How do I make this story work?
April 7, 2011 6:04 AM   Subscribe

Working on a fictional story about campaign finance reform. I need holes shot in the governing premises. The first tenet is the most obvious hole in it: no corporation may contribute to a national political candidate. It's not a new idea, and it's not interesting. The enforcement of it is. And I need to know more about accounting and auditing to even have a shot of making it feasible, so read on.

The penalty for failing an audit would be automatic and statutory disqualification if you and your campaign could not pass it. Also IRS review and penalty. The audit would both determine if the proper taxes were paid, and if someone was slipping money into a campaign through puppets of various forms and types. The catch would be, the auditors would be essentially drafted into service, much like we are with jury duty. The audits themselves would be double blind, with false or randomized names assigned to both parties.

The audits would also be well paid, last awhile, and be viewed as a kind of patriotic duty. They would also be viewed as short term boons. They would be something that people wanted to do, even if they were boring. You'd have to qualify for the pool by passing certain classes. The classes themselves could be at the high school level, but only certain grades would enter you into the pool. You'd probably need continuing education of some kind.

The upside would be that people would be forced to understand both money, and the system that governs it.

Keep in mind that I'm not looking for minutiae to derail this (even though it is auditing) I just need general failures of the logic explained. Aside from political sustainability. I couldn't care less about the current US election process.
posted by Arquimedez Pozo to Law & Government (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There's absolutely no reason the federal government would delegate this sort of auditing to private citizens. This is what the FEC is for. We've already got an entire federal agency dedicated to monitoring campaign finances. Auditing campaign books would be a natural and organic addition to the agency's portfolio.

Also, audits aren't like jury duty in that they take a long time. With jury duty, you show up for a few days, maybe a week. My former employer was audited by state regulators fairly regularly,* and each one typically took two or three people a week. This is especially true of political campaigns in that you'd need to almost constantly audit a campaign's books as they receive checks every day of the week for pretty much their entire run. Unless you want to turn an elected official out of office because a post-hoc audit indicated sketchiness in the books, you need to catch these things immediately. Again, the FEC is basically built to take care of this sort of thing--or it easily could be with proper congressional authorization and funding.

Any way you slice it though, trying to posit some kind of significant campaign finance reform which doesn't involve the FEC in some major way is, I hate to break it to you, completely unbelievable.

*They're an insurer. Insurers expect to get audited several times a year as part of doing business.
posted by valkyryn at 6:22 AM on April 7, 2011

You need to research countries where corporate political donations are already banned, and how things work there (including enforcement of the rules). Canada, for example. Don't reinvent the wheel: remember that for many of the world's democracies, a ban on corporate campaign financing is not fictional, nor are sneaky tricks to get around that ban.

I'm not sure the fictional penalties you describe are at all plausible. They're ludicrously excessive, for one thing. (Hell, why not just execute the campaign staff?) Faced with such penalties, campaigns would have to go to great lengths to ensure that all funds come from safe sources; since no candidate would expose him/herself to the risk of disqualification, any audit would be fairly routine unless the financial run around the rules was both creative and interesting.

Finally, what you describe isn't a story, it's a utopian system masquerading as such. That sort of thing always turns out to be tedious and dull. And a utopia about accountants?
posted by mcwetboy at 6:34 AM on April 7, 2011

So, what is the legal theory under which it's allowable in the US for corporations to donate money to political campaigns? I think it varies by jurisdiction, with different rules in, for example Texas than in Maine or than federal rules.

I don't actually recall, but it's either the shared fiction of corporate personhood or else it's like corporate ads that are "to promote good governance", where they come out for an issue, but don't tell you that you should vote for an issue.

If you really want to go utopian, allow corporate donations, but they can only be made to a blind trust for the campaigns. They know every day what they got, in aggregate, but they don't know who donated. The people who want an official still donate, the ones trying to buy influence don't.

Also, I'd expect corruption and bribery to go up significantly with either system in place. Power and money and no public way of using the latter to influence the former is going to make some people look for ways to get what they want.

Plotwise, I think mcwetboy has a point, in that this is a setting you've described. If this is the backdrop to a murder over money, or a love story between auditors, or something, then there are people involved. I'd think the interesting thing wouldn't be the system, but the edges of the system, and the failures.
posted by Mad_Carew at 6:49 AM on April 7, 2011

no corporation may contribute to a national political candidate.

This is already law.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:52 AM on April 7, 2011

I would create shell corporations and try to trick campaigns into accepting the money, and then leak that they took money to get them disqualified.
posted by jasonhong at 7:26 AM on April 7, 2011

no corporation may contribute to a national political candidate.
This is already law.

