Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Urgency Of Campaign Time Limits

A growing number of conscientious individuals on the left and the right have expressed concern over the lobbying on law makers. Between 2000 and 2010, money spent by lobbyists surged from $1.56 billion to $3.51 billion. Tied in with this is the massive growth of campaign spending; in 2008, a record sum of $5.3 billion was spent by candidates and political interest groups. On one hand, I recognize that in a modern democracy, it is the right of citizens and groups of citizens to promote their political visions by contributing to the candidates and causes of their choice. Even though I am not in complete agreement with the Citizens United ruling, I am reserved about allowing the state unduly curb free, political expression, which does include a citizen's right to offer campaign contributions.

But, we cannot deny the pernicious influence of lobbyists on the passage of laws and formation of policy, to satisfy the narrow interests of an industry or even an individual company. Or, more specifically, it is clear that most lobbyists are not simply exercising their right to free political expression, but engaging in Rent Seeking, which is defined as "an attempt to obtain economic rent by manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than by creating new wealth, for example, spending money on political lobbying in order to give a share of wealth that has already been created." And more importantly, the power of lobbyists have seriously hindered the ability of law makers to pursue vital reforms, especially regarding issues of taxation, spending and corporate subsidies. 

So, what can be done to curb the influence of lobbyists and special interests on the political process, without unduly limiting the 1st Amendment Rights of all citizens? Rather than engage in fruitless battles to curb the supply of campaign contributions, the author of this blog believes that the wisest path is to limit the demand for campaign contributions. Increasingly lengthy and costly campaigns have made it a necessity for politicians to pursue campaign contributions. Officially presidential campaigns begin 10 months before the election, but informally, candidates begin posturing and promoting themselves at least two years in advance, spending astronomical amounts on attack ads that do little to educate the public or foster intelligent debate.

 If we could, like the British, limit campaigns to a month, we could greatly reduce the cost of running for office and in the process lessen the dependency of politicians on lobbyists. This holds equally true for party primaries; in the age of television, internet, radio and print media, there is no reason why they should drag on for 6 months.  If we were truly ambitious, we could follow the Danish Model, which does not only limits the campaign season, but also bans political television ads. The result of this policy is that the largest political parties in Denmark only spent $8 million, which per capita (per voter) is less than 1/10 what American Politicians spend. In addition to lessening the power of lobbyists, there would be other attractive benefits of this policy. Elected officials could focus more time and energy on serving the public rather than seeking re-election. Lowering the cost of campaigning would allow more individuals outside of the political establishment to compete in elections. No credible argument can be made that a succinct campaign free from vitriolic ads would lower the quality of debate and discourse. We can hope that once law makers are freed from their dependency on lobbyists, they will be better able to pursue much needed reforms. And equally, fewer industries will seek their fortunes through rent seeking. 

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