Why campaign contribution limits can’t work

This is from House Banking Committee Chair Barney Frank, specifically on the subject of whether car dealers should be subject to regulation in regards to auto loans, but the significance is much more general:

“I have not had a problem because of campaign contributions. The problem is democracy: it’s people responding to people in their districts: community bankers, realtors, auto dealers, as I said, end users, insurance agents.”

“The local auto dealers are very popular in their districts,” Frank says. The more an interest group can make an issue district-specific and the more it can relate on an everyday level, Frank argues, the better it will do. “That’s why the realtors always beat the bankers. The bankers sit and they go [Frank makes a dour face, leans back in his chair and tightly folds his arms, miming an aloof posture]. The realtors are out there joining the Kiwanis and sponsoring little league.” The same is true with John Deere, dairy farmers and other back-slapping boys from back home.

How can we overcome this? Of course Realtors are going to support their own interests, ditto farmers [or, more likely, farmland owners], and other groups. One solution would be for us to treat government as a service administering common assets for the common benefit, rather than a means of transferring wealth to ourselves or our favorite groups.  Not easy, but at least it’s right.

Also relevant to this article, HGS students may remember this passage from Social Problems (1883).

The map of the United States is colored to show States and Territories. A map of real political powers would ignore State lines. Here would be a big patch representing the domains of Vanderbilt; there Jay Gould’s dominions would be brightly marked. In another place would be set off the empire of Stanford and Huntington; in another the newer empire of Henry Villard. The States and parts of States that own the sway of the Pennsylvania Central would be distinguished from those ruled by the Baltimore and Ohio; and so on. In our National Senate, sovereign members of the Union are supposed to be represented; but what are more truly represented are railroad kings and great moneyed interests, though occasionally a mine jobber from Nevada or Colorado, not inimical to the ruling powers, is suffered to buy himself a seat for glory.

Compare to this, from the  Huffpo article, Frank talking about his 71-member(!) committee:

“What’s happening now is the pro-regulation forces are being out-grassroots-ed by the antis,” Frank says. One member, he says, represented tons of title insurance companies. Another came from the headquarters of credit unions. A third’s district is home to LexisNexis; another to Equifax. Each of those entities received special treatment because their representative sits on the committee — and the more members on the committee, the more special treatment is needed.

HT, Felix Salmon

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