SCOTUS feels otherwise.

IANACPA, so I can't speak to holes in your view of auditing. But no one above has said anything that, in my mind, derails a properly told story involving what you describe. This is speculative fiction, so the FEC could have been dissolved for being ineffectual (which it is). Other countries have outlawed corporate donations. but I would suggest investigating how companies get around these laws. I'd be surprised if they don't.

I agree with Mad_Carew; the failures at the edge of the system would interesting. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume your story as outlined explains the setting you described for us, and then goes into detail when things go awry. The gaming of the system that jasonhong mentioned, for example, is the first thing I thought of.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 8:52 AM on April 7, 2011

The idea that randomly selected people will become auditors (with a bit of training . . . ) is fatally flawed.

In reality, they will need A LOT of training--think about a complete accounting degree plus extra, specialized training for the auditing portion. Then think about the fact that a large proportion of the general public isn't ready to start an accounting degree without maybe a couple of years of preparatory work. And if a person isn't interested in the subject matter, even paying them a billion dollars a day isn't going to motivate them to get through all this training, let alone do a good job when finished.

My suggestion would be to have the regular type of professional/trained auditors do all the basic work for which extensive training and knowledge is necessary and then (similar to a grand jury or jury in a trial) these professional auditors have to present the result of the audit for each campaign to a 'citizen jury' who can ask questions, require further information or investigation--somewhat similar to a grand jury--and then votes on the final verdict and/or any penalties for infractions that are discovered.

That's something that regular people could likely to tapped to participate in, similar to how citizens serve on trial juries & grand juries right now, and one benefit would be that the professional auditors would have to present their findings, conclusions, and recommendations in plain language that can be understood and acted by on 'regular folks' on the election jury.
posted by flug at 9:00 AM on April 7, 2011

The penalty for failing an audit would be automatic and statutory disqualification

Keep in mind that penalties too severe can cause as many problems as penalties too light. Just for example, if robbers are given the death penalty, the result isn't necessarily a reduction in robbery but an increase in the murder rate (because many robbers kill their victims--and why not? The penalty is the same for robbing alone and robbing + killing, and chances of getting caught are far less if the victim is dead.)

This opens up a lot of interesting scenarios to explore, where too severe penalties cause opponents to game the system and get candidates disqualified (as jasonhong explained), and meanwhile candidates have different strategies to avoid getting gamed, etc.

An interesting question to explore would be, what degree of corruption is actually beneficial to the system--in the sense that actions taken to remove additional corruption actually cause more problems than they solve.
posted by flug at 9:23 AM on April 7, 2011

This is speculative fiction, so the FEC could have been dissolved for being ineffectual (which it is).

Perhaps, but I still really can't see the federal government or, by extension, the American public, being willing to turn over something as important as monitoring the conduct of political campaigns to a bunch of amateurs. More to the point, we're talking about the creation of potentially hundreds of civil service jobs. Ain't no way the feds are going to pass up on something like that.

But really, the idea that a few hours of classwork will prepare someone for a task as sophisticated as an audit is incredible. Forensic accounting is hard.
posted by valkyryn at 11:08 AM on April 7, 2011

Best answer: Wow. Two audit questions in a row.

I'm an Internal Auditor (Certified even!) and this is completely unworkable. First off, what I do takes a lot of training, literally years to be pretty good at it. It's sometimes as much Art as Science. You couldn't take the average person off the street and expect them to jump into it. Most Auditors I've met are at least above average in intelligence and I'm not kidding when I say I've seen genuine geniuses too.

The second problem is the timeliness of an audit. Other than presidential campaigns, most campaigns are pretty short. I'm guessing the accounting controls are probably only strong enough to meet FEC rules, the campaign is based on getting a message out, not keeping the books. Think of a rapidly growing start-up, not a mature company. I don't think you could realistically hope to have anything to audit against. I've written plenty of paragraphs that start "There was no process to audit against...."

Finally, so you find massive fraud, criminality everywhere, piles of GE money in Obama's pocket. Now what? Kick him out? The voters have spoken, let them suffer the consequences. If the voters have a pulse someone new will eventually replace the candidate. Haven't some politicians been jailed for corruption and what not and been re-elected? (Boston's Mayor Curley, Marion Barry, etc.)

Now, while a story about a nebbish accountant who fights crime and gets the hot girl might be a best seller amongst those of us with initials after our names on our business cards, it seems like almost everyone else what to know what Snookie is up to. Do you really what those people auditing?
posted by JohntheContrarian at 6:19 PM on April 7, 2011

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