Originally published at United Republic
Most everyone agrees Washington is over-run with lobbyists and completely disconnected from the rest of the nation. So then why continue to allow our government to operate from there full-time? In this day and age of Skype, web-conferencing and so forth, what good reason is there for our elected leaders to spend as much time as they do in this graveyard of noble intentions and common decency?
What if instead, we brought our representatives home and made them live in the communities they’ve forsaken for the false realities that have been erected and perpetuated inside the bubble of Washington?
Congress has long been dysfunctional, but it is now also historically unproductive. Yet the only time most constituents ever see their representative is at campaign rallies or the occasional public event…often just a campaign stop in disguise. So despite an abundance of time thanks to lack of job performance – and frequent claims of love and fealty notwithstanding – today most lawmakers associate with the average voter less than ever. What are they doing with their time instead? Fundraising!
Elected officials spend an obscene amount of time dialing for dollars and attending fundraisers – estimated to be as high as 70 percent of ‘working’ hours in some cases! With more than 20 fundraisers taking place every day in Washington, and regular travel to New York, Los Angeles or wherever else the big money resides, the money chase has become quite the time-consuming endeavor for lawmakers.
Money is the lifeblood of politics, and its pursuit at the expense of virtually everything else is the obligation of every modern successful politician.
It is high time we free our ‘leaders’ from this obligation. By bringing Congress home, they get to see the effects their policies have on actual constituents, rather than just accepting the distorted and biased viewpoints of lobbyists or campaign contributors as fact.
Maybe we can’t stop the flow of money, but we can ensure those representing us are too occupied doing our business to waste disgusting amounts of time fundraising. Requiring each member of Congress to open up his or her schedule for one-on-one meetings with constituents (excluding lobbyists, elected officials and staff, etc.) to the tune of 500 hours a year (approx. 2 hours a workday) would better fill that time. Ultimately, fewer fundraisers and more time spent meeting with constituents would result in a government more attuned to the needs of the people it purports to represent.
Congress could easily handle all normal business online, renaming post offices and such from offices located within their districts. Committee meetings could be handled via web conferencing, leading to a better permanent record anyway. Congress would still convene, but only for short sessions centered on specific (and singular) major issues, allowing for greater media and public scrutiny. The increased sunlight would help expose lobbyists lurking in the shadows, eager to remind lawmakers where their bread is buttered. Frankly, it’s high time voters did some reminding of their own, and this change would give them a foothold by which to do so.
While we’re making our government more genuinely representative, it is imperative we also shrink our bloated legislative districts. Simply cutting in half (at a minimum) the number of people represented per district from the approximately 600,000 where it currently resides, to a number closer to 300,000, would make it much more difficult for special interests to buy elections in House races. As it stands now, most candidates are handpicked by special interests in legislative districts too large for anyone to have the clout necessary to challenge those with such an enormous fundraising advantage. This would change that dynamic, as local leaders and luminaries with a base of support independent of big-moneyed interests would stand a much better chance against the shills representing either corporate or union interests.
Of course it would also double the size of the House from 435 to 870 members (approximately), which would almost certainly be portrayed by some as a negative – appealing to people’s sense of tradition, hostility towards an increasingly corrupt government and fear of change. The real outcome however, would likely be positive, and voters would be receptive to this idea if it were adequately propagated. Doubling the number of House members means doubling the chance that outside viewpoints not simply echoing special interest viewpoints might find their way into office.
Like-minded coalitions would help break up gridlock, meaning fewer instances of sides breaking into hardened camps as happens too often now. Lone voices would become a small chorus with real power to affect outcomes. Even if it were no better than the status quo, could it possibly be worse? Add in the benefit of a representative more tied to local communities, and it is a net gain no matter how you add it up.
The vast amount of time Congress currently spends soliciting campaign contributions while neglecting the nation’s affairs is akin to a child failing in school while spending untold hours playing video games. Just in case it’s unclear, voters are the parent in this analogy.
So what are we going to do about our ‘problem child’ America? Maybe it’s time to bring them home and exert some much-needed parental influence. It’s not a cure-all, but could be a solid first step in reasserting the proper role of voters in our republic.
Originally published by UnitedRepublic.org and reprinted here with permission.
