Really? Again? No Campaign Finance Questions in the Third Debate

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Really? Again? No Campaign Finance Questions in the Third Debate

After the second presidential debate, I wrote an exasperated piece explaining why the issue of campaign finance reform is perhaps the greatest we face as a nation, and why I was aghast at the fact that it had not been asked about yet. It was a condemnation of our media, I though.

Well, last night marked the final debate of the 2016 presidential election. I actually had high hopes going into it. With FOX News Sunday’s Chris Wallace as the moderator, I knew that there would at least be tough questions, and tough follow-ups. Once again, however, I found myself disappointed. Though he delivered on certain topics, several major issues were left undiscussed. Namely: the environment and of course, campaign finance.

Once again it was up to Hillary Clinton to touch on the issue in a tertiary way in her answer to the first question about constitutional interpretation: Living document or rigid originalism/textualism?

“I feel strongly that the Supreme Court needs to stand on the side of the American people, not on the side of the powerful corporations and the wealthy. For me, that means that we need a Supreme Court that will stand up on behalf of women’s rights, on behalf of the rights of the LGBT community, that will stand up and say no to Citizens United, a decision that has undermined the election system in our country because of the way it permits dark, unaccountable money to come into our electoral system.”

One would expect far more coverage of what is arguably the most pressing issue in America, given its impact on how political battles are carried out.

That is why, in order to illustrate how disappointing it is to once again see it go unaddressed by our mainstream media, I am re-posting the exact same article I wrote last time—mostly. If the moderators and candidates are going to repeat their mistakes, what more can we do than repeat our demand that they do better?

Hyperbolic as it may sound to say government in the United States is no longer representative of the people, an exhaustive study from 2014 by professors Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

And though that study has been criticized, even that criticism verified the general finding that money typically determines policy outcomes. Ph.D. candidate, J. Alexander Branham, of the University of Texas at Austin reviewed the findings and argued that the rich only win 53 percent of the time. But even that would be alarming considering what percentage of the American population they comprise.

There is a reason for this trend: Following a series of Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1976, Congressional representatives nowadays spend half of their time fundraising, and shy away from legislation that might offend their donors. As a result, the nuts and bolts of regulation generally end up coming from executive agencies which are extremely susceptible to regulatory capture thanks to the ‘revolving door’ and nonbinding on subsequent administrations. As a result new rules are subject to a period of public notice and comment, which inevitably involves industry influence.

Virtually every political battle comes down to money.

As far as the broken system goes, Clinton and Trump are each part of the problem.

Clinton is a poster child for establishment politics: A member of the economic elite, she enjoys strong ties with special interests like Wall Street. Moreover, she and her husband are at the head of one of the most influential political machines in politics today. Like the rest of the political establishment, they seem to view it as just ‘the game. In one of her leaked paid speeches to Goldman Sachs, Clinton bemoaned the public outcry over politicians with conflicts of interest—or as she called it, “a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives.”

When the issue of her complicated and successful life has come up in the past—thanks to Bernie Sanders and his supporters—Clinton has bristled.

“Why is there a different standard for me and not for everybody else?” Clinton asked at a presidential town hall in February, when questioned about her decision not to release the transcripts of her paid speeches.

Then on NBC’s Meet the Press in April, she remarked, “I feel sorry sometimes for the young people who believe this,” defending herself against questions regarding her ties to the fossil fuel industry. “They don’t do their own research.”

Weeks later, her husband, whose presidency brought about the deregulation of the financial sector that led to the 2008 Subprime Mortgage Crisis, made the suggestion that Sanders voters would “shoot every third person on Wall Street.”

As one might expect, as far as Clinton’s plan for reform is concerned, it is lacking. Not only does it fail to address the ‘revolving door;’ her remedy to the outsized influence of money in politics essentially boils down to ‘litmus testing’ appointees for the Supreme Court who will overturn Citizens United v. FEC—a task which may prove difficult with Buckley v. Valeo, that deemed money a vehicle for speech, in place as controlling precedent.

Beyond that, without a 60 vote majority in the Senate, there is no guarantee that she will be able to do that. Even if she does get her appointees the judiciary is the reactive branch, and can only act when a case comes before it, whereas the executive has the bully pulpit, and can influence Congress.

Bad as Clinton is, Trump is absolutely terrible. A political outsider, the billionaire businessman literally has no plan. According to OnTheIssues, he “agrees with Clinton” on campaign finance, but what that means is unclear. He has, in the past, called the system “rigged,” and taken a stance against super PAC stances, but his website contains nothing about the issue. The words “campaign finance” do not actually appear anywhere.

Still, it is important to note that neither owns the issue. Just last week, The Intercept reported that a nonpartisan watchdog group found both candidates, against federal election law, coordinate with super PACs.

Here it is important to note that the FEC, the agency charged with regulating these outside expenditure groups, is unable to enforce the law due to a flaw in its structure. No more than three of the six commissioners are able to be from one party, and it takes four of them to carry out/order enforcement. Right now, the three Republican commissioners are preventing action.

That is why campaigns are able to get away with illegal coordination.

Of course, as disappointing as this situation is—where either Clinton or Trump, barring a miracle, will be the next president—that is exactly the reason why the issue must be raised at these debates by the moderators. Voters deserve to see how both major party candidates operate within the confines of a system that empowers economic elites at the expense of the populace. It is the responsibility of journalists to focus people’s attention on the issues that matter most in our society—namely those with the greatest impact. By such a measure, campaign finance should dominate the discussion at the debates. The fact that it has not is a failure of mainstream American journalism.