Over the past few weeks I’ve been discussing how our campaign financing system, of private donations distorts and corrupts elections and governance in the interest of the plutocrats who posses the most money, and what an alternative system of mainly public financing that would disable that system would look like. Public financing of elections would be a basic reform to our constitutional system. How could it be achieved?
Public campaign funding goes against the immediate interests of both the politicians who benefit from the current system and the oligarchs who fund them, and so probably would never be implemented through statutory law. While it is theoretically and legally possible for Congress to make such a reform by passing a statute, Congressional incumbents are main beneficiaries of the current system and thus have no incentive to change it. It is not, as our pundits like to say, “politically possible.”
Therefore probably the only way to create such a reform would be through an amendment to the Constitution: the public funding of elections would have to be imposed upon Congress directly by the people through the amendment process. But not only is it probable that public financing is possible only through an amendment, I would argue that even if circumstances made it politically possible for Congress to pass, it would actually be best enacted as an Constitutional amendment. Such a basic alteration to the political system should be made through a change in our basic law. That would be fitting, and once in place such an amendment would be difficult to dislodge.
The problem here is that Constitutional amendments are very difficult to implement. In terms of the mechanics, the Constitution allows two methods for proposing and passing amendments. Amendments may be proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress or by a national convention assembled by two-thirds of the states. Proposed amendments must then be passed by either legislatures or ratifying conventions in three-fourths of the states (Congress may choose which of those methods is used but otherwise has no role in ratifying amendments). The last amendment -- preventing Congress from raising its own salary during its term -- was passed twenty years ago in 1992, and the previous one came twenty years before that, when the voting age was set at eighteen in 1971. Neither of these amendments, however, was a major change to the basic structure of the political system. During that time one such major change, however, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment which would have guaranteed equal rights for women, did fail to pass.
An amendment for the public financing of political campaigns would probably have to be achieved through a major popular movement, probably in conjunction with the support of one of the major parties (in current circumstances most likely the Democrats, who would benefit more than the Republicans from public funding since big business and the wealthy are the Republican party’s natural constituencies). Unfortunately the same forces that dominate the current money-based campaign system also have the ability to slow, divert, and undermine any movement for a Constitutional amendment that would weaken them; for example, if public financing proponents were to build some degree of popular will for an amendment, as soon as such a reform became a realistic threat to our oligarchic class they would put into effect an expensive public relations campaign to counter it, using all the advertising and propaganda resources that money could buy to undermine popular opinion in favor of it.
Thus I recognize that it would be difficult to get such an amendment through, and any such effort may not succeed. The problem of this reform is the problem of all proposed political reforms in our current dead-end era of political stagnation. The political system is currently rigid, with changes nearly impossible to make.
That cannot continue forever, however; eventually, whether this year, a few years, or a generation, there will be real changes, and when that time occurs it will be an era of wide-ranging political experimentation and reform.
America has not always been mired in periods of political immobility like today, and people of previous generations passed many Constitutional amendments. Historically, the political system is such that it becomes stopped up for a while as entrenched interests resist needed changes for as long as they can; but eventually the pressure builds up too much, and problems become too big to ignore, and the dam breaks. This is usually followed by periods of political experimentation and wide-ranging reform.
During such periods of rapid change, social systems tend to adopt the ideas that are out there in the cultural environment. Best to be prepared for it by having the reform ideas of the Left, including campaign finance reform, in the forefront of everyone’s minds.
Despite the fact that we have seen so little political change in the last generation, there were twelve amendments enacted in the twentieth century, as compared, perhaps surprisingly, to only four during the nineteenth. It is good to simply be reminded that America has passed amendments to the constitution before. The founders were well aware that new circumstances would require changes to the basic law of the country, and previous generations managed to pass amendments when they found it necessary to do so. If they could do it, there’s no reason we can’t.