Wednesday's Supreme Court decision striking down personal campaign contribution limits, McCutcheon v. FEC, has been a long time coming. It flows logically from Citizens United and other similar, terrible decisions in which five members of this court have equated money with speech.
It is time the citizens of this country -- starting here in Alaska -- stop crying in our beer and start talking seriously about what can be done. Yes, we live in a political oligarchy. Yes, we have a Supreme Court majority beholden to special interests. What can we do, statutorily, both to reduce the influence of big money on politics and to fit within the strictures set out by this court?
It is important to point out that reform can be accomplished through statute, because a constitutional amendment would be extremely difficult at this point -- perhaps impossible. There are good people out there pushing for a constitutional amendment, and we should wish them well, but we should also not allow that movement to delay our statutory reforms.
For my money, the best book on this topic is Lawrence Lessig's "Republic, Lost." Lessig lays out a compelling case for why lobbyist-driven "dependence corruption" frustrates the majority of American citizens on both sides of the political aisle. Near the end, he embraces a statutory solution first laid out in the earlier book "Voting With Dollars," by Brucer Ackerman and Ian Ayres.*
The "Voting With Dollars" solution has been dubbed "Patriot Dollars" or "Democracy Dollars," and the simplified explanation goes like this: Every voting-age citizen would receive a voucher (key word "voucher" -- this Supreme Court loves vouchers) worth some amount of real-world dollars, perhaps $50 or $100. These vouchers could only be used as political donations to candidate campaigns or PACs. There is a variety of other details that would make the system work, like a fluctuating dollar amount, but that's the gist of it.
Now, you might be thinking -- why would adding more money to the political system help at this point? Well, it's the same reason a crowd at a basketball game can drown out one lone heckler. Furthermore, while it seems like the money in the political system is a flood, it is still a drop in the bucket compared to the federal budget. Total expenditures on federal elections in 2012 fell between $6 billion and $7 billion. In comparison, the federal budget is more than $3.5 trillion.
Moreover, because we still have laws on the price of political advertising -- radio and TV stations have to give political campaigns "lowest unit charge" -- there is a finite amount of traditional campaign airtime to be purchased; more money doesn't necessarily mean higher prices.
Unlike top-down efforts at public financing, Patriot Dollars would be constitutionally legitimized by passing through the hands of American citizens, even under this court's stated jurisprudence. These dollars would help to drown out the concentrated wealth of self-interested political players, and the program could be run for a tiny fraction of what we now pay special interests in pork and corporate welfare. Such a program would be good for both democracy and the budget.
A federal law creating a similar program has already been proposed. I hope to champion that law or similar laws if I am elected. But Alaska does not need to wait for the feds to act; we could set up a Patriot Dollars system at the state level, and be one of those "laboratories of democracy" that Justice Louis Brandeis imagined. We can and should take the lead.
I urge Alaskans to talk about campaign finance and the dependence of our political leaders on campaign cash. We need to make this a major issue in the coming cycle, and every cycle going forward until there is real reform. If you have the time, please check out Lessig's book. You might be shocked at just how deep the dependence corruption runs. At the same time, I hope you are heartened by the idea that real change is possible, and that we do not have to simply accept awful decisions like McCutcheon.
• Full disclosure (another thing we should be pushing for): One of the authors donated to my campaign.
Forrest Dunbar is a lifelong Alaskan, a former commercial fisherman and wildland firefighter, and a current candidate for the United States Congress.
By FORREST DUNBAR