Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Tinkering with Political Corruption Reform

By Dave A
I listen intently to discussions among people who care about corruption in politics and who believe they know how to "fix" the problem. Generally, their solutions feel to me more like tinkering with periphery issues rather than dealing with the core problem. The talk of campaign finance reform, recall and term limits, all are well intentioned and may indeed have some positive effect though I feel they miss the mark entirely.

I would like to see their discussions address what I think is the root cause of corruption in government. I believe that the system, through a variety of well-intentioned reforms over the years, almost demands some level of influence pedaling. Specifically, there are two core problems with modern politics which necessitate massive flows of campaign donations and which explains why politicians are so beholden to donors rather than to serve the broader public good.

First, and perhaps the most powerful reason: Government is so big, so omnipresent, so dominant in our lives and controls so much spending that if someone can afford to influence an outcome in their favor, they'd be a fool not to try. Frankly, successful people and businesses rarely get to be successful without being / hiring smart and ambitious people who have learned how the system works. The stakes are just too high for them to sit on the sidelines. This isn't to say that all are motivated to engage in illegal activity, to the contrary, it's really the legal activity that presents such a problem. Legal contributions to support their candidate / influence legislation comes in the form of campaign contributions to candidates, Political Action Committees, 527s, political parties and, finally, personal spending on political speech. When given an incentive to improve their bottom line by lobbying for legislation for a new project or to put their competitors at a disadvantage, the money will flow, regardless of limits and other tinkering.

If one were really serious about limiting campaign donations or the impact of corruption, I believe, the ultimate solution is to limit the ability of government to impact / influence our lives. In short, reduce the size and scope of government. A smaller government will tax less and obviously spend less - assuming we reduce our borrowing - and a small government will impose fewer laws and regulations. With less at stake, there will be less incentive to try to influence the outcome.

In our modern world it is perhaps impossible for some to fathom this possibility. The federal government alone employed almost 15 million people in 2006 We rely on the government for permission to engage in all forms of business, protection from any variety of evils and to provide a social safety net from an expanding set of social-ills. I acknowledge that turning back the clock on this expansion may be impossible for some to consider but I think the discussion has to be had. As long as our government is as powerful as it is, people will have an incentive, legal and illegal, to influence the decisions of government. That can't be ignored in reality though apparently, it can be ignored in almost all discussions on how to limit the influence of money in politics.

The next systemic problem we have is federal campaign donation limitations or more precisely limits at the current federal level of $2,400 per donor to a candidate per campaign. In the aggregate, after 30 years of campaign contribution limits, I believe what we have done is turned our election process from that which attempted to select the most qualified candidate to a process which now selects for the best fund raiser. The winning candidate has to have stamina, good looks, a good voice, be an easy talker, patient and flexible on his / her positions. In short, it's a popularity contest that is won based on the candidate's ability to monetize his / her popularity. Candidates must appeal to a wide base of supporters rather than a smaller number of wealthier donors. The larger the pool of donors, the more flexible / vague a candidate has to be in order to capture donations.

Many citizens are pleased that wealthy donors are subordinated to the masses of small donors and I won't argue that there is some value to this. However, it would be foolish to ignore the fact the existing rules have created new realities / problems. Longer election cycles - necessary in order to reach large numbers of small donors - along with the voter fatigue it brings. We also see pandering to populist movements and well organized sub-groups such as conservative religious groups, the environmentalists, the NRA, the unions, etc. Politicians must constantly raise money for the next election and as such, they are always acting with a time horizon of a few years regardless of whether they face problems that demand a longer time-horizon for a solution. It is only the rare politician that can afford to / has the courage to take the long view. As a result we face an $11 trillion dollar federal debt currently and by some estimates the real national debt is really $56 trillion based on current commitments less expected revenue In addition many states and local governments face deficits (Illinois' is approximately $11 billion and Chicago's is in the vicinity of $500 million). Politicians literally can't help themselves. In order to maintain their jobs, they have to appeal to voters. This is done by buying votes with the latest spending plan to meet the need of all the constituent groups.

While the "old" days of wealthy donors propping up candidates had serious limitations, the solutions to these problems - limits on campaign donations is limited also and rooted in the technological era of the 70s with only moderate adjustments for inflation and tinkering with rules and regulations. We need a complete, modern review of whether campaign donations are working and if so, at what cost. I would contend they aren't working and that modern technology (databases and the Internet) make the better solution to be instant / near instant public disclosure of all contributions. This transparency would be sufficient for all interested parties to be made aware of conflicts / potential conflicts of interest. I would place no limit and simply let the light of day serve to inform voters.

In court, there is a notion that the "trier of fact" either the judge or a jury, should be afforded the opportunity to hear all relevant evidence and make up his / her / their mind about the merits of the evidence. In the realm of campaign contributions, I'm in favor of letting the voters consider the influence of donations and judge accordingly for whom they should vote. Each candidate's opponents and the press (old and new media) will play the role of disclosing potential conflicts so there's no need to worry that the information will never see the light of day.

Put together, the dual influences of massive modern governments with its incentives to influence the process, coupled with campaign contribution limits, have created our modern political system. You can love it or hate it but if you're going to talk about how to fix it, I hope at least you'll consider alternative root causes and solutions.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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