The FEC (Federal Election Commission) is currently a corpse – lifeless, ineffective, and useless. Elections financed by a tiny sliver of the population threaten the health of our democracy, yet it remains ever inert. The current murmur to reform and strengthen the agency should be a roar given the enormous effect doing so would have on restoring a government by, for, and of the people.
Currently, amending the Constitution is the most widely embraced solution for ending the systemic corruption fueled by money in politics. However, an amendment will take many years to implement, and as other reformers have correctly argued, steps should be taken in the interim. Unlike other short-term fixes however, reforming the FEC has the unique potential to actually eliminate the need to amend the Constitution.
Let’s back up a little. There are two primary arguments for a constitutional amendment. The first is well known –an amendment bypasses the Supreme Court, which has taken the idea of non-person personhood to ridiculous extremes.
The second is that any law put in place using the normal legislative process can be easily undone later. While not as well known, it is this second reason many in the reform community believe an amendment to be the most viable solution.
There are plenty of ways to reign in political spending that don’t run afoul of the Supreme Court…it is just virtually impossible under current conditions to pass a law with teeth, and then make it stick. Reforming the FEC is the exception; and one which could help facilitate additional reforms.
Here’s how a remade FEC would work:
First, decouple its budgeting from Congress so it couldn’t be starved of necessary funds (a huge conflict of interest). Have the agency instead submit a budget to the CBO for review and approval. Whatever the price tag, it pales in comparison to the cost of an electoral system rigged to favor big donors.
Next, we need independent and qualified commissioners, not political hacks appointed to gum up the works. Assign the GAO (Government Accountability Office) to compile a list of 25 qualified (and willing) candidates to serve as commissioners. From that list, the President and majority and minority leaders in both houses of Congress would each select one commissioner. The GAO would assign those selected to each head one of the five departments of the remade FEC: Elections, Lobbying/Ethics, Campaign Finance, Regulatory Review, and Public Outreach.
Elections, Lobbying/Ethics, and Campaign Finance are self-explanatory. Regulatory Review would examine how closely different regulatory agencies’ actions adhere to their stated purpose, offering non-binding recommendations. Public Outreach would educate citizens on current election laws and receive input about ways to improve them. All departments except Public Outreach would be armed with an investigative unit, with any wrongdoings uncovered turned over to the Department of Justice for prosecution.
Commissioners would serve five-year terms with one commissioner replaced annually. Each of the five selecting offices (President, majority/minority leaders) would rotate year-to-year in selecting the new commissioner; again from a list compiled by the GAO. Mobility between departments would be allowed, with terms tied to the individual, not the department.
In addition to oversight and regulatory duties, the commissioners would initiate changes to laws governing elections, campaign finance and lobbying.
Each year, the five commissioners would produce a list of changes to existing election law, with a 4-1 vote required for inclusion. Congress would approve or disapprove via a straight up/down vote in both chambers. If disapproved, the commission could be advised which specific items were objectionable. The commission could either remove or amend those sections before resubmitting, repeating until approved. Voters could hold accountable lawmakers voting against popular changes; making the process of government a bit more salient (another positive side effect).
Ultimately, allowing an independent agency to initiate changes to election, lobbying and campaign finance laws, means that Congress could no longer undo beneficial reforms. An amendment might still be necessary, but not for that reason.
A new and improved FEC would also be a powerful ally in government. An agency whose goal is to ensure elections are run fairly and above the board would likely view the current cozy arrangement between campaign donors, lobbyists, regulators and elected officials unfavorably; and act accordingly. Best of all, breaking off the FEC from the conflict-of-interest laden control of Congress would be a nonpartisan affair, as neither side should gain advantage from rules being fairly constructed and enforced.
Remaking the FEC should be a top priority for the enormous potential it holds.
Done properly, it could make the push for an amendment moot. At the very least, it can be a fantastic bridge between the status quo and an amendment, which even supporters admit will be a lengthy process. A long-term strategy is great, but we must arrest the momentum of the special interests devouring our government right now. Putting impartial judges on the field when we hold our elections is a great place to start.
