Money in Politics

Lavish spending by partisan special interests has undermined people's faith that it is their interests that are being represented in Denver. Here's how we fix the problem while also respecting free political speech.

Political campaigns are expensive and are getting more expensive each cycle.  The conventional wisdom is that for a candidate to compete, they must either be a self-funded millionaire or billionaire, or else court the organizations and special interest groups that typically write big checks to campaigns, or write even bigger checks independently on the campaign’s behalf.  The result is that viable candidates must either be wealthy or else at least appear to be beholden to special groups. 

A candidate whose campaign is largely underwritten by special interest groups may not actually be beholden to those groups, in the sense that they only support certain legislation because they’re receiving money from those groups.  Perhaps they genuinely support the legislation and the group supports them because they are in agreement. 

But here’s the rub – there’s no way to tell whether the relationship between politician and special interest group is innocent, as in the second kind of case, or corrupt, as in the first kind of case.  And the fact that no one can tell which it is undermines voters’ confidence that their representatives are representing their collective interests.  And even if a candidate and a special interest group innocently happen to agree on an issue, the fact that a significant amount of the candidate’s campaign funds come from the group provides a strong disincentive for the candidate to ever disagree with the group in the future.  But it’s important that candidates be able to disagree with groups they once agreed with, either because the candidate learns something new or because the group’s positions shift.  This strong incentive to stay lock-stepped with the special interest groups that support them partially explains why our government is so gridlocked. 

Some folks think there isn’t a problem here at all.  They view lobbying and political expenditure by special interest groups as just part of the democratic process.  Others think that this is a huge problem and that the solution is to put strict limits on the amount of money that can be spent on political campaigns.  I fall somewhere in between these two camps.  Special interest spending is absolutely a big problem and it undermines the foundational tenet of democracy that each citizen has an equal voice in politics.  But I am also extremely reluctant to restrict free speech, and spending money to buy ads for political candidates and causes counts as protected speech under the 1st Amendment. 

How do we protect groups’ 1st Amendment rights to advocate politically while also curbing the destructive impact of special interest spending on our democracy?  An innovative solution to this problem would be to change the incentives to give high-spending special interest groups pause and to create the opportunity for candidates who want to run a campaign free from contributions from those groups to still be competitive.  This would involve placing a fee on lavish expenditure by special interest groups.  Revenue generated by the fee would fund a state-wide public campaign fund for candidates willing to forego special interest money.  Under this proposal, the more that special interests try to influence an election, the more they will empower candidates who are free from special interest money to run strong campaigns of their own.

Until such changes are implemented though, it is up to individual candidates to make principled stands.  I have taken such a stand, while my two major party opponents have not.  My campaign has not and will not accept any money from PACs or partisan special interest groups.  I encourage my opponents to return what funds they have accepted and take the same pledge.  Until they do, it is fair for voters to wonder who they're really working for.