Many of us are tired of the mostly negative political ads this year, so perhaps it is counterintuitive to suggest that we should have more of them. We nevertheless would have a better democracy if citizens could support political campaigns of their choice with some of their money that would otherwise go to pay taxes.
I discussed the influence of money in politics in the final chapter of my 2009 book on government ethics, which was published before the Supreme Court in Citizens United struck down statutory limitations on corporate political expenditures. Government ethics rules and federal regulation of lobbyists I argued will not accomplish very much without campaign finance reform. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United made the situation even worse, but as I pointed out in my book, regulating political expenditures is extremely difficult to begin with.
Attention should turn to proposals for public financing of political campaigns, including the proposals of Professor Larry Lessig in his book Republic, Lost:
I could do without the proposal for a constitutional convention to overturn Citizen’s United (the fact that political extremists who lack Lessig’s sense of moderation also want a constitutional convention will be worrisome when issues other than campaign finance end up on the agenda). Lessig’s ideas about public financing of political campaigns, however, are fundamentally sound.
Public financing, given the constitutional limitations articulated in Citizens United, will be in addition to and not instead of private money; even if campaigns are given a choice between public money and private money there is no way to get the private money out of the system. That means public financing will need to be substantial to make a real difference in reducing the impact other campaign expenditures have on who wins elections and on decisions people make in public office. The public financing we have today is nowhere near enough, and indeed it is so little that many campaigns don’t even want public money when it comes with strings attached.
The cost of financing political campaigns with taxpayer money would be substantial, but is small in comparison to the economic loss caused by ineffective regulation and wasteful government spending that often occurs when campaign contributors get the quid pro quos they want. On the merits, taxpayer financing of political campaigns would probably save money in the long run.
The problem with these proposals is political. Most of these proposals involve government subsidies of political campaigns, and/or “vouchers” distributed by government to citizens who would use them for political campaigns. Advocates of small government will attack government “handouts” to political campaigns in an era of trillion dollar deficits. A “voucher” given directly to citizens may sound like a good idea to academics, but in political discourse it too will be likened to food stamps or some other coupon program that is essentially a “handout.” Controversy over any of these ideas will be stirred up by proponents of corporate campaign expenditures who don’t want to see their “constitutionally protected” expenditures diluted by an influx of government money.
And it does not need to be this way if we stop to think about whose money it is to begin with. The distinction between public money and private money is artificial -- it was all private money to begin with before government took some of it. And perhaps citizens should get a meaningful say in who runs their government before the government begins to take their money.
To change the tone of the conversation, campaign expenditures should be discussed in terms of a “tax cut” or “tax rebate” instead of a subsidy or a voucher. This is about returning to taxpayers a portion of their own money so they can have a real voice in what is done with the rest of their money. The idea would be to return to American taxpayers a flat sum taken out of taxes paid (perhaps $200 per taxpayer) for use by them in political contributions of their choice. The tax rebate program would be an acknowledgment of the fact that the right to vote is not enough in a world where money is easy to convert into electoral success. Each taxpayer also needs some money with which to “vote”, and government can make this possible by sending some of their money back to be used for that purpose.
The government could send a tax rebate check of $200 to every citizen over the age of 18, with one condition: the rebate check can only be endorsed over – in hard copy or electronically -- to a bona fide political campaign or political party organization for expenditures in connection with an election. The check could not be used for any other purpose. Every citizen over age 18 should get a $200 check because every citizen pays some type of taxes (income tax, sales tax, gas tax, etc.) (the federal government could subtract amounts sent to persons who don’t pay federal income taxes from federal revenue sharing with states in which those persons live and pay other taxes). The point would be that every citizen is entitled to use some of his or her tax money ($200) to help choose the people who decide how the rest of the tax money is spent, and it would be up to the individual citizen to decide whether and how to “vote” with her $200 in federal, state or local elections. People could of course increase the size of their monetary vote by using after tax money also on political expenditures (and corporations might even use pre-tax money for this purpose after Citizen’s United). But everybody would get to spend $200 to help choose their government before paying any taxes to support their government.
This “tax rebate” concept is similar in function to the many “voucher” ideas being proposed by advocates for government funded political campaigns. But there is a critical difference. This is not about the government paying for anything with “its” money. This is about the government allowing us to use a portion of our money that would otherwise go to taxes for the purpose of choosing the public officials who spend the rest.
If the Constitution were to be amended to implement such a tax rebate, it perhaps could be an Amendment Providing for Taxation only with Representation, stating that:
"No person eligible to vote in the United States shall be required to pay any federal, state or local income tax or any other tax, and no sales tax shall be levied with respect to transactions entered into by such person, unless such person has an opportunity to designate once each year out of federal, state or local tax receipts an amount of not less than two hundred dollars for expenditure in support of a candidate or candidates of the person’s choice for elected office in the federal, state or local governments that collect said taxes."