Robin:I am Robin Miller, “Roblimo” to some of you.We are online with Jay Costa of the MapLight Foundation.And last week, Jay, is it not so that our very finest of all senates, the US Senate, did they not approve a bill to have internet sales taxes, taxes on all internet purchases?Is this true or am I imagining things?
Jay:They did. They approved a bill to basically set up a system of collecting sales tax for online purchases.And this would allow states to collect those taxes even if the company is outside of a state.This is a bill that is supported by the national brick and mortar chains that are already paying, having to pay sales tax.And it is also supported by some of the bigger online retail companies such as Amazon that will be able to incur this cost of combining the sales tax. It is opposed however by some of the smaller online retail sales companies that it is going to be hard for them to incur that cost including companies, certainly not a small company but E-bay which is a hub for smaller vendors to sell their wares online.
Robin:Now you guys did a study, and I saw the results.Is it not so that the senators who voted for taxing internet sales, did not these senators get a lot of more donations (we don’t call them bribes) or campaign donations from companies that wanted internet sales tax from the brick and mortar and all people. Did you notice that pattern?
Jay:We did.Yes and you are absolutely right.We look at senators who voted yes on the bill and they got actually 40 times as much money from interest groups that supported the bill as they got from interest groups that opposed the bill.
Robin:Not 4 times? Wait a minute
Jay:4-0-, forty times as much.That’s right.
Robin:Forty times as much? And they reacted to this apparently how?
Jay:Well at MapLight we are not in the business of saying you are absolutely right, it is not bribery, this is the money that is going into their campaign committees.And so the way that we look at it is that this is an economy of influence.You know, it costs literally millions of dollars to win a seat in the senate, at average, it costs about $10 million to win a seat in the senate.So when that’s the case, you need to turn to people who can cut you big checks if you want to win your next election.And so of course, you are going to pay attention to what the opinions of those people who can cut you big checks are.
Robin:And you are saying that the people here who did not want an internet sales tax, they just didn’t pony up enough, if they’d ponied up 50 times as much as they did, might they have won?
Jay:Well, I mean it is hard to say for sure.It would certainly be speculation.But it is definitely the case that in general those who give the money they get something in return for that.They get influence with their legislators.
Robin:Oh, my, my, my.Now how can that not be so? Wait a minute.Corporations are people now right.
Jay:Well, you know, interestingly a lot of the campaign contributions that get made don’t even come from corporate treasuries at the general level, corporations can’t give directly, they can form PACs and they can give directly, but surprisingly a lot of the contributions come from individuals.And so the real problem isn’t certainly the corporate personhood debate is a debate that is interesting and I should say it first, but there is a lot of contributions, the money in our system that is accounted for by individuals.And so influence is really conveyed by the fact that people can give big checks even though most of us are only giving a very little amount.It is only a fraction of a percentage of the American public that give anything more than $200 to politics. Yes there are some people who are cutting $2500 or $5000 checks.
Robin:What is the maximum now that an individual can give?
Jay:It is $2500 for the primary and another $2500 for the general.So in an election year it is $5000.
Robin:Okay. But what about tax or allied campaign thingies where not somebody who says Vote For Representative Joe but says Vote For the Candidate who supports slippery streets or whatever.
Jay:Right.Yes, so, PACs are subject to the same limits as individuals really in terms of direct donations but then I am sure that everybody has heard of the infamous Citizens United case that basically opened the floodgates for unlimited amounts of money to be spent by what we call super PACs and so the rule is just as long as those groups don’t give directly to the candidate they can spend as much as they want independently, even though a lot of these super PACs have as their directors former campaign staff with the candidates.
Jay:Right.It is really kind of a farce that a lot of this spending is independent.But as long as they can claim it is independent, then it is unlimited, they can accept unlimited donations.
Robin:And of course, we as American voters are supposed to be stupid enough to fall for this, I gather, yeah.
