08/23/2012 06:11 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2012

It's the Need for Campaign Contributions That's the Problem

According to a recent report published by the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2012 federal elections are on track to be the most expensive in history, amounting to an estimated $5.8 billion. That is a 7 percent increase over the 2008 elections.

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, $3.8 billion was raised around state elections during the 2009-2010 elections. If the current trend of ever increasing amounts continues, this election cycle could easily top $4.0 billion.

Unfortunately, there is no entity that compiles local level election campaign spending across the country, and very few do within any state. It has been estimated that $350 million was spent campaigning for local elections in 1992. Considering the growth trend in state and national campaign spending, it is likely that local level election campaign spending this election cycle will cost at least $1 billion, and possibly considerably more.

In total, this election cycle is likely to cost around $11 billion. That is a mind boggling amount of money. To help put it into perspective, that is about $78 per registered voter in the United States.

Isn't it odd that so much money is "needed" to conduct "democratic" elections? What do these figures represent?

The justification for campaign contributions is of course that it is expensive to run a campaign. Candidates need to communicate with voters, and that communication is expensive.

Surveys have shown that barely a third of all citizens can recall the name of their representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, about one-half know that there are two U.S. Senators from their state, and only 66 percent of the population can name their state's governor. Nearly all citizens have extremely low levels of knowledge about what their various representatives have actually done while in office.

Since each of our representatives have many thousands or millions of constituents, and those constituents are generally uninformed and disconnected from government, candidates need an enormous amount of money to reach them. There is an enormous demand for campaign contributions because there is an enormous disconnect.

These amounts of political contributions could be an expression of that demand, and of the degree to which the American people are disconnected from their government and the electoral process. But considering that most people remain largely uninformed at election time despite this enormous expenditure of money, these amounts are likely a gross underrepresentation of the degree of disconnect. We should therefore expect the volume of campaign contributions to continue to climb well into the future.

What are the consequences of all of this money on our politics?

The higher level an office is, the larger the constituency, and therefore the greater the need for money. For these offices, the first requirement is not what kind of ideas someone has, but how much money they have or can they raise -- and whether they are willing to do what it takes to raise it. The first step in the election process is the "money primary" -- a contest of raising money. Due to fears of corruption, limits on the size of contributions are relatively low, which forces candidates to spend an enormous amount of time begging for money from a wide variety of sources. Candidates must spend time on the phone dialing for dollars and traveling widely to attend fund-raisers.

In 2012, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will likely raise over $1 billion each. Both have spent considerable amounts of time over the past few years flying around the country holding fundraisers. At each stop they spend most of their time in exclusive gatherings with a few people who have large disposable incomes and an interest in politics, and often in specific policies that would benefit them. In 2010, the average winner of a U.S. House seat spent $1.4 million and the average winner of a Senate seat spent $9.8 million. Inevitably, the process of raising money gives politicians a skewed perception of the needs of the country.

Raising money takes so much time and effort that, once elected, representatives must immediately start thinking about the next election. "The day after an election," Robert Kaiser wrote in So Damn Much Money, "[Members of Congress] have to start raising money. A Member facing a competitive campaign routinely devotes 8-10 hours a week dialing for dollars."

This creates a situation political scientists call "the permanent campaign," which is aptly described in the book The Permanent Campaign and Its Future. "Members of the House, facing reelection every two years, are essentially campaigning and raising money all the time, one election bid merging into the next, with little or no respite between," wrote contributing author Anthony Corrado. "Most [Senate] incumbents now raise money throughout the course of their six-year terms" as well.

In Larry Markenson's book Speaking Freely, Former Congressman Joe Scarborough described how, once elected, House Members are engaged in a second campaign. Members who raise the most money and give it to other members, leaderships PACs, and to the party committees gain the most power in Congress and become leaders. Political power is "fueled by money." Norman Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann wrote in The Permanent Campaign and Its Future that "legislators capable of amassing cash and directing it to others are those who are likely to build up political currency that can be translated into votes for leadership positions or other legislative benefits."

This has led to a situation that Ornstein and Mann called "governing to campaign," where the process of campaigning and the process of governing have "lost their distinctiveness," with campaigning "in many ways the dominant partner of the two." Campaigning has trumped governing.

Much of the activity in Congress is geared towards shaking the "money tree" to bring in campaign contributions from affected industries. "The lawmakers themselves, in the zeal to raise ever-increasing bundles of campaign cash, regularly shake down lobbyists for money using ever more brazen threats to demand that the lobbyists contribute personal and PAC funds and to their fund-raisers," wrote Mann and Ornstein in The Broken Branch. Politicians who refuse to play these games are disadvantaged in elections and are vulnerable to defeat. Jesse Unruh, former speaker of the House of California, put it nicely when he said: "Money is the mother's milk of politics."

Money is "like a cancer eating away at our democratic process," wrote Wright Andrews, partner in the lobbying firm of Butera & Andrews and former two-term president of the National League of Lobbyists, in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post. And Senator Richard Bryan was quoted as saying that "the role of money in politics today is so great that I think it's the most destructive force in American politics."

There is, of course, another kind of demand that plays a role in our government. Since government regulates industries and awards contracts, many businesses have a strong interest in the actions of government -- billions and billions of dollars are at stake. If business leaders believe they can realize a higher return on investment by spending money on political activities than on investing in new plants or research, they will do so. Likewise, labor unions, trade associations, and a wide variety of other special interests groups have also proven to be very interested in influencing government policy and participate actively.

