Democracy That Money Can Buy
Posted March 17, 2017
Watching the emerging debate around health care in the United States is sometimes amusing and often distressing. Canadians can learn a few things about our democracy, observing from the safety of the bleachers.
While Barack Obama was President, Republicans were united in their opposition to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as Obamacare. They passed motion after motion calling for full repeal, knowing that they could trust Obama to exercise a veto. They could thus make a show of their opposition without having to answer for the consequences if their legislation was allowed to pass. No longer.
Now that they control the White House and Congress, they are in a position to have it their way—and accountable for the result. It turns out that they are anything but united.
It should be said at the outset that the ACA is not a pretty piece of work. Being a halfway house between the status quo ante in the United States and Canadian-style Medicare, it is full of ugly compromises. Nevertheless, it is better than what it replaced, and has resulted in 20 million more Americans having health insurance. Millions more still do not.
The legislation currently working its way through Congress is a step backward. It will reduce the amount provided by Washington to states for their programs supporting the poor. (Provincial finance ministers in Canada may detect a familiar theme). The Republicans want to use the savings to reduce taxes for the rich.
This is causing considerable angst among state governors both Democrat and Republican, and is a source of concern to centrist Republicans in Congress who feel the legislation goes too far. Many are concerned about the reaction of voters who lose their health insurance coverage or see their prices skyrocket.
But for some, the legislation does not go nearly far enough. They want full repeal of the ACA and will settle for nothing less. Organizations like Club for Growth (“Prosperity and Opportunity through Economic Freedom”), Americans for Prosperity (more or less ditto), and Freedom Works (ditto) speak with a loud voice.
Nominally, they each speak for a few million members (out of 325 million Americans), but their influence is entirely a function of the vast amount of money they have to spend. That money comes from the billionaire Koch brothers and a few hundred other wealthy donors.
Fortune magazine reports that the Koch network plans to spend between $300 million and $400 million to influence politics and public policy over the next two years.
That money is used for intensive advertising campaigns supporting their perspective, and members of Congress who toe the line. Those who don’t lose support, and may be threatened with challenges in the primaries at the next election.
What is truly distressing is the sense of entitlement that these groups have. From the New York Times:
“We’ve been patient this year, but it is past time to act and to act decisively,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, which is coordinating the push with other groups across the Kochs’ political network. “Our network has spent more money, more time and more years fighting Obamacare than anything else. And now with the finish line in sight, we cannot allow some folks to pull up and give up.”
Really? Your money has democratic rights? That is an astonishing assertion.
Could the same thing happen in Canada? Superficially, it would appear that it cannot. Corporations, trade unions, and other unincorporated associations are prohibited from making political donations. Contributions by individual Canadians are limited to $1,500 annually. (All limits are inflation adjusted).
Third parties spending on advertisements are limited to a total of $150,000 nationally, and much less per electoral district.
But outside election periods, third parties are free to engage in unlimited spending on political advertising. There are no restrictions on who may contribute to a third party in support of its advertising, or how much may be donated.
Engage Canada, a coalition of unions and other left-leaning organizations, spent millions on anti-Harper ads prior to the commencement of the 2015 election campaign. That prompted an early start so that the spending limits came into force.
The same thing could occur on the right. Suppose a clutch of Canadian billionaires became obsessed with a particular topic and wanted to pressure the party in power to make changes to government policy. Using their spending power on advertising, social media campaigns, and other means could exert considerable pressure.
The Liberal election platform promise to address the question of spending outside election periods was reiterated in Trudeau’s mandate letter to new Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould.
Let’s hope this is one of the promises they keep. The excessive influence of wealth in American politics is not an idea we want to import.
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