Jay:You are right. And the thing is I think a lot of the American public actually know that this is going on.And it is the reason that they are growing disenchanted with our government.You see these polls come out that Congress is less popular than a cockroach, or whatever, slightly more popular than headlights.This is the reason why.And so this is the reason why that we really need to do something about this problem first before all of the other ones.You talk about taxes and internet privacy, and bank regulations, any problem that you see exists, that you see that exists, at the root of it is the problem of money in politics.You know the reason that Congress isn’t making progress on any of the important issues in the sense that they are handcuffed by their addiction of fundraising.
Robin:Okay, now obviously in a minute I am going to ask you what we can do about this.But first I have another question.
Robin:Are there any other egregious examples you have of money in politics beside the recent internet sales tax thing? Name a few.
Jay:Sure I would be happy to.So I think we all remember the big bank bailout, from a few years ago, the crash of 2008.The too big to fail bailout.And so a lot of that problem stemmed from this whole derivative trading, right, that was going.And some would argue that the deregulation of the derivatives market that might stop. Well, it turns out there is a bill several actually a suite of bills passing through Congress currently under consideration that would once again deregulate the derivatives market. And to a lot of people who audit through the financial____8:02this is mindboggling, at how are we doing this just a few years after the crash.
Well it turns out that it passed the committee, so it has to be considered, strangely enough, the agricultural committee first and it passed through that committee and whenit did so, the committee members voting yes on the bill, received seven times as much from the big four banks who own over 90 percent of the derivatives value in the market.So clearly these are the banks that are going to profit from this sort of deregulation. And they have given most of the committee members, committee members turn around and vote yes.
Now another example:There is a bill that, those using the internet probably have heard a lot about CISPA, an online privacy bill.Basically the question is: How much information is going to be shared among online companies, and how much of that information is going to be shared with the government, and sort of which branch, which ‘agency’ I guess is the best word, within the government will be kind of the conduit of that information.
So there is a lot of fierce debate about who that should be, how much information should be shared, and a lot of online privacy advocates really are concerned about this bill.Well, it turns out that the bill has a few new cosponsors, 36 to be exact, and those cosponsors have received 38 times as much money from interests supporting CISPA as they have from interests that oppose it.
Robin:Okay, wait, wait, wait. And the important one that we need to knock right out of the way here: Now I am going to lay a suspicion on you, and you can say yes or no: I suspect that this has nothing to do with the political party.I suspect that the ones chosen to get these big donations are chosen sheerly by their influence, like committee memberships or isn’t partisan.
Jay:It is a great question.You know the answer is both.Committee memberships are huge huge factors in fundraising. Interest groups know very well that committee members that govern and regulate the areas in which they do business are the ones who hold the most power, over the business that they do.And so they absolutely target committee members, especially committee chairs with an immense amount of campaign contributions.
Now the parties are a factor though.Parties are very important in the fundraising ecosystem.You actually have structurally a system where a lot of fundraising is done jointly between candidates and their parties. So the limit that a candidate can receive from an individual contributor is only $5000 but then if he joins in a fundraiser with his party, it goes up to $40,000 and the party will take $35,000 of that but then it will get funneled back into grafts, spending on his campaign, if it is a competitive one, or other campaigns that their competitor who will then____11:19the party and so how good of a fundraiser a member of Congress is really translates into their power, and their position within their party.
So you are absolutely right, that party plays a role, and even though it plays a role its role is not distinct from the fundraising that that also playsa role; in a lot of ways these two things are inextricably intertwined.
Robin:Okay, but the real question there is:Does one party get the money and the other one not?It is just isn’t all for Republicans, I don’t think, but rather whichever party is dominant gets the money, or whichever one has the most committee people or whatever, so it is not Republicans versus Democrats but some of each, depending on who is driving the talk.
Jay:That’s absolutely right. And you know, it differs from case to case.But most of the time, both parties are really taking a large chunk of money.In the internet sales tax in terms of the senate, on average the Democrats got more - around $650,000 on average from interest groups that support, Republicans got almost $500,000.So yes, Democrats got more, but they are both taking a lot of money from the interest groups that support.
