The Presidential (Fund-Raising) Race Is On

No sooner had Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for president on Sunday than the inevitable speculation began.

No, we don’t mean speculation about her chances of getting elected (that hardly ever stopped). We are referring to the speculation about her fund-raising campaign.

Clinton is reportedly out to make history with the most expensive political campaign ever known. Her goal is $2.5 billion!

This stupendous sum is difficult for the human mind to grasp without the aid of illustration: for example, a book with a billion dollar signs, printed 1000 per page and with pages printed on both sides, would be 500,000 pages long. Times 2.6 yields about 1.3 million pages.

In terms of campaign spending it breaks all records. In 2012, campaign spending by both major party presidential candidates combined reached “only” $1.7 billion!

On the other hand, a billion dollars ago was only about 8 hours and 20 minutes ago, at the rate Washington spends taxpayer dollars. A mere drop in the federal bucket.

And it’s a lot less than the Gross Domestic Product of Tuvalu ($38 billion) or Micronesia ($333 billion).

It’s not Clinton’s fault; she didn’t create the system. She is acting on the apparently unassailable principle that there is no such thing as overspending to become president.

All the other candidates of both parties share in this belief, and their strivings to compete with Clinton’s fund-raising juggernaut are also coming under scrutiny, albeit on a smaller scale, not yet requiring user-friendly comparisons.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the first Republican to officially declare for the presidency in 2016, would seem to have a head start even on Clinton. Cruz is married to a managing director at financial biggie Goldman Sachs, which gave $69,000 to his last campaign, more than any other organization.

However, Cruz is new to 10-figure amounts. In fact, Cruz’s career cash pile from fund-raising is only $18.4 million. Not even enough to buy a hat to throw into the ring.

That doesn’t mean that the Republicans will not be able to finance an effective Stop Clinton campaign. They’re saying that Jeb Bush could be good for $1 billion-plus. The Koch brothers have announced a billion-dollar network to support their favorite sons.

Another try at legislation to rein in campaign financing seems not to be in the cards, at least before 2016. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring campaign donations a form of “speech,” we continue to live in the era of PACs and Super PACs, vehicles allowing corporations and unions unlimited funding of candidates for public office.

Furthermore, the proportion of financing that the public is legally entitled to know about is dwindling. The rest is “dark money,” for which donors are not compelled to make public disclosure. Increasingly, Americans are in uninformed about who is backing which candidate — not a desirable trend.

In lieu of any major overhaul of the system, some suggestions are being made for modest but significant reforms that could be in place in time to bring some sanity into the fund-raising frenzy that threatens the lead-up to 2016.

For example, Congress could adopt its own rules prohibiting members from actively fund-raising while Congress is in session. This would help to arrest the pernicious trend of politicians who appear to spend more time chasing money than they do on legislative work.

They could prohibit members from soliciting contributions from any industry or entity they regulate from their committee positions. Or Congress could tighten the current “revolving door” laws, which allow them and their staff to scout for high-paying jobs while still serving on the federal payroll.

If self-discipline is too much to expect, another approach could at least encourage small donations. The present federal threshold for donor reporting could be raised from $200 to $2,700, the current contribution limit.

On that scale, influence-buying is not an issue, and it would help to democratize the process, or at least slow the rush to oligarchy. Privacy interests of donors must be safeguarded. For example, federal law already prohibits the use of reports to pitch products to donors or ask them for money. More could be done, such as making it illegal to use the reported information to contact contributors directly with unwanted political messages.

In the long term, however, there must be a serious overhaul of the campaign finance law, one that will satisfy the Supreme Court’s concern for free speech while effectively putting a lid on the spending madness.

If a fraction of the talent and energy that goes into fund-raising would be applied to the problem, surely a solution could be found.