Reform-minded people working to sever the corrupting influence of money in politics have had a rough few weeks. First came the collapse of Americans Elect as a platform by which a reform-minded candidate could get their message heard; followed shortly thereafter by the suspension of Buddy Roemer’s candidacy for president. Combined, these losses mean the existing power structure will go largely unchallenged in this year’s presidential election.
Despite this setback, no one should hang their head or despair for the long-term prospects of fixing our broken system. Gaining traction in 2012 was always going to be a tough row to hoe; but the seeds planted this election season will bear fruit in 2014 and beyond.
There were two steep challenges facing any efforts at reform this year: The dynamics of presidential election cycles and inertia.
Presidential elections suck up vast amounts of oxygen in terms of interest/relevance with both the media and the voting public. In addition, most voters still cling to the belief – justifiably or not – that their vote matters in a system completely dominated from start to finish by special interests. Perhaps most importantly, in presidential elections voters turn to familiar parties and their hyper-partisan framing of issues because they are motivated to defeat the evil hordes of the opposing party. This makes it extraordinarily difficult to advocate for the sort of necessary structural reforms that require support and cooperation from voters across the political divide.
Of course the media influences public perception about what is and isn’t possible, and who is or isn’t electable; a fact Americans Elect and Buddy Roemer both found out the hard way. Each failed to earn a spot on the main stage due to a variety of factors (some of their own making), but one significant commonality was that both were marginalized by a media either controlled or compliant to powerful special interests.
Additionally, because the presidential contest so thoroughly dominates, reformers must battle congressional, state and local candidates for the scraps of attention not focused on the main prize. The small amount garnered wasn’t enough to propel either Americans Elect or Roemer past the obstacles special interests (mostly via a compliant government and media) have erected.
It is no coincidence that the Occupy movement was able to capture the national conversation in an off-election year; or that the Tea Party’s spectacular success came in a non-presidential cycle. How much attention is paid to either movement these days? Is either having similar levels of success in getting their message out or influencing the outcomes of elections this year?
The net result of course is that no matter who wins in November, we will have elected a president who is extremely sympathetic to the special interests who financed his campaign. In the meantime, lacking a candidate championing reform, this election will continue to focus on the same hollow partisan debate that rarely leads to resolution. Rather, it diverts people’s attention away from the true source of their problems; while masking the reason why government is incapable of solving any of them.
Yet positive developments abound. Both Americans Elect and Buddy Roemer brought much-needed attention to the issue of a broken system and the root causes behind it. People on every side of the political divide are awakening to the underlying problems within our system; while the nascent effort to enact a constitutional amendment to root out corruption further raises the issue’s profile. Yet still, we remain at the point where the vast majority of voters will not act until their lives have been affected in a significantly adverse way; and even then reluctantly. Only when things reach a critical mass and a viable solution has gained broad acceptance, will that tipping point arrive.
A presidential election year is a great time to talk about these issues because average voters are paying more attention than normal. However, continued belief in our failing institutions also means that a conflicting message – of a broken system – which potentially undermines that belief, might face a less than receptive audience in the short-term. This is a great year for sowing, but not so much for reaping.
For now we should continue to support candidates at all levels who support fixing the corrupt system of pay-to-play government. When the election passes and the political campaigns end, the campaign to spread this message to voters should not.
Over time, the more this message is repeated, the likelier voters will blame money in politics for (what is likely to be) an extremely ugly election. Prospects for reform also increase incrementally every time voters hear that reforming a broken system engenders better solutions on the issues they value most – education, economy, defense, health care and more. The greater the body of evidence presented to voters consistently over time, the greater the likelihood the issue of money and influence in politics becomes THE central issue in the 2014 election cycle.
Success will not occur overnight, but a quietly growing consensus means it could come sooner than many think. In the meantime, the focus should be to continue to plant the seeds which will pay dividends come the reaping…and to have ready a solution worthy of that moment when it arrives.
Guest Post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.RebuildDemocracy.org
J. P. Morgan Chase’s recent announcement that the mega-bank had lost $2.3 billion making bad bets on unfathomable “credit derivatives” is like a lightning bolt on the horizon. Our political leaders have obviously not steered the ship-of-state far enough away from the financial storm that knocked down the entire economy in 2008. Wall Street is still gambling on the taxpayers’ line of credit and putting the entire nation at risk. It doesn’t take a genius to see why the problem was never fixed: Wall Street is bribing America’s political leadership with campaign donations.