This has effectively turned government into a profit center. In 2011, there were 12,600 lobbyists in Washington and more than $3.27 billion was spent lobbying the federal government (down from 14,900 lobbyists and $3.51 billion in 2007). There are also tens of thousands of lobbyists in state capitals and around local governments throughout the country. Clearly, many have found that there is an outstanding ROI on government influence.

Lobbying itself has become a growth industry. Not only do lobbyists work to obtain government benefits for their clients, they also imagine new benefits that might be had from the government and then find clients who will pay for them. Robert Kaiser's So Damn Much Money provides an excellent description of how this has evolved.

Special interests have realized that to be most effective they must lobby not only the government, but influence public opinion as well. They need to frame the debate, control the conversation, and put public pressure on elected officials. An enormous industry has grown up to support these efforts that includes public relations firms, political advertising firms, think tanks, grassroots lobbying firms, and firms that specialize in Astroturf lobbying (fake grassroots). These organizations are experts at framing issues so that they appear to be in the public interest -- whether they actually are or not -- and shaping public opinion to suit their needs. Any major issue will have a major coordinated effort to create the maximum possible effect at influencing the public. Members of the public, uninformed and disconnected as they are, can't help but be influenced. The amount of political propaganda Americans are subjected to has reached truly frightening proportions.

The reforms that have been proposed to address these problems are all very familiar: campaign finance reform, term limits, and public financing of elections. Would these reforms work? Would any of them address the root problem of a disconnected public?

Money plays a very important role in our system of government -- it helps bridge the disconnect. It is inconceivable that we could fix our money-in-politics problem without addressing the disconnect. It is the need for campaign contributions -- the demand that's the problem. Money is merely a symptom of the root problems of disconnect -- one of many symptoms. Nearly all of the problems with our government can be traced back to the disconnect between citizens and the government. How can we even call our system of government a "democracy" when citizens are so disconnected?

Our "democracy" has been diverging from the vision of the Framers of our Constitution for a very long time. They knew there were serious problems with allowing the public to directly elect the government, and they went to great lengths to avoid exactly what we are doing now. Over the past 225 years there have been many well-intentioned reforms that have led to where we are now, but nobody planned for it to be this way.

Is there a way to address this disconnect?

Our government is enormously large, with multiple levels and multiple branches at each level. Each citizen is responsible for electing multiple candidates to a wide variety of positions, and each of those elected officials work on scores of issues while in government. It is, for all intents and purposes, an infinitely complex system.

The first step in solving this problem is to accept that it is impossible for the average citizen to stay informed well enough to make good voting decisions. No matter how much someone follows the news, our government is simply too complex for people to keep up with it. And dividing that complexity by two -- into two political parties -- and simply voting according to party is a totally inadequate solution.

Is there anything in our current environment that we could use as a model on which to base a solution?

Corporations sometimes consist of millions of people, yet they are able to achieve amazing things because they are organizations. CEOs don't try to manage each of their employees directly -- that would be impractical. Rather, they break responsibilities up into manageable chunks and delegate them managers. The managers are arranged in a hierarchy, forming an organization. Everyone in the organization is accountable to his boss, and ultimately to the CEO. This makes it possible for CEOs to manage millions of people and successfully achieve business goals.

Could democracy be similarly organized?

Here is a model we have developed for how it might work:

All citizens would need to be part of a small election district, which we will call a community. Members of each community would elect someone to represent them full-time, and delegate all political responsibility to that person. This would allow people to maintain two-way communication with their representative throughout his term in office, tell him what they need from government, and hold him accountable for addressing those needs.

All government representatives would need to be arranged in a hierarchy, with lower level representatives electing, setting the agenda of, and holding accountable higher level representatives. Representatives at each level would likewise need to be part of a group that is small enough to ensure that two-way communication between levels is possible, so that accountability at all levels of government is possible. People would be connected to the government via a hierarchy of connected representatives. It would be an inverted hierarchy.

People would participate in democracy primarily by participating in their community. If someone had an issue he was concerned about, he would discuss it with other community members and, if they supported his issue, it could be presented to the community as a whole. If the community supported it, the community representative would be responsible for advocating for it at the next level. Those issues that are supported would rise through each level to the top and become policy, while those that are not would stall.

Such a system would allow the people to manage their government. It would empower people and make them realize that they have the ability to create real change themselves. The people would be the government. This would bring people together and engage them in a process that is not politics as we know it -- but life. Democracy would be a wholly natural act of people meeting with their neighbors, working out their differences, working towards common goals, and engaging in their community.

We call this system of democracy Local Electors, which is also the name we've given to the community representatives. You can learn more about it at Thomas Jefferson advocated for a similar system of democracy. He described communities in much the same way, but called them "wards."

Is such a change possible?

We could hope that our current political leaders would pursue such change, but they are the product of a broken political system. They, and the special interests who back them, have an interest in maintaining the status quo. The only way change can happen is for the American people to get behind a specific idea and to demand it relentlessly. A different set of political leaders would likely need to be elected.

Ultimately real change starts with you. The freedom that real democracy provides comes with responsibility, and none of us can expect to be truly free until each of us take responsibility for making change happen -- and that means you. Please visit our website to find out what you can do.