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Money in politics

Before the State of the Union last night, I saw Lawrence Lessig give a version of the above presentation. The version I saw was focused on getting libertarians to unite behind public funding, but since my audience isn't primarily composed of people who will be convinced by Ronald Reagan quotes, I'm going to post the normal version of the speech. But it's very good, and very visually compelling, and you should watch it.

That said, I'm not sure it's right. Money is certainly a problem in Washington, and I would sign onto Lessig's solutions in a second. But the comforting message of his presentation is that it's the problem. That I doubt. That might be true for earmarks, and for certain elements of the tax code, but on the big issues, other culprits seem more plausible.

Take health care. Less money in politics would almost certainly mean we reimport drugs from Canada. But would it mean we have a substantially different reform bill? I doubt it. Even without their contributions, insurers would be protected by a mixture of Republicans who are committed to private-sector solutions and voters who don't want to lose what they have. Medicare-for-All would still face sharp and strong objection from one of the two parties and then, more powerfully, doctors and hospitals, who would still be very important constituents to lawmakers.

In my mental model, money is part of the problem in government, alongside power and party polarization, and it's subordinate to the other two. Money is an expression of power and rarely overwhelms party incentive. And since public funding wouldn't fix either of the latter two (though Lessig believes it would ameliorate party polarization), it probably wouldn't substantially change the workings of the Congress or public perceptions of legislators. But that's not an argument to ignore the scourge of money in politics. Of the three, it's by far the easiest to fix, and the low-hanging fruit for denting cynicism about Congress. It's the right place to start.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 28, 2010; 9:28 AM ET
 
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Comments

Ezra - Off topic issue. I've never understood how US politicians think that reimporting drugs from Canada will work. First, why would the Canadian gov't (the purchaser of drugs for the country) allow Canadian pharmacies and hospitals to sell drugs to US consumers for a profit? Why wouldn't the Canadian gov't simply ban the export of drugs that were purchased using gov't discounts? Because if they don't ban export to the US, they may face a drug shortage or see prices increase for Canadian consumers (and the explosion of a black market).

Second, if Canadian firms were allowed to export to the US for a profit why would US pharma companies allow this? The pharmas know the total demand for drugs in Canada so why would they sell Canadian pharmacies MORE drugs for them to export back to the US? Phama companies would just cap sales to Canada.

So i have never understood why this would work. can you explain it??

Posted by: MBP2 | January 28, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, getting rid of money in politics would result in a lot more for HCR than drug re-importation. For starters, it would eliminate the need for re-importation by allowing for federal bargaining for drug prices (with much better results than those achieved by Canada, since the US is a much larger purchaser).

Posted by: RyanD1 | January 28, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

Ummm . . . a "hospital" doesn't count as a constituent unless it can donate money.

Posted by: pj_camp | January 28, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Ezra,

You are missing the cause and effect relationship. The forces that you describe are a result of the the money Professor Lessig talks about. Polarization is primarily caused by political incentives. Amongst those incentives, is the need to fund raise. Often the best way to raise money is to run to the left or to the right. Beyond that if money comes from a specific issue, like RX companies, their influence is outsized once that person is in Congress.

Additionally, as Lessig says part of the problem is the perception of corruption. This perception causes public distrust, and turns off moderates and sporadic voters - further reinforcing the cycle of money, power, and political polarization.

So, money is foundation of the problem, and the other two causes you point to are buildings that have been to fall because of an unsound foundation not the other way around.

Posted by: powers1616 | January 28, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Ezra,

You are missing the cause and effect relationship. The forces that you describe are a result of the money Professor Lessig talks about. Polarization is primarily caused by political incentives. Amongst those incentives, is the need to fund raise. Often the best way to raise money is to run to the left or to the right. Beyond that if money comes from a specific issue, like RX companies, their influence is outsized once that person is in Congress.

Additionally, as Lessig says part of the problem is the perception of corruption. This perception causes public distrust, and turns off moderates and sporadic voters - further reinforcing the cycle of money, power, and political polarization.

