Liam Madden: There’s more to the campaign finance controversy

This commentary is by Liam Madden, who was the Republican nominee for Congress in Vermont’s November election.

A recent VTDigger article reported on the Campaign Legal Center's filing of a complaint against my congressional campaign. VTDigger gave me a fair opportunity to have some of my comments be part of the story (with more cursing on my part than I was aware would be shared).

But there are some elements to this story that I feel haven't been appropriately emphasized, the absence of which could give the audience a skewed interpretation of events. I would like to briefly offer these bits of context to make this story a smidge more balanced. Digger, to some extent, but much more so the folks they've interviewed, have given the impression that "Madden broke election law" as though that was a definitive conclusion. It simply is not.

1) We are dealing with subjective criteria. 

The age of who is eligible to donate to a campaign is not defined by the Federal Election Commission. The relevant section of regulation does, however, explicitly state that minors may donate to campaigns. This is precisely why I chose to enter the gray zone and why I felt comfortable sharing my actions publicly. 

Given that enormous crux of the issue being entirely a matter of subjective judgment, I think it is unfair, or at the very least premature, to cast my actions as definitively illegal. The fact of the matter is knowing that my son's donation was not his choice requires being in his head and heart. Call it a ridiculous situation, I'd agree, but it is subjective, not definitive, as the story implies.

2) Another mistake by the Campaign Legal Center is its assertion that I used "corporate money."

A sole proprietorship is not a corporation. Our family business's bank account, legally speaking, is just our money, and therefore there is no limit on how much money can be used on a candidate's own campaign. The only reason I made a point to mention that it was my wife's business's money was to make it clear that I do not have a half of a year's pay worth of personal fun-money sitting around to donate to political campaigns.

3) Another piece of the skew which I'd like to set straight is that the amount in question: It is not $25,000. 

Really, my wife and I cannot within any reason be considered straw donors. The only disputed donation is the single $5,500 donation from my son. There is a significant difference in public perception from a story of "scheme" that entails $25,000 vs. one of a single $5,500 donation. Even if I misinterpreted this rule, I am in keeping with the spirit and principle of the rule. 

The FEC's straw donor rules are made for two reasons: 1) To limit donation sizes and thereby limit the influence that individuals/small groups can have on candidates. 2) To ensure public transparency into who is funding campaigns.

Stepping back out of the rush to breathlessly scandalize the situation, it's clear, to me anyway, that:

• A candidate can already donate unlimited amounts to herself, therefore I didn't receive more funds than I am allowed to. (Not to mention a SuperPAC can also donate unlimited amounts, making this whole protection largely irrelevant.)

• I was rigorously transparent. I filed the disputed donation in the FEC prior to any public scrutiny, I spoke about it openly in public when asked, and I self-reported a complaint as soon as it was contended that my actions may have been in error. 

How is this worth the time of the Campaign Legal Center? A $5,500 donation that may have transgressed a subjective judgment call of a rule by a person who reported his actions before anyone asked about it, was forthcoming when people asked about it, and made a point to alert the authorities in case it was a problem. Are these the actions of someone trying to deceive or hide something?

I was not hiding millionaire donors from public scrutiny. I was using my own money to circumvent the silver-spoon barrier put in front of working-class candidates to preclude them from debates, which are the last semblance of meritocratic elements in our electoral process. Debates are the only place where money doesn't (or shouldn't) play a role in politics. 

In short, I knew I could never buy enough ads to win, but by bucking my exclusion from debates, I could at least take part. Knowing that I was being outspent 100:1 by a candidate who raised way more on the first day of campaigning than I did in the entire year, I figured participating in debates was the only real impact I could have on the election. 

Was it worth the risk of entering the gray area of this rule? Well, I had nothing to lose, harmed no one, and I raised issues that no other candidate did. 

These were debates hosted by environmental organizations on the topic of sustainability. I found it laughably absurd that money could be used as an excuse to exclude the only renewable energy professional in the election. I was the only candidate who won an award from MIT for developing business models in response to climate change, the only one with an academic background in environmental science, and the only Climate Fellow of a world-renowned social entrepreneurship accelerator. 

The idea that only money or political experience qualified me to take part in this public conversation is not something I accept.

Months after the election — without any political reward to gain from it, but as a public citizen who considers sustainability a paramount priority — I want to remind my fellow Vermonters that the sustainability issues that I risked my credibility to advocate for, and that I'd happily risk again, are not meaningfully addressed by either party. 

No candidate on a major party platform has ever, as far as I'm aware, pointed out that economic growth and environmental degradation are linked inextricably through our energy use. The more we grow the economy, the more energy we use, period.

We must foster a vision of sustainability and a political platform that can enact it, that sees as dangerously inadequate both the right's "drill baby drill" vision for our energy future, as well as the left's plan to smother our natural world in technology that doesn't even provide power at night. (It would take covering 10% of American land in the lower 48 with solar panels to meet the energy needs of 10 years from now, with electricity-less nights for all but those with expensive and arguably unsustainable battery systems.

The truth is, I think Becca Balint was an excellent candidate and will make an excellent representative. So I share this story with no disrespect, but to show how even an extremely conscientious and intelligent leader, like Balint, is prone to misunderstand the heart of the issue and mistake party-line talking points for real root-cause solutions. 

During a VTDigger debate, I asked Becca Balint, “How is money is created?” She said money was printed by the government. Sadly, this implies a significant lack of awareness about the connection between economic growth, energy use, and environmental impact, never mind the mechanics of the economy. Money is not really created by governments, and less than 5% of money is printed. 

New money comes into the economy, by and large,  through commercial banks loaning it into existence. This rub is — loans carry interest. This interest sets off the treadmill where money's creation obligates more money creation. This is an exponential curve, and exponential things, particularly the energy use tethered to economic growth, don't jibe well with finite resources.

If I'm gonna take heat for participating in a debate to deliver this message, months after the election, then I'll take the opportunity to remind us what I think is important enough to take risks for. 

We are approaching the time to choose between the familiar conversations, embedded in the economic paradigm of the last two centuries (which is not all bad, but offers an illusion of adequacy), and on the other hand, a holistic set of actually viable material and energy strategies for a sustainable future that we must create with broad public buy-in — from left and right. 

I don't think we get there with the political tools we have. 

We get there with a democracy that both empowers subject-matter experts and strengthens the public wisdom and engagement that must hold them accountable. 

We get there with a republic that honors pluralism and yet is liberated from the friction of constant polarized infighting. 

We have the creative energy to build a profoundly more beautiful political, economic and ecological commons, and to solve our enormous challenges with far more grace — if we don't burn this cultural resource (our creative energy) seeking short-term returns of profit and political Pyrrhic victories.

Edited for length.


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