In September 2007, an abbreviated version of this proposal for campaign-finance reform was printed as an op-ed in the "Burlington (Vermont) Free Press", and I was disappointed that this op-ed went virtually unnoticed. However, because wealthy donors (particularly corporate interests) exert a pernicious influence that is extremely out of proportion to their population in the political process, we have a serious problem in need of a solution, and I think that my proposal for campaign-finance reform offers an innovative solution.
First, the gross amount of all donations (regardless of the source of such donations) to any political candidate or potential candidate for any office, and the gross amount of all donations to any person or organization (including political parties) supporting any political candidate or any political issue, should be treated as taxable income to the RECIPIENT of such political donations. Donations received by religious organizations that engage in political activity should also be subject to taxation, with the exception that any funds strictly segregated for religious expenses (I am biting my tongue as I type this) or charitable expenses would be exempt from taxation. Campaign-finance legislation should also stipulate that any loan received by a person or organization advocating any political issue would be treated as taxable income until actual repayment of such loan. The income from all political donations should be subject to a Federal income tax of 50 percent of the GROSS amount of the donations received. However, this Federal tax rate should be reduced by the amount of any income tax paid to any State which passes legislation to tax the receipt of political donations.
Campaign-finance reform legislation also should include the following specifications:
(1) All of money collected from taxes under this proposal should be held in a public campaign fund, and none of the tax money distributed from the public campaign fund created by this proposal would be subject to the tax on political donations;
(2) All of the tax money collected from political donations for State offices (or offices of a political subdivision of a State) should be distributed to any States which pass legislation to use such distributions to create public campaign funds which must be designated specifically to sponsor televised debates and/or televised public meetings for campaigns for all qualified candidates for congressional Districts and Statewide offices;
(3) All of the remaining tax money collected under this proposal should be available for distribution by the Federal Election Commission to any qualified organization (such as the League of Women Voters} to sponsor televised public debates and/or televised public meetings for all qualified candidates for Federal offices;
(4) A qualified organization would be any organization that adheres to the guidelines of this proposal, and a qualified candidate would be any candidate who qualifies to be listed on the ballot for the primary or general election;
(5) Any person or organization, receiving money from these Federal and State public campaign funds and sponsoring a televised political debate or televised public meeting for any elected office, should be required to include all qualified candidates for that elected office, and should be required to provide equal time for all qualified candidates during these public forums, and only actual expenses of a such sponsors should be reimbursed. A State could discourage frivolous candidates by a legislative examinination of the requirements which must be met by candidates to be listed on the ballot for primary and general elections; and
(6) Any national television network (including PBS) could be used as the medium for televised debates and/or televised public meetings for candidates for President in the general election, and any television station(s) accessible by more than half of the potentially-eligible voters for the contested office (or Statewide Presidential Primary election) could be used for any other televised debates and/or televised public meetings.
Many people get upset when they read that rare news story about the preferential tax rates enjoyed by those who derive their income from hedge funds (regardless of whether the investment might consist of the projected sale price next year of the silhouette of a turd) and private equity funds (even though many of the financial transactions involve the acquisition and dismemberment of businesses for short-term profits that are often at the expense of the workers at otherwise productive businesses), but please rest assured that this information is not news to most members of Congress and neither are they upset by the rot that surrounds them. You may read that your miseries in the housing market, at the grocery store and at the gas pump are being exacerbated by financial wizards manipulating the financial markets, but if members of Congress might have more information than the general public about the manner in which regulatory policies and tax policies could help control the excesses of unregulated financial markets (e.g., the Enron meltdown or the Neutron bomb known as the sub-prime mortgage crisis), such information will not translate into remedial legislation.
There is no mystery why most members of Congress have done nothing beyond sporadic sound bites to reverse the tax cuts that the Bush Administration engineered for the wealthiest Americans. Despite windfall profits that amplify unwarranted subsidies for oil companies, the most we can expect from Congress is the annual parade of the oil executives before a Senate or House committee to allow members of Congress to pretend to be outraged at the oil companies, but these show trials only expose the inability of Congress to even attempt to do anything constructive. We might call for a windfall-profits tax on oil companies that could be directed toward infrastructure repairs and maintenance, but that call would fall on deaf ears in Congress. If a Senator or Representative occasionally issues a statement that he/she is going to ask the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether energy companies are engaging in price-gouging, that really means that the lazy-ass Senator or Representative is content to do absolutely nothing.
