What could we do if we broke the power of money in politics?

If Democrats can raise big money in small chunks over the Internet, that ought to free us to do some good and popular things that some group of big donors has until now been able to block.
What’s the list?

Ever since Tony Coelho figured out that the only way to keep Congressional Democrats competitive in the money race was to sell out to Little Oil, we’ve been losing votes at the polls because things we’d like to do and that our constituents would like would cost too much in the way of contributions. Oil, financial services, telecommunications, entertainment, high tech, and various chunks of the health care and health-care finance industries have all be important parts of the Democratic donor base, and each has extracted its pound of legislative flesh.

That may be about to change.

Assume for the second that November goes well, with a big win for Obama and increased majorities in both Houses. Assume in addition that the Obama money machine can keep cranking even after he becomes President, and can substantially replace the usual big-money interests as a source of campaign funding for Congressional Democrats.

One implication of that ought to be that some popular (and in some cases populist) programs that Democrats have been shying away from since 1974 because they can’t afford to lose the donors suddenly become possible.

So what’s the list? What is it that the Democrats ought to do that they haven’t been doing?

Here’s my preliminary agenda. I’d be interested in suggested additions and subtractions. We’re looking for stuff that (1) is good policy; (2) appeals to Democratic constituencies and (3) has been hard to do as result of donor power (as opposed to voter power).

1. Health care finance reform.

2. Taxing hedge fund “carried interest” as ordinary income. [List your own favorite outrageous tax code provision.]

3. Making cable TV operators common carriers charging regulated rates.

4. Bankruptcy un-reform.

5. Protecting credit card consumers from the various games the banks have been playing.

6. Protection of “fair use” against digital rights management.

7. Reversing the “Mickey Mouse Bill” extension of copyright to 99 years.

8. Making student loans a purely public program.

9. Reducing the concentration of media ownership.

10. Eliminating the indentured servant provision of the H(1)b visa, so that a visa-holder can work for any employer and isn’t bound to the one which provided the visa.

11. Eliminating the protection for U.S. intellectual property holders in trade agreements. (Okay, so this one isn’t especially popular. But the notion of making developing countries enforce our trademark and patent laws as a condition of trading with us is pretty damned unconscionable.)

12. Charging full freight for mineral and grazing rights on federal lands.

13. Limiting the capacity of sellers and employers to force consumers and workers to forgo lawsuits for an arbitration system rigged against the individual. (I’m not sure whether this should mean un-rigging the system or forbidding contracts under which people sign away, e.g., civil rights protections.)

14. Allowing federal agencies to make their data publicly available no matter what commercial data-reseller would lose money as a result.

15. Changes in agricultural policy. (As I understand it, much of the problem here is vote-driven rather than money-driven, but there must be some particular outrages that could be undone without losing many votes.)

16. Net neutrality.

That’s a sample. Your suggestions?


Lots of good responses, most of which remind me that the list above is under-ambitious.

1. Cutting back on excessive copyright would be a good start, but how about a top-down reform of the entire intellectual property regime, not just shortening lives but restricting content (no software or math patents, for example) and substituting grants and prizes for artificial monopoly wherever possible?

2. Reform of defense contracting, dumping all the useless Cold-War-legacy systems. Forbid retired officers from lobbying for contractors.

3. Serious campaign finance reform, to drive the money-raisers from the Temple even if Obama isn’t raising tons of money on the Net. Requiring holders of public spectrum to contribute free time for candidates is an obvious move here. My personal favorite would be a $100 per voter per year voucher, which could be signed over in whole or part to candidates, parties, and PACs, with the rule that anyone taking any voucher money couldn’t take any non-voucher money.

4. Independent of campaign finance, how about charging annual fees for spectrum-holders? There’s no particular reason to give that resource away for free. We’re talking big bucks here.

5. Making post offices financial-services centers. (Some of this is happening, but the postal service could be a big part of the solution to the problem of the “un-banked” population.) Why should there be an upper limit on the size of a postal money order, for example? Why shouldn’t the post office offer a savings account with a debit card?

6. Low-denomination TIP’s (inflation-protected Treasury obligations) with the intention of making Federal debt as normal a part of a middle-class family’s portfolio as it was in the glory days of the Series E savings bond.

7. Tighten down on direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. If consumers are competent to choose, the drug should be over-the-counter. If it requires a physician’s prescription, then let’s not allow the drug companies to convince people they’re sick in order to get them to lobby their doctors.


Footnote Yes, comments are fritzed. Consider this another bleg for a Moveable Type expert who wants to take over the technical side of the RBC.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com