So, money is foundation of the problem, and the other two causes you point to are buildings that have begun to fall because of an unsound foundation not the other way around.

Posted by: powers1616 | January 28, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Money in politics has a big hand in who gets elected. Without the money in politics you're likely to get legislators that are more interested in appealing to what voters want than what big corporations or interest groups want. Furthermore, power of lobbying groups is directly tied to the money they can funnel into reelection campaigns. Sure, there might be some really pursuasive lobbyists that just know how to change legislators' minds, but without the threat of funding a challenger in the next election they would be a lot easier to ignore.

I just don't understand how Ezra can not see the impact that political money has on the shape of substantive policy. On nearly every issue on the President's agenda we end up talking about this legislator who's "bought and paid for" by the healthcare industry, or the oil lobby, or the ag lobby. It just goes on and on. If money didn't bring about large and substantive changes in policy, why would groups spend so much? If most of the differences are honest political differences, why is money a problem in the first place?

Posted by: MosBen | January 28, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

To be a little more clear: Ezra mentions the idea that without pervasive money in politics, we'd get reimportation from Canada, but that insurers would be largely protected by Republicans because, basically, they honestly believe the free market is the better solution. If Republicans (and presumably conservative Dems that have been problematic in this process) would behave in largely the same way relative to this issue, then why do groups spend so much money on this issue trying to affect policy?

Maybe the industry just likes some Republicans and so they just want to support them, but there has to be some number of legislators whom the industry believes can be influenced to go one way or the other on the substantive policy.

Posted by: MosBen | January 28, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

I second MBP2 on the re-importation comment.

Right now, pharmaceutical companies sell drugs at low, low prices in Canada because otherwise Canada doesn't buy, and Pharma is better off receiving some incremental profit from Canadian consumers than nothing.

However, if cheap Canadian prices threaten to destroy massive amounts of profits in the U.S., I think that pharmaceutical companies would suddenly have the negotiating power - "either ban exports of pharmaceuticals to the U.S., pay us XX.X% more for our products, or we walk and you get nothing". If I had to guess, Canadian politicians would probably choose to keep prices the same and ban exporting of pharmaceuticals to the U.S.

Posted by: justin84 | January 28, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Money in politics is like an M16 or a hydrogen bomb. It's just a very dangerous tool. The person with the gun doesn't always win over the person with a sound argument, but that's the way to bet, and the same for campaign funds. And it feeds polarization and general nastiness, because that's who people seem to be giving money to. (Which makes sense -- if you were handing out guns to people about to enter a battle, would you give them to people who said they wanted to shoot other people, or to the people who said they were going to reason with the other folks with guns?)

And once money tarts feeding polarization and posturing, the only people who want to run for office are the ones who are OK with spending most of their time doing the things needed to raise money, rather than on actually contributing to governance.

Posted by: paul314 | January 28, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Count me in with MBP2 and justin. I am continually dumbfounded at how otherwise smart people seem to think a free lunch is available from drug reimportation.

Posted by: ab13 | January 28, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Do we really think Obama, the first presidential candidate to refuse public funding in order to have unlimited coffers to draw from for his campaign, is actually going to be a champion of public funding?

He seems the most unlikely advocate for public financing of political campaigns one could imagine. Not only is he unique in refusing to participate in the public funding options (and thus, limitations) immediately available to him, he raised a lot of money and won the election while essentially flipping the bird to the whole idea of public financing.

He may say the opposite, but actions speak louder than words.

And anybody catch that bit about how foreign corporations can now make huge ad buys for political candidates in America, because of the Supreme Court Decision? And odd assertion, given that it's patently false--there is separate law that forbids exactly that, and explicitly, and it had nothing to do with the recent SCOTUS evisceration of McCain-Feingold.

Plus, an odd complaint from a man who broke the record for foreign "individual" donations to his presidential campaign. Just sayin'.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 28, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

I don't think anyone pretends that public campaign financing is a cure-all. Of course there are ideological divisions between the parties, and differences will remain. I don't believe that most results are bought.

