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Sen. Alan Simpson Rails Against . . . Politics

In an interview with Dustin Bleizeffer in WyoFile, former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson has a lot on his mind, particularly, according to the article’s title, “money in politics.” Indeed, in the last year Sen. Simpson has appeared on money in politics panels, published articles on campaign finance in magazines like Time, and is part of Issue One’s “ReFormers Caucus.” One would hope, then, that Sen. Simpson would have insights into the current state of campaign finance law. Alas, Sen. Simpson uses “money in politics” as rhetoric to simply rail against politics.

Sen. Simpson brings his trademark swagger to this interview, opening his criticism as follows:

The little guy who is going to (donate $5 or $10) to either party is saying ‘what the hell? I saw the other day somebody gave $10 million, then another bunch gave $5 (million)’ and they don’t know who they are.

This election cycle, candidates for federal office can receive no more than $2,700 directly from an individual donor, and parties no more than $5,000. There are ways to combine donations to parties and political committees to get more money to candidates, but even with these maneuvers the total is nowhere near even $1 million from a single contributor. Sen. Simpson’s concern might lie with “super PACs,” which can accept unlimited money, but these organizations cannot actually give money to candidates or parties. Instead, they spend money independently to support or oppose candidates. Reformers (and, perhaps, ReFormers) believe there is no difference between these activities, but there is all the difference in the world: for example, Michael Moore could be constitutionally prevented from contributing $10 million to John Kerry’s campaign in 2004, but he could not be constitutionally prevented from expending $10 million to produce the movie Fahrenheit 9/11, which opposed the re-election of George W. Bush, John Kerry’s opponent.

Furthermore, super PACs must disclose their donors and expenditures, just like candidates’ campaigns and the political parties. Recent reports show that some individuals have tried to give to super PACs “secretly” through limited liability companies, but these contributors have usually been exposed with a little grunt-work by the media. Perhaps Sen. Simpson would like to expand PAC-style campaign reporting onto any organization that engages in politics, but this has its downsides, recently discussed by the D.C. Circuit in Van Hollen v. Federal Election Commission.

Finally, and most importantly, Sen. Simpson misses the importance of political parties and how much “reform” has weakened them. In the age of super PACs, the national and state parties remain needlessly burdened with silly regulations and restrictions. Parties are not panaceas, but unlike super PACs they are much more open to grassroots participation—particularly at the local level—than super PACs or focused interest groups. The diminished roles of parties and the direct shut-out of average Joes and Janes from participating in them was caused by so-called “reform” under government regulation via McCain-Feingold, not “money in politics.”

From there, Sen. Simpson turns to other alleged problems of “money in politics”:

All of us have felt the sting of having to raise the bucks, having to waste the time, having to beg and scrap and get out there — and be careful of sticking this bill in or the AARP will tear you up. Or the NRA will tear you up. Or the teachers will tear you up. Or the cowboys will tear you up. Sure. How do you think it works?

If Sen. Simpson is upset that so much time is spent raising campaign money, he should support raising the contribution limits, perhaps from $2,700 to $10,000 per person. This would significantly cut down on fundraising time. Some claim this would only heat up the race for campaign funds, and while that is a possibility it is, I suspect, unlikely. Raising the limit would certainly draw money away from independent groups like super PACs, increasing candidate accountability, and pose next to no risk of increased corruption. (Keep in mind that the $10,000 here can only be spent on campaign activity and does not go to candidates’ personal bank accounts.) With full disclosure (also already in place), we could simply lift contribution caps entirely, allowing legislators to spend as little as five minutes raising funds for a campaign.

Sen. Simpson’s specific targets here are the most shocking part of the interview. The AARP? The NRA? Rather than Big Oil, the Koch Brothers or George Soros—silly targets, but for other reasons—Sen. Simpson ridicules large, established institutions that draw their power primarily from membership. The AARP boasts more than 37 million members; the NRA more than 5 million. These organizations are as democratic as interest groups get. Yes, they have a lot of money and can spend it in elections, but their money is the last thing an officeholder thinks about when dealing with them. Their grassroots influence, however, is strong, and commands the attention—and, possibly, votes—of millions. Sen. Simpson is more concerned here with being “[torn] up” with criticism than being outspent. Even under the rosiest “reform” platitude, satisfying voters and countering harsh criticism are not things we need to fix about politics – they are the very definition of politics.

Later, Sen. Simpson pokes, but does not quite breach, the politicians’ omertà for campaign finance discussions:

I was a lost sheep when I was in the State Legislature. I tried to pass disclosure laws. I didn’t get very far at all . . . . I mean there were guys sitting in that Legislature who own stock in the Union Pacific and trucking companies and railroads and oil. Hell, you didn’t know who the hell they were. Some of them, they listed their business in the little pamphlet as to who is on the floor of the House or Senate, but let me tell you I saw enough conflict there to last forever.

Corruption, corruption everywhere. “[Y]ou didn’t know who the hell they were,” but there was “enough conflict there to last forever.” If politicians, present and retired, want to be taken seriously on this issue, it’s time to start naming names. The idea that everyone is bought and paid for except these ReFormers is absurd, yet that has remained their high-toned message for at least the past two decades. This is second only to rosy pontifications that no one is actually corrupt, rather, it’s the system that is corrupt. Sen. Simpson is certainly not alone here: at the ReFormers’ launch event last November, when asked for specific examples of money actually influences Congress, the ReFormers did not have much to say.

Political corruption happens, but politics itself is often the best and only solution, and examples abound in Wyoming. As recently as a few weeks ago, the Casper Star Tribune reported a potential conflict in the 2016 Wyoming Budget Session. Senator Phil Nicholas may have been conflicted over a bill to lower the intoxication level for drunk boating to 0.08, the same level the state applies to drunk driving. But at the same time, Sen. Nicholas raised legitimate points about the bill’s weaknesses. Here, no law—particularly for limits on political money or increased paperwork—would resolve this potential “corruption,” or offer an answer as to whether there is corruption in the first place. It is a question for voters. The process is messy, uncertain and unsatisfying, but it’s definitely not corruption – again, it’s politics.

Considering all of Sen. Simpson’s rhetoric, his closing is fitting:

Everything in politics is perception. There is no reality in politics, I ought to know. I was this or that, and the perception was this — you couldn’t overcome it with facts.

If I allow myself one platitude in this post, it is this: politicians blow in the rhetorical wind; statesmen stand for truth. By peddling “money in politics” platitudes to support cures for either non-existent problems or problems that campaign finance law cannot or should not cure, Sen. Simpson unfortunately stands with the primacy of perception. His facts fall as flat as grass in a strong gust on the High Plains. 

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Friday, 20 October 2017
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