“We have all seen how the influx of big money distorts our agenda, limits competition, and undermines democracy. With Fair Elections, the power rests with voters, not special interests.”- Bill Bradley
We are not fiscal experts. We are campaign reformers concerned about our nation’s current deficit crisis who see a structural barrier to achieving long-term fiscal sustainability in Washington: the undue influence of special interest money on government and the basic conflict of interest it creates for Members of Congress. By exploring a range of ideas for deficit reduction put forward by respected budget experts from across the political spectrum, this report seeks to demonstrate the critical connection between fiscal and campaign finance reform for our nation’s future.
Americans agree that our current fiscal path is unsustainable and damaging to our long-term future. Americans also agree that the road to fiscal responsibility must be marked by shared sacrifice and fair play in the public interest. Americans will never agree in full on the specific pathways to achieving fiscal sustainability in the present Congress–but that need not obscure the considerable common ground we already share, nor should it stand in the way of reasoned compromise where we disagree. There is a larger, structural barrier to achieving long-term fiscal reform that transcends ideological difference.
Under the present system of privately financed campaigns, Members of Congress depend for reelection upon large contributions from special interest groups with a vested tax- and spending-interest before the committees on which they serve. Less than one percent of Americans fund campaigns and more money is raised in Washington, DC than in thirty-two states combined. Private contributions distort budgetary priorities and help sustain a multibillion dollar system of special tax breaks and government spending programs that benefit a few while costing the taxpayers at large. So long as special interest contributors continue to enjoy outsized influence in Washington, politicians will be unable to enact wholesale deficit reduction in the public interest.
To meet our nation’s daunting fiscal challenge, Congressional leaders and the President have expressed broad agreement on the need to reduce the federal deficit by roughly $4 trillion over the next ten years. While substantial differences remain over specific areas of deficit reduction, both sides agree that at least half of those reductions will have to come in the area of direct and indirect federal spending, and that the time for Washington to act is long overdue.
This report only addresses the spending side of the equation. We identify $2 trillion in potential savings over 10 years, or $200 billion per year, drawn from recommendations made by diverse interest groups across the political spectrum. The cuts in question span agriculture, energy, defense, labor, and healthcare and include programs and policies that are favored by both parties. The programs are found to disproportionately benefit a small set of organized corporate and labor interests engaged in targeted campaign contributions and lobbying. They have been termed rent-seeking by economists on the political right and left for their anti-competitive effects in violation of free-market principles.
By surveying a broad set of potential reductions in federal spending which disproportionately benefit narrow special interests, the report argues that a central, if overlooked, site in the struggle for fiscal responsibility is the undue influence enjoyed by organized lobbies’ use of political donations in the budget and policy-making process. America’s fiscal problem is also a campaign finance problem.
The report concludes by recommending a set of commonsense reforms to the system of financing federal elections for which there is broad bipartisan support.