But there are certain results where it's hard to come to any other conclusion. As other comments have noted, "drug reimportation" seems to be one of them, though I prefer to discuss the issue by asking why Medicare can't bargain for prescription drugs like all our peer nations do (in which case we wouldn't need reimportation). Conservatives praise market power when Wal-Mart uses it. Companies say they need profits to fund R&D, but there's no reason why that burden should fall solely on the shoulders of American citizens and not shared by those of our peer nations. If there are no other good reasons, isn't it reasonable to conclude it's the money? And isn't it a pretty good chunk of change?

And as Lessig and others have pointed out, the present system is hugely corrosive of trust in government. It makes it that much harder for our elected officials to put together something big, complicated, and important--like health care reform--if fewer and fewer people trust them to get the job done in a principled way. Ben Nelson's integrity is perceived as compromised when he takes money from the insurance companies whether or not the money has an actual effect on policy. With all the heavy lifting on health care, finance reform, and energy, we don't need to make those burdens even heavier with massive public distrust.

Finally, the amount of time our elected representatives spend raising money is borderline obscene. They have far better things to do than spend a third of their days cold-calling potential donors.

But as Ezra points out, the political funding system is something that's pretty easy to do something about (I'd say it's highly "tractable"). All of the spending by presidential, House, and Senate candidates, national party committees and 527 organizations in the last cycle came to about $8.78 per eligible voter per year. That doesn't sound like it should be a hard sell to the public which says it's tired of "big money in politics."

Posted by: dasimon | January 28, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

The deeper problem is not the money that is gathered by the politicians to fund their campaigns, but the money that we give them to dole out at their pleasure- an exercise of their power. We must not forget that the motivation to achieve power (whether for good or otherwise) is a fundamental element of a politician's personality.

To really curb the ability of politicians to favor special interest groups, we have to give them less power, less money. Of course, when we do that (even accidentally by giving them lots of money during the recent boom, and now less as we return to a more sustainable pace) they just increase the debt ceiling and borrow more money from people that we don't like to be paid back by people that aren't even old enough to vote yet.

Posted by: staticvars | January 28, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Kevin_Willis: "Do we really think Obama, the first presidential candidate to refuse public funding in order to have unlimited coffers to draw from for his campaign, is actually going to be a champion of public funding?"

Actually, yes. He was a cosponsor of public campaign financing legislation as a senator. He didn't "flip the bird" to public financing as a presidential candidate; he said that system is broken, which it is. It's also underfunded. If it were fixed so that it's in a candidate's self-interest to participate, then candidates will participate.

I don't expect Obama or any other candidate to act contrary to his or her self-interest. That doesn't mean they don't support changing the system so that their self-interest can be channeled in a more publicly-oriented direction.

Posted by: dasimon | January 28, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Ezra,
Might you perhaps elaborate on "power" as a dominant problem in politics?

Posted by: adamiani | January 28, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

staticvars: "The deeper problem is not the money that is gathered by the politicians to fund their campaigns, but the money that we give them to dole out at their pleasure- an exercise of their power....

"To really curb the ability of politicians to favor special interest groups, we have to give them less power, less money."

I'm not sure what these statements refer to. Pork? Pork is a tiny amount compared to the giveaways to pharmaceutical companies, oil and gas companies, and agriculture companies. And heck, I'll throw in unions and lawyers to be bipartisian about it. Whatever money "special interest groups" get pales in comparison.

As for giving politicians "less money" to dole out, they are already doling out money we don't have. So I don't see how "less money" will curb the practice (whatever it is).

The difference between money going to "special interest groups" and the other examples is the effect on national policy. Oil and gas policy, health care policy, these things are crucial to our future as a nation. When a politician channels some pork back to her or his own district, that's to be expected to show he or she can "deliver," even though I don't like the practice. When the government is prohibited by statute from bargaining for prescription drugs, that's not about "delivering" federal funds and getting votes from constituents; that's about an unjustifiable policy that will affect all Americans in exchange for money. Acting for votes is something we expect politicians to do; acting for money is something we would want to prohibit.

Posted by: dasimon | January 28, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

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