Drain the Swamp

Count me among the voters who were deeply dismayed by the outcome of the presidential election. While Trump’s shortcomings have been thoroughly documented, Hillary Clinton and President Obama were right to say that we should all hope he succeeds as president. I certainly wish him success on one of his campaign promises: to “drain the swamp” of political corruption in Washington D.C. This has become a perennial pledge presidential candidates make, though none delivered the fundamental changes voters demanded.

There are many ways a wealthy minority exerts a corrupting influence over our government, but the most outrageous and easily addressed is this: you cannot run for president or for Congress without directly raising money from wealthy donors. This is not a legal requirement, but it is a practical one; running for a seat in the House or Senate costs an average of $1 million and $9 million respectively. By the time we voters cast our ballots, the candidates have already been narrowed to those who raised money from corporations and the wealthy. With rare exceptions, this system preemptively weeds out candidates who might act against the interests of the wealthy. Once politicians are elected, they know that raising campaign money for future elections is contingent on their continued obeisance to their donors. This inherently corrupt system should be completely dismantled and replaced with one in which only taxpayer money finances public office campaigns.

Public campaign funding allows candidates to run for office without appealing to wealthy donors. This would reduce the incentives for our elected representatives to cater to the wealthy’s interests. The challenge in designing such a system lies in deciding to whom public campaign funds are granted. In order to appear on an election ballot, candidates typically have to demonstrate public support by collecting signatures; the same mechanism could be used to qualify for public campaign funding. No system is perfect, but in light of how deeply flawed the current system is, devising a better replacement is not conceptually difficult.

While drafting a system of public campaign funding is relatively easy, enacting it would be very difficult politically. Many powerful industries, companies and individuals stand to lose their governmental influence are sure to oppose the new system. Sitting members of Congress would also be personally aggrieved; in the current system, an incumbent has a greater than 90% chance of being reelected. That rate would presumably decline if incumbents and challengers received equal amounts of funding. Even if Congress were to pass legislation creating a system of public-only campaign funding, the Supreme Court would almost certainly strike it down. In their infamous ruling in the Citizens United case, the majority  ruled that when a corporation spends money to elect or defeat a politician, this activity is tantamount to free speech and is protected by the Constitution. The Supreme Court would almost certainly strike down the system contemplated here, which would include a broad ban on political spending by individuals and corporations. This leaves only a Constitutional amendment . As odd as it sounds, Donald Trump might just be the man for the job.

Trump loves big, simple ideas and symbols—the wall, being tougher on trade and bringing back manufacturing. Whether those ideas are meritorious or even possible is another matter, but the boldness and grandiosity of amending the Constitution to eradicate political corruption is consistent with Trump’s other policy ideas. If Trump supported this cause, it would upend traditional party alliances. Some prominent congressional Republicans such as John McCain championed campaign finance reform, while others oppose it. Numerous congressional Democrats went on record supporting public campaign funding; getting “big money” out of politics was one of Bernie Sanders’ signature issues. Whatever resistance Trump meets in Congress, it’s easy to imagine him steamrolling over it. Throughout the campaign, elected Republicans were timid and ambivalent in their opposition to Trump. Since his election, they’ve fallen over themselves expressing support. It’s not clear how effectively Trump will translate this intimidation into votes for his legislative agenda, but it certainly won’t hurt.

It would be profoundly ironic if the most disliked presidential candidate in our nation’s history shocked us all by delivering on the age-old promise of ending corruption in Washington. Here’s hoping Trump drains that swamp.

Josh Lewis is a Laney Graduate School student from Athens, Georgia.