The unregulated flow of money in politics
Published: Aug 01, 2013
A good number of Bahamians are so enamored of the U.S. political system that they breezily adopt language that it is not necessarily germane to The Bahamas.
One need not always refer to “checks and balances”. The term check(s) is often sufficient depending on the context. Similarly, “campaign finance reform” is mostly a misnomer as there is little campaign finance regulation to reform. Language matters because it determines how we think about an issue.
The manner in which money flows in politics speaks to the relative health of a democracy in terms of whose voices and interests are prioritized by those in office. It speaks also to the levels of corruption by politicians and public officials.
The matter of regulating money in politics is about more than how political parties finance campaigns. The broader issues are about how parties are financed in general, and the money, gifts and arrangements politicians receive for all manner of favors and quid pro quos.
Consider this hypothetical. A leader of the opposition at the federal level in Canada receives a lucrative contract from an oil exploration company to lobby federal officials. When this is disclosed he refuses to detail how much he was paid.
After his party wins office and he becomes prime minister, there is still no disclosure, even as his former client presses business before the new government. One need not donate directly to a party’s campaign in order to influence a government.
Human collectives are typically poor at self-regulation and self-policing, be they religious or financial institutions, politicians or public officials, or professional groups such as lawyers and journalists.
Such collectives tend to be more ethical and transparent, less hypocritical, and more likely to live up to their stated values where there are external mechanisms and sources to which they are accountable.
The Great Recession was due largely to a perfect storm of: a thorough lack of self-regulation by certain financial institutions in the U.S.; regulations gutted by the U.S. Congress and the executive branch over many years; and poor enforcement of existing regulations, and poor oversight by the U.S. Federal government.
The cry by many on Wall Street that they are now being overregulated has been bellowed before. The cry will continue until the next major financial crisis triggered by the malfeasance of many of the very ones crying today.
Globally, bar associations are often notorious for an inability to rein in attorneys accused of professional and ethical misconduct. The practice of medicine is also often beset by the same lack of oversight and accountability.
The press is often as poor at self-regulation as others, including a favorite target of that estate — politicians. Journalists can be just as confounded by conflicts of interests, blinders, biases, group think and a pack mentality.
Following unethical practices by various media houses in the U.K., especially some print journals, a judicial public inquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson was launched to review “the culture, practices and ethics of the British press”.
An outcome of the inquiry was the Leveson Report, which made a number of recommendations. This included, “a new, independent body to replace the existing Press Complaints Commission”.
Though elements of the Leveson Report are controversial, including the remit of such a body, there is a view of the value of an external group in helping to ensure greater accountability by the British press.
At home there are various checks on politicians by public officers, voters and the press. Yet woefully missing from our democratic culture is a broader framework of laws which may help to make political leaders more accountable.
Public financial disclosure legislation is helpful. But the legislation has loopholes, lacks teeth and has often been ignored by politicians and senior public officials, especially since the revelations of the Commission of Inquiry into Drug Trafficking. In the minds of some it is a ritual farce. Indeed, the genesis of the legislation was conceived for a certain political purpose, a story for another time.
Just as a Freedom of Information Bill was passed in 2012, there is the need for legislation to regulate party political funding, including of campaigns, as well as more vigorous financial disclosure legislation and enforcement.
But lest we get ahead of ourselves, let’s not forget the failures of current public disclosure legislation. Legislation is an essential step in changing a political culture. But genuine change requires constant practice and vigorous oversight.
Freedom of information laws have limits, functioning better in some countries than others. The U.K. and the U.S. enjoy a variety of political party and campaign funding laws. Yet there have been all manner of breeches in both jurisdictions, with (especially in the U.S.) loopholes wide enough for a double-decker bus to motor through.
What the U.K. and the U.S. tend to do better is the screening of the finances of high-level officials such as parliamentarians, cabinet secretaries, agency heads, senior civil servants and others.
A cabinet minister whose net worth was, say, $100,000 upon his appointment, but whose net worth dramatically ballooned within a few short years with no clear sense of how such an increase came about on a cabinet minister’s salary, would be hounded out of office.
In various cables reported on by this journal, U.S. diplomats were correct in much of their assessment of the role of money in Bahamian politics including campaign contributions.
Still, the case of the U.S. is an instructive one. The very embassy that reportedly sent those cables is often a plum post and reward for big donors and money bundlers for presidential campaigns, more than one of whom were not exactly exemplary ambassadors.
Reacting to a 2010 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, President Barack Obama noted:
“The Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. ... It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”
In the U.S., special interests have donated heavily to the respective political parties and candidates, while successfully lobbying the Congress for all manner of legislative loopholes, outlandish tax breaks and subsidies, regulatory concessions and rollbacks, and other measures that have harmed the broader public interest.
Regulating money in politics is not mostly about campaign finance laws. More importantly, it is about a political culture. In the U.S. there is a level of transparency in terms of certain donations. Citizen watchdog groups and the media are important checks.
There is no perfect system, and every system requires constant reform. Often, the place to begin is in limiting the worst excesses, which the U.S. is able to do from time to time and for a given period.
What about the excesses of our system? We might begin by introducing comprehensive legislation for the regulation of funding for political parties. That will be a start. But changing the political culture will be arduous.
Perhaps the place to begin would be for citizens to take this issue seriously and use various means to communicate their concern to the political directorate demanding meaningful party funding legislation.
It’s worth a try. That is unless we want to wait for another presumptuous foreigner to dump money into our political system while bragging that he is responsible for “taking our country back”.
So, whose country is this? Happy Independence, Bahamas!
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