Another recurring farce involves those infrequent news articles about offshore tax havens. As strange as it may seem, you and I actually might want Congress to do something to eliminate these offshore tax havens that allow businesses to screw us twice (in the marketplace and via the tax system), but such reform dies aborning in congressional committees. If you think that Congress should be active in an effort to prevent election fraud from being effected via electronic technology that is unreliable and easily manipulated, you should think again. Maybe you expect that Congress should insure that our trade policies are more beneficial to workers and communities rather than being rigged for business interests, but please let me disabuse you of that notion. Democracy dies behind closed doors, and most members of Congress feel at home behind those closed doors.
Obstructionist tactics by Republicans have made it extremely difficult for the Democrats to enact legislation, but the Democrats have not made any serious effort to advance progressive legislation, which at least could be used as a vehicle to demonstrate to voters why elections should matter. It is true that 40 Senators can hold legislation hostage, but if those 40 Senators never have to exercise their right to filibuster, the finer points of this civics lesson are lost on most voters. Unfortunately, the Democrats in Congress are quick to admit defeat even before they begin to fight. There are some significant policy differences that exist between the two major parties, but Democrats in Congress have been politically inept about explaining these differences, and there are few voters who can be inspired by the timid performance of the Democrats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Congress is held in low esteem by most people because Congress does not address the real needs of most people, and Congress does not address the real needs of most people because the current method of campaign fund-raising creates a system of legalized bribery that stifles any meaningful reform. It is discouraging that so many politicians are engaged in perpetual fund-raising that seems to eclipse their official duties, but campaign-finance laws which attempt to impose limits on campaign donations and/or attempt to impose limits on campaign spending have significant limitations with respect to the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court decision in June 2007 which eviscerated restrictions on issue-oriented political advertisements is a good example of the difficulty in establishing spending limits that are both effective and not contrary to the Constitution.
We may disagree with Supreme Court decisions relative to this issue, but we must abide by the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution. Campaign-finance reform has foundered for many years because politicians have not been able to craft effective legislation which comports with the U.S. Constitution, and legislators needlessly protract this problem by offering diluted versions of the same type of failed legislation, such as the 1997 Vermont campaign-finance law that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2006 (which then led the Democratic-controlled Vermont legislature to pass weaker and weaker versions of campaign-finance reform in each of the past two legislative sessions, followed by vetoes from the Republican Governor). Campaign-finance schemes (such as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, otherwise known as the McCain-Feingold Act) that attempt to conform with Supreme Court decisions do not provide effective reform.
Members and former members of Congress (such as Tom Delay) legally can and do use political donations to pay legal fees associated with their professional misconduct. Various proposals for public financing of political campaigns have the serious problem that many people (myself included) are disgusted by the thought of tax dollars being used for political campaigns (especially in the current corrupt political environment), and public financing of political campaigns would require significant public spending to provide any significant curb on the undue influence of wealthy donors. Therefore, I am offering a suggestion for substantial public financing of election campaigns which provides a source of revenue that should neutralize the public's revulsion at the thought of tax dollars being spent for election campaigns.
Any campaign-finance reform legislation should retain record-keeping and reporting requirements contained in current Federal law (primarily due to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002), and this information, which can be accessed through the Federal Election Commission, should remain readily available as a topic for debate in the forums I have proposed for public financing of political campaigns. Ideally, there should be a cap on the amount a candidate and/or his supporters could spend on any campaign for any elected office. However, devising such a cap involves establishing artificial limits, which would be ineffective if the caps are set too high, and which would be considered unconstitutional if the caps are set too low. My suggestion for campaign-finance reform is far from perfect, but reform of our corrupt campaign-finance system is necessary. Implementation of my plan for campaign-finance reform would create a system which would limit campaign spending to reasonable levels naturally (this would avoid any need to establish arbitrary and potentially unconstitutional caps on campaign spending), would result in fewer candidates who are under obligation to narrow-interest groups, and also should increase voter participation by a more-informed electorate.
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