The Midterms Cost a Whole Lotta Cash

It's kind of a truism at this point that America has a money-in-politics problem. Specifically, that wealthy donors and benefactors can press their fingers against the scales of democracy in a way that average Americans, for all the rhetoric about our free and fair elections, never can. But all that said, the amount of money being spent on the 2014 midterm elections still boggles the mind: a whopping $4 billion. In short, midterm campaign spending is out of control, and it practically insists upon the question: What else could the taxpayers have gotten out of those billions of dollars?

To be clear, this isn't to say that the $4 billion is actually coming out of the taxpayer's pockets. As CNN notes, about $1 billion of that money is being spent by outside groups to try to sway the election's outcome. And obviously, with campaign finance law as it is now, public financing of elections (granting taxpayer funds, yes, but also the best means to cap how much a campaign might spend) has never been more out-of-fashion.

But nonetheless, it's worth considering just how much money $4 billion is, and whether it could've been used to solve some of our more trenchant issues. More trenchant, at least, than the immortal struggle to get Mitch McConnell reelected, right?

To be fair, the American electoral system does need some money churning through, so maybe a little perspective might help. As noted above, campaign spending has exploded over the last 16 years, with the 1998 midterms burning up, in relative terms, a mere $1.6 billion. Even if you ceded that amount to the current midterm election process and diverted the rest, you'd be left with a hefty $2.4 billion cache.

That amount on its own could potentially help solve a host of issues within the U.S. — it's a hell of a lot of money, after all — but here are a few examples.

  • It could be used to repair or rebuild some of America's decaying, dangerous bridges. Infrastructure spending has long been a contentious point between the Democratic and Republican parties, and having solid bridges for public use is a pretty huge aspect of that — advocacy group Transportation for America projects that by 2023, 25 percent of U.S. bridges will be more than 60 years old. Of course, the potential tragedy of an unsound bridge is something we've all seen before.
  • It could be used for foreign aid, undoubtedly one of the noblest and most richly deserving causes the U.S. government regularly embarks upon. And obviously, there's plenty of pressing relief efforts happening in the world right now, perhaps none more high-profile than the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. While some wealthy donors have already kicked in millions (with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen leading the way with his recent $100 million donation), a couple of billion dollars could go a long way to halting the outbreak, and saving thousands of lives. And, of course, it would be beneficial stateside, too — unless the West African outbreak is thwarted, there's no way to assuredly prevent more infections from making their way to American shores.
  • It could be put towards building a national WiFi network, which is just about the best public policy idea for improving educational opportunities across the country right now — in addition to limited access in impoverished communities, many rural parts of the U.S. are still unable to achieve a wireless connection, and are forced to continue using dial-up modems instead.

Of course, this is all pipe-dream stuff — the money's already largely spent and out the door, and even if it weren't, you can't just leech from one cause to give to another, at least not when you're talking about campaign money, especially of the "dark" variety. But at the same time, it's hard to criticize anybody for wondering just what that money could've been spent on, and whether it would've been better than this.

Also, I'd be remiss not to remind you — these midterm elections that everyone's been talking about? They're happening Tuesday, Nov. 4 (which is tomorrow at the time of this writing). So, whatever you do, remember to head to the polls!