring the actions of officials such as those who enforce building codes, for instance. The fact that a supervisor expresses concern about a case will certainly change the way the official handles it, and it seems likely that if the supervisor shows a bias towards a particular outcome, the likelihood of that being the actual outcome is increased. Of course all of this is done with hints and innuendo, but bureaucrats become very skilled at divining the unspoken wishes of their bosses; it is an important survival skill. People with large financial interests have much more frequent interactions with officialdom than most people, and being known as a friend of a supervisor will certainly ease their passage. This kind of thing is often more important to the contributor than actual legislative matters, most of which they do not care about. 

The other thing that they buy with their contributions is access. They get their calls returned. They get to put their point of view, which is always dressed up so as to be politically palatable, directly to the politician. Everyone else has to stand up at meetings and try to get across a coherent message while the board secretly check their Facebook.  Politicians are only human, and when they are constantly exposed to a particular point of view cleverly expressed they tend to adopt that point of view. They find that these people who are portrayed by the protestors as evil are in fact charming and urbane, and really seem like quite reasonable people. They give money to charity and support the ballet. They are easy to like, unlike all those angry and rude people on the other side. 

The movie depictions are wrong: the devil never appears in smoke and flames with red eyes and a tail, he is dressed impeccably with polished shoes and is polite and solicitous. He has no need to play the heavy, he has people for that, and they make sure he is never bothered with the sordid details. 

There is no arm twisting, no threats, just the underlying realization on the part of the politician that they need to get reelected, and they need to keep that money flowing in, and people do not give money to politicians who thwart their interests. Of course everyone concerned realizes the political realities. If a politician could be seen openly voting in their favor he or she would be open to attacks on the subject, so that is saved for the direst situations. In general the contributor will not make demands that would damage his politician. But you can be sure of one thing: when the chips are down, and there is an important vote that will, say, stop a large development, you are better off having someone there voting who is not beholden to developers. 

The solution for all this is obvious: get the power of the money out of the system. One way would be public financing of campaigns. Another intriguing idea would be to erect a wall between donor and recipient. Anyone would be allowed to donate any amount to any candidate, but it would be illegal to do so directly, with very severe penalties. Instead they would pay the money to an Election Finance Board who would then forward it to the designated candidate, but broken into amounts that would not match the amounts of the donations, and with a random delay. The donor would get a receipt for the money, but the receipt would not specify the recipient candidate. Under such a system the donor could never prove to the candidate that he had given him money. Indeed donors could give a large amount and get a receipt and then go to each candidate and say that the money went to them, and the candidates would be none the wiser. With modern technology and a well designed system it would be quite feasible for no person, including those working for the Election Finance Board, to be able to identify both ends of a transaction. 

Candidates claim that their donors just want to get good people elected and do not expect any direct payback. If that is indeed the case the money people should have no problem with such a system, which allows them to support candidates as heavily as they want, but makes sure that they will not see any direct benefit for doing so. Some might object to introducing yet another government bureaucracy; to those I would say that there are some functions that are the proper function of government, and elections are most certainly one of them. Fair elections are the very basis of our power as citizens to affect the activities of those we elect.

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