Robin:Oh my, my, my, so those fringe parties, the greens, the libertarians and all, who talk about the Demopublicans are they maybe kind of sort of right?
Jay:Well, certainly yes, you do see the majority of the fundraising is happening within the two party structure.Yes.
Robin:Okay, now the big question and the closing clincher blow off climax:What could we do about this, if anything?
Jay:That’s a great question.And the answer is, I actually have a few answers for you.
Jay:We have a situation here is the lowest hanging fruit that I can possibly provide for you.We have a Federal Elections Commission right now which is the agency that is supposed to be overseeing our elections and things such as campaign finance, where every single member is serving on an expired term.Every single member is now termed out. But they are still serving.So that gives you an idea of how this issue is being prioritized in the government right now.All that needs to happen is for new members of the FEC to be appointed, and confirmed by Congress, seems like business as usual but it seems to be excessively hard for them to do this.
So that’s number one. Number two is increased disclosure.You know, we have things like Disclose Act being considered. Here in California, it is currently being considered. It has been considered in Congress several times now and has failed, but basically it would require that political ads show who their top funders are.You know, this is vital specific information. These ads do influence people’s decisions at the ballot box. Voters deserve to know who is paying to influence their decisions.
Robin:Yeah, what do you mean by who – I mean I live in Florida and we have lots of vote against the people who want to grab your guns,___14:40by the committee for wonderful America, or some nonsense name.
Jay:Right, exactly. So that’s the key, it is getting beyond these nonsense names to who are the three entities that are really funding that committee with the nonsense name. Once that it is Amazon, or E-bay or companies or organizations that people know and understand I think it makes a lot clearer to people who the real speaker behind that message is.
Robin:Go ahead and tell me.I am going to ask you the big last question:You don’t have to wait up, and I won’t ask it, you can answer it when you get to it, namely, how do we make these things happen?
Jay:Right.So this is a good sort of segway to the third one and what I think is probably the most exciting is that we need a system of small dollar donations, it is a system that has actually been implemented at the state level in several states quite successfully, in Arizona, in Maine, in Connecticut, this is a system that is being debated right now in New York state, and essentially what it does is it gives candidates who say I am not going to accept donations above $200 or $100, (it varies from state to state) but the idea is the same.
If they do that, and for every small dollar amount that they raise, they get matched by a pool of money essentially, and what this does, is allows candidates to run on the public interest, they are running on issues that voters care about rather than issues that donors care about which is what is currently the status quo.And so on a state by state basis, we can implement systems like this and slowly chip away at the problem until our broken Congress is forced to catch up.
Robin:How do we do that?
Jay:Well, again, so right now there is a bill being considered in the New York State Assembly that would put this type of system into place.And New York is one of the most populous states, it would be a huge huge win for the people of America setting a great precedent for how a system like this can work on a large scale, so you know, a very easy thing everybody could use if you have you know somebody in New York, give them a call and tell them about this bill that’s being considered and how it could really revolutionize democracy.
Robin:So what you are saying is:If you are a Slashdot reader and you are in New York, you can maybe do something positive here?
Jay:Absolutely, give a call to the members of the state assembly state senate, tell them that it is an important bill to move through, and hopefully other states will follow suit, if you do it with other states, it is absolutely a bill that could be or similar bills could be considered and passed at state level.
Robin:Okay, we can help.Any other suggestions on positive moves we can make?I will shout here with our little ten dollar contributions and all.
Jay: Sure, I think those are sort of the big three policy-wise, but on a daily basis, I think the most important thing is taking the information that is out there on sites like MapLIght.org, Center for Responsive Politics, the National Institute of Money in State Politics, whose website is www.followthemoney.org , visit these websites, find out who is funding your representatives and how that is influencing their decisions and hold them accountable.This is the promise of the transparency movement that is making this kind of information available to the people; now the people have to take that information and really use it to make sure that their representatives are representing the public and not special interests.