Challenging the New AristocracyBy RH Lee
Do we, as Americans, want political office in the United States to be up for sale to the highest bidder? Should the pathway to riches in America begin with elective office?
What would Thomas Jefferson do if he were asked this question? He gives us at least a partial answer in his draft of "A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" (1779):
We would all surely agree that given a choice, we would want our leadership to be endowed with both "genius and virtue." Do those qualities strike you as defining the majority of our current and recent leaders?
A specific person-by-person enumeration would accomplish little, but with almost no effort one can call to mind politicians who have resigned their office for sexual misadventures such as "sexting," and for accepting bribes and illegal use of campaign contributions.
But now let's move on to the part of Mr. Jefferson's statement that is easier to remedy, for neither genius nor virtue can be easily legislated.
"They should be called to that charge without regard to wealth," he said in the above referenced bill. He later expanded upon the same theme in his Autobiography: "An aristocracy of wealth is of more harm and danger than benefit to society."
A very interesting phrase -- "An Aristocracy of Wealth."
With that in mind, let's take a quick look at the net worth of ten prominent 21st century American political figures: (Sources are here and here. Also note that married couples reflect their joint assets though both spouses are listed only if both are political figures.)
Obviously these figures fluctuate from year to year. For example, when John Kerry ran for President, his net worth was variously estimated at between $900 million and $3.2 billion.
The brief list above ignores such luminaries as George W. Bush, Diane Feinstein, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi,and many others. It's nearly impossible to name all of those who fall into the lesser category of from $10 million to $50 million in net worth.
The resources provided by this much wealth are immense! How can anyone even begin to compete against a man like Mr. Bloomberg, with a net worth of nearly $20 billion, unless it might be Donald Trump, who proclaims his net worth as over $10 billion and has said he'll spend what it takes if he decides to run for president.
Has America now reached the point where you must be rich to be a leader? That's a question we've been asking ourselves for years, but unfortunately it seems that the answer is becoming a more resounding "YES!" every year.
Isn't it time to consider changing the mechanics of campaign funding following the spending explosion in 2012 when the two major candidates combined to spend in excess of $2 billion on their presidential campaign?
You may now be asking, "Hasn't anyone ever thought about this before?" The answer is, "Of course they have."
In 1971 Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act and the Revenue Act, which established the Presidential Campaign Election Fund (PECF) and allowed taxpayers to designate $1 (later increased to $3) of their tax dollars to finance presidential elections.
Keep in mind, this campaign reform law only addressed presidential elections. Neither U.S. senatorial or congressional campaigns, nor any campaigns at the state or local level were included; just the race for the White House. But we have to start somewhere, and the logical place to start is the presidency, since it's the highest office in the nation.
A key point here is that by checking the box, you don't pay more in taxes, or reduce your tax refund. You simply tell the government that they MUST take $3 of your taxes, and put those funds into the PCEF.
In the beginning, right after the fund was established, it was very popular, but over the years, perhaps because of lack of understanding or lack of publicity, the contributions have declined significantly, as the following chart reveals:
A very cynical person might suggest that the federal government would prefer that fewer Americans select this option because every dollar that goes into the PECF is one dollar less that the Feds have to spend in other areas. This writer, of course, is not that cynical.
The catch to accepting federal funding is that it imposes a limit on how much each candidate could spend. So if there's not enough money in the pot to reasonably fund a campaign, or if the candidate thinks he or she can raise more campaign funds on his or her own, there's a compelling reason to decline the PECF support.
Nevertheless, the concept created in 1971 performed excellently in every presidential election campaign from 1976 through 2004, with every single qualifying candidate accepting the federal funds and adhering to the required maximum spending limit.
Sadly, the system broke down in 2008, for the first time in history, when Barack Obama declined to accept the federal funds, choosing to refuse the PECF support and hence escape the campaign spending limits created by the Federal Election Campaign Act reform 37 years earlier. Four years later, in 2012, both major party candidates declined federal funds.
This doesn't mean that we need a radical revision of our entire campaign system. What we're suggesting is a small adjustment which will have significant positive ramifications in future elections.
Yet another aspect of the problem is that there is such an incredible amount of money out there -- corporate funds, PAC funds, union funds, and what seems like "pocket money" from billionaires -- that a pittance like the less than $100 million offered by the PECF in 2012 just doesn't cut it.
But there is a fix. If we publicize the PECF checkoff box on our tax returns we could almost certainly increase the funding for candidates so significantly that the system would once again function as intended. It would give the lesser known people with "genius and virtue" a real chance to compete.
Let's look at the numbers:
In the four-year period from 2009 to 2012, the average check off percentage was 6.5% for taxpayers, which created a total influx into the PECF of $188.5 million over the four years.
If we could get the contribution back to the approximately 20% level that it was during the first 20 years of the PECF, that $188.5 million could become $582 million. At the 25% level that it averaged for the first 10 years after reform, the pot becomes over $742 million.
Of course, the solution isn't quite that simple. Part of the PECF goes to to primary participants, there's a matching formula involved, and the current spending limit might need to be addressed. But with three to four times the resources available to help the candidates out on the campaign trail, we'd definitely be taking a big step in the right direction.
It is probably unlikely that Americans would raise the PECF to where it would surpass the resources of the multiple PACs, unions, and media giants, and even if it did, this would not eliminate PAC spending. PAC spending is not legally a campaign contribution, but almost surely with increased publicity and a strong bipartisan effort we could push the PECF dollars up to where less financially endowed candidates would be able to enter the fray, make themselves heard, and have an excellent chance to reach the magical debate platform where the voters of the nation could examine their qualifications as serious candidates.
We need to change the current paradigm, and the revival of the PCEFis an excellent way -- perhaps the only possible way -- to continue to make political office accessible to Americans who aren't extremely wealthy.
Clearly this is not a complete and total solution to the problems we face, but it would be a start, a way to begin to level the playing field. We must wrest control of America from those of well-nigh unlimited wealth or it won't be too long before we see political offices up for sale on eBay.
Thomas Jefferson, who distrusted the aristocracy of wealth, did believe in an aristocracy of a different kind, as described in his letter to John Adams, October 28, 1813:
FOLLOW US ON