Three experts on the role of money in politics painted a dire picture of American democracy at a forum in Billings Thursday night.
But they also offered up some fairly simple solutions to the problems posed by “dark money”—the kind that now flows by the tens of millions from anonymous sources to influence politicians and shape public policy.
The venue was the Royal Johnson Community Room at the Billings Public Library and the event was the first of what is planned to be an annual series of Royal Johnson Forums.
The forum was sponsored by the Billings Public Library Foundation and the guest of honor, as you might have guessed, was Royal Johnson, a longtime public servant who led the effort to start a library foundation in the 1980s.
The three panelists Thursday were former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, University of Montana Law School associate professor and constitutional expert Anthony Johnstone and Edwin Bender, director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, based in Helena.
Simpson, whose blunt, downhome manner of speaking is almost as rare as his moderate Republicanism, set the stage by saying that the difference between how campaigns are conducted now and when he was in politics—he left the Senate in 1997—is complete.
“It’s total and it’s appalling and it’s disgusting,” he said.
Johnstone said a Supreme Court decision way back in 1976, which struck down, on free-speech grounds, spending limits for political campaigns, “started the disaster of the campaign finance system we have.”
Then came the Citizens United case, decided by the Supreme Court in 2010, which removed restrictions on independent political expenditures by nonprofit corporations, later extended to for-profit corporations, labor unions and other associations.
Simpson said it took a “bizarre twist of logic” to extend the concept of personhood to corporations, and he spoke approvingly of the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, passed by the Montana Legislature to end corporate control of statewide elections. That act was effectively abolished by the Citizens United decision.
Bender said the effect of unlimited campaign spending by corporations and associations is actually worse the lower you go on the political food chain because even a relatively small amount of money “can really warp the debate that’s going on, warp the campaign,” in places like Montana.
None of the speakers had much good to say about the Federal Election Commission, which is supposed to regulate campaign spending. “Dysfunctional would be half the word for them,” Simpson said. “They are totally neutered.” Statutory reform of the FEC is possible, he said, but people running the show are “bitter and petty and partisan.”
Bender said the FEC has always been “hobbled by the fear that lawmakers would come after them” if the commission sought real reform. But the Internet is changing things, he said, and the FEC is trying to push out meaningful information on political spending.
“The Internet is a power now that has the potential to change for the better our democracy,” Bender said.
But the battles continue. Montana has a newly enacted disclosure law that requires any organization that spends money to influence an election within 60 days of the beginning of voting to say where the money comes from and where it is being spent.
Johnstone said the same groups that took Citizens United to the Supreme Court are now challenging disclosure laws, and Bender warned that “efforts to stymie disclosure are very serious and very coordinated.”
Asked how to clean up campaign financing, Johnstone said, “Just get Congress out of the business. Let states do it.” Montana already has better campaign finance laws than those passed by Congress, he said, so why can’t those laws govern races for the U.S. House and Senate in Montana?
“That’s a radical idea,” he acknowledged. “Congress doesn’t like giving power away.”
A less radical and quite simple solution, Johnstone said, would be public funding of election campaigns. He suggested taking the first $50 on everyone’s tax bill and giving it back to the taxpayer in the form of a voucher, which could be spent on any candidate or political action committee of the taxpayer’s choice.
Bender said “the most elegant solution” he’d heard of would be to establish a matching-fund system. If a candidate received a $50 donation from an individual, it could be matched by a $300 donation from a public fund. That would magnify the importance of small donations and force politicians to pay more attention to regular voters rather than deep-pocket donors. He said such a system is already being used in New York City and has not been challenged on constitutional grounds.
Then there is the Australian solution, Bender said: making voting mandatory, with fines for failing to participate. That would compel politicians to come up with policies that help broad segments of the populace, not just those portions of it that contribute money to their campaigns.
Asked how voters could become better informed, Bender started by recommending his own institute, better known by its Web address of www.followthemoney.org. Project Vote Smart, based in Philipsburg, has a wealth of information on where candidates stand on the issues, he said, and the Center for Responsive Politics is likewise an excellent resource.
Johnstone, too, recommended followthemoney.org, but he also urged those in the audience not to believe that there is something inherently wrong with donating to political campaigns. He said people should become informed and then donate money to the politicians whose views they favor.
“There’s nothing dirty about money in politics,” he said. “You’re not the problem.”
Simpson went beyond the issue of campaign financing to tell people, “You can do something besides just bitch.”
He said voters should go to town hall meetings and confront the candidates. The next time you hear a congressional candidate say he won’t touch spending on Medicare, Social Security and the military, he said, call him “a lying son of a bitch.”
Simpson, who was passionate about the issue even before President Obama named him co-chair of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010, took several opportunities Thursday to denounce politicians who refuse to address entitlement spending—and to condemn journalists for not holding politicians’ feet to the fire on the subject.
“Get in the game,” he told the audience. Get involved in politics at the local level and make your voice heard.
“And stop listening to Rush (Limbaugh) and (Rachel) Maddow,” he said. “They’re entertainers. They couldn’t govern their way out of a paper sack.”