Opinion

Uncle Sam spends in one day what all 2012 campaigns will cost

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As the presidential primaries move forward, it seems like people can't stop talking about the amount of money being spent this campaign season. News reports cover the fundraising horse race in minute detail, while pundits complain about the staggering sums being raised and spent.

All told, it's estimated that $5 billion will be spent this year on political campaigns at the federal, state and local level, up to $1 billion of which may be raised by President Obama's re-election campaign alone.

But if that sounds like a lot of money, consider this: Last year, the federal government spent that much money every day between breakfast and dinner. And next year looks to be no different.

On Feb. 13, Obama unveiled his proposed 2013 budget, which calls for an eye-popping $3.8 trillion in spending.

Throw in state and local spending, and government at all levels will spend well over $6 trillion next year. That works out to more than $190,000 per second.

With that much at stake, it's no wonder that people are willing to spend so much money to influence who will hold elective office.

Indeed, the really surprising thing isn't how much money there is in politics, but rather how little of it there is.

This massive disparity between what we spend on campaigns and what we spend on government suggests that much of the conventional wisdom about money in politics is wrong.

For one thing, it undermines the common belief that political spending buys legislation. If that were true, we would expect to see much higher levels of political spending as special interests jockey for favorable legislation.

But not only do we not see this, the disparity we see today goes back decades. Economist Gordon Tullock first noted it in 1972, back when there were virtually no campaign finance laws to hold down political spending.

Despite the presence of few legal restrictions, campaign spending in 1972 amounted to about $200 million, less than one-thousandth of the federal government's expenditures that year. And the disparity remains despite huge increases in the size and scope of government over the intervening 40 years.

This disparity also makes the notion that we spend "too much" on political campaigns sound downright silly. Of course, how much is too much is a matter of personal opinion, but $5 billion seems a modest amount to spend on deciding who will be in charge of $6 trillion of taxpayer money.

To put that number in context, consider that the Coca-Cola Co. spends about $3 billion annually advertising sugar water, while Americans spent an estimated $11 billion earlier this month on merchandise and food for the Super Bowl.

Five billion dollars is also a small amount of money when you consider what it is that money gets spent on: namely, political speech aimed at a massive audience. There are more than 200 million voting-eligible citizens in the United States.

Yet all candidates, political parties and third-party groups combined will spend only $25 per eligible voter to communicate their views about who should hold elective office.

In the end, the big numbers we see in campaign financing may make for salacious headlines, but they tell us little about the state of our government or the health of our electoral process.

Moreover, campaign fundraising numbers distract us from the really big numbers -- government budgets -- that might actually tell us something about what our politicians are up to.

It's time to move past horse-race coverage of political fundraising. Obama's latest budget proposal has given us 3.8 trillion reasons to stop focusing on campaign finance and to start focusing on what the candidates running for office will ultimately be doing with our money and our lives.

Paul Sherman is an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which litigates campaign finance cases nationwide.

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