Campaign finance regulation (re Citizen’s United v. FEC) is arguably the most pressing non-environmental, environmental issue facing the United States today. Obviously, there is room for debate on this point – Ronald Coase makes the case that it is the lack of clearly distinguished property rights (for goods of the commons such as the atmosphere) that’s most pressing, while James Boyce argues, on another hand, that income inequality is the ultimate source of environmental injustice. In many ways, both are compelling and correct. I, however, opt to focus on the ills of our current campaign finance situation over the aforementioned two issues because, on one hand, I question the wisdom of assigning human ownership to something as vast and interconnecting as the atmosphere, and on the other, I am confident that income inequality can only be fruitfully resolved after we amend our campaign finance problems, for the policies needed to redress the injustice of inequity will likely not find their origins in a corrupt Congress.
The unabated flow of corporate money into American politics undermines the health of our democracy as well as the health of the ecosphere. Contemporary special interest groups exercise power of Gilded Age proportions, while Citizen’s United and the resulting super-PAC phenomenon have successfully institutionalized an unprecedented entrenchment of environmentally negligent industries in our political system. And this is absolutely not a partisan critique. Republican and democrats alike, by necessity of the new Congressional fundraising status quo, have become engrossed with raising money, large amounts of which come from sources like Chevron Corp., Merck and Co., the American Petroleum Institute, and the American Action Network.
With that said, please allow a quick digression (or clarification). This is in no way an attempt to demonize the fossil fuels industry. While the various oil, gas, and coal companies are frequently delinquent in relation to environmental protection, they are ultimately the elements of the world economy that enable the incredibly high standard of living that many of us enjoy, myself included. And we must remember that it is not the intention of corporations to damage the environment. It’s just not their intent to protect it, either, especially given the current regulatory structure. Like good offspring of neoclassical economic thinking, the corporate interest is to maximize benefit for stakeholders. But even Adam Smith was wary of corporate power and what its absolutely free exercise could mean for the human quality of life. So it is, in my humble opinion, the responsibility of policymakers to create policies that ensure the internalization of externalities, such as Pigouvian taxes, or aim to reduce externalities altogether via market-based credit trading programs, and it is the responsibility of businesses to abide by those policies (as is our social contract). While I would obviously prefer that the business community undergo a rapid paradigm shift toward ecological consciousness, I am also one for being realistic.
More to the point: the current state of campaign finance verges on a dangerous autocatalytic cycle. Wealthy special interest groups provide campaign funding to ensure the election of sympathetic and indebted politicians, who then create policies that reinforce the wealth of those interest groups, who then, again, will invest in the campaigns of politicians who, again, will create policy to bolster the status quo, ad infinitum (or so I am concerned). Often, such special interest groups represent extractive or otherwise environmentally damaging industries. National campaign finance reform would be a good step toward breaking this cycle and restoring any real sense of regulatory hope for the ecosphere.
But what hope is there that an already corrupted Congress will reform campaign finance laws? It would seem, at least outwardly, that we need uncorrupted legislators to create the reforms for fair campaigns and elections, but we need fair campaigns and elections in order to have uncorrupted legislators. So how do we resolve this chicken-or-the-egg conundrum?
I asked this very question of New York State Assemblyman Kevin Cahill on May 11, 2012, when he so graciously visited my environmental policy class at Bard CEP to talk with my colleagues and I about NYS energy policy. His response was heartening. Apparently, national legislators are also human beings. For legislators, the tangible effects of the Citizen’s United decision manifest as having to spend as much as six hours per day fundraising, just to remain electorally competitive. For a politician whose primary interest is in re-election, perhaps this is permissible. But as people, such a lifestyle is undesirable. And so, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill assured me that he’s beginning to see bipartisan support emerge for campaign finance reform because legislators are simply fed up with the absurd fundraising demands.
Now, I would prefer for Congress to be motivated to act on campaign finance because of the legislators’ pride in the quality of our nation’s democratic representation, rather than how much time they’re having to spend “dialing for dollars.” But in this case, I suppose the end justifies the means.
While I doubt that corporate personhood will be overturned, maybe Congress will decide that people can only contribute such-and-such amount of money to a given campaign. But then again, because money is “speech,” and knowing our attachment to the First Amendment, I’m sure that any attempt to regulate “speech” will be met with virulent public outcry, despite the obvious impairments to our freedom perpetrated by the current campaign finance system.