December 3, 2021 | OPINION | By Zoraiz Zafar | Illustration by Sierra Romero
One of the fundamental flaws of the American political system is its election financing laws. When the Koch brothers have more influence in determining the partisan balance of the U.S. Congress than do the residents of Washington, D.C., you know that something is wrong.
To be fair, prior efforts have been made to limit disproportionate financial influence in federal elections. In 2009, the high-profile Citizens United vs. Federal Election Committee case was argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). A year later, SCOTUS laid down a landmark decision stipulating that monetary spending on electioneering by individuals or organizations is a form of speech. For many, it felt as if the freedom of speech was no longer free.
In the years since, outside spending on presidential and congressional elections by Super PACs has skyrocketed. Interestingly enough, the Democratic Party and its candidates, despite their opposition to Super PAC influence, have received more funding from such groups in the last two presidential elections.
Furthermore, another worrying sign is a sharp decline in the transparency level of these outside spending groups, which fell from 72% to 30%. Combined, these factors indicate one central trend: the continuation of the status quo will only increase hyper-partisanship and the legislative gridlock in the country. Reforms, in some shape or form, are the need of the moment.
That is where the concept of publicly-funded federal elections comes in. According to this proposal, all major-party candidates for public office are awarded an equal and appropriate sum of funds for the operating costs of their respective campaigns. Not only will this make the path to leadership more equitable, but it would also reduce the total, and quite frankly ridiculous, expenditure on elections. For context, a total of $14 billion was raised and spent on the 2020 national election cycle.
Currently, this proposal enjoys support amongst the highest levels of policymakers. Incumbent President Joe Biden advocated for the public funding of elections since the start of his senatorial tenure in 1973. In 1997, then-Senator Biden co-sponsored a constitutional amendment that would have imposed stringent limits on political donations through corporations. More recently, he pushed for a constitutional amendment to codify this proposal as part of his 2020 presidential campaign platform.
Despite this history of support, the Biden administration has yet to focus its attention on this grave issue. Even as the 2022 midterm elections approach rapidly, there seems to be a lack of urgency among leading decision-makers to address this particular topic.
As we assess this proposal, it must be acknowledged that it does come with a fair share of drawbacks. First of all, the already strained federal exchequer would have to incur another debt to fund this proposal. Moreover, whenever such legislation has been considered in other countries, it has come under severe criticism at the hands of small-party leaders. By that measure, it could be well expected that such a proposal would face vehement opposition from the Libertarian Party and the Green Party in the United States.
In the end, we must recognize that the fate of American democracy is stuck in an infinite loop where large corporations stack Congress and then that very Congress refuses to do anything about it. For us to sustain the great American experiment, something must give.