Yes, that’s a crude explanation, but it also happens to be largely true. One of the parallels between banking reform and political reform is that while both systems are complex, basic and commonsense understanding comes easy. The most ordinary citizen can comprehend that while the public must underwrite traditional banking, taxpayers should never backstop anything that resembles gambling. An ordinary citizen can also understand the folly of permitting lawmakers to take campaign money from the same interests they regulate. Put it together, and it’s hardly rocket science. A monkey could connect these dots, which form a clear picture of corruption.
The banking crisis of 2008, coupled with our government’s inability to address the underlying causes of that crisis, is yielding one – and only one – clear benefit to the American people. It helps us see just how corrupt and dysfunctional our political system has become. What essentially needs to be done to fix the banking system is obvious. (Here is a clear explanation.) And it’s striking how much progressive outsiders and conservative outsiders actually agree on the nature of the banking problem and the necessary remedies.
Big banks must be broken up, with risky business separated from relatively safe FDIC-insured practices. Simpler solutions to banking reform are better than 2,300-page laws that regulators are supposed to implement because regulators can make mistakes and are subject to manipulation by financial and political interests. The Glass-Steagall Act was just such an approach that worked well for seventy years. Taxpayers should only back traditional lending. If a bank is mixing in riskier practices, then that aspect of the business must be broken off to stand on its own and suffer the consequences of any recklessness. No exceptions. End of story.
Incredibly, approaches that are clean and obvious usually don’t happen because Wall Street has politicians from both parties in its back pocket. Of course there’s a chance that public outrage and awareness could reach such an intense level that real banking reform might conceivably take place. But who wants a government that acts sensibly only in the wake of repeated calamities?
The President is now saying that the revelations out of JP Morgan demonstrate the need for the Democrat-passed Dodd-Frank Act. Barack Obama is doubling down on a law that shows every sign of failing (and he’s worried about the implications JP Morgan’s continued gambling habit) . For his part, Mitt Romney proposes no meaningful banking reform at all. Both politicians are taking in money hand over fist from Wall Street.
The madness only stops with comprehensive and non-partisan political reform. Just as a consensus outside of the Washington establishment is mostly established on banking reform, the shape of an outsiders’ consensus for political reform is also appearing. Lawmakers should not be permitted to take campaign money from the same interests they regulate. Congress should be comprised of citizen legislators from all walks of life and not professional politicians. Elections should always be fair. We, the people,all agree: we can’t afford the corruption any more. We need to compartmentalize our many differences and not be distracted from pursuing the reforms that we all know are just common sense.
For reformers working on ending the influence money has on government policy – a supposedly nonpartisan issue – where is the line between being a reformer and being a partisan? Those who devote their time and energy to ridding our system of the corrupting influence of special interest money are naturally going to be politically active and likely to have strong feelings about most issues. For these people and groups, where is the line between fighting for core principals and being willing to set aside differences to cooperate on a critical area of agreement?
Those who champion this cause and know that success requires cooperation have a duty to lead by example; especially groups and individuals with high profiles. If money in politics is poisoning everything else, than all other problems are symptoms of this root cause; and thus ending the corrupting influence is really the only thing that matters. Traditional partisan quarrels only benefit the status quo.
People across the political divide are awakening to the fact that the corrupting influence of money is the main cause of government failure. Yet in a polarized environment, cooperation is difficult; even when mutually beneficial.
We must begin to look at our political opponents not as the fools and/or traitors we are constantly told they are, but as respected opponents worthy of consideration. The reality is that once you peel away all the nonsense, most Americans of all political stripes truly believe in merit; that no one is entitled to get something for nothing. We just disagree on what role government should play to ensure everyone has a reasonable opportunity to maximize their potential.
Pretty basic stuff, but thanks to special interest control of government we have been routinely ignored and forced to eat policies & politics that neither side finds particularly palatable…and so the discourse has gotten a bit crazy. People are ripe for a new paradigm, but old habits are hard to break.
Reformers who understand the need to cooperate have a duty to lead by example and ensure their actions and words align. If leading reformers calling for a truce can’t refrain from partisanship, how on earth can we expect the average voter to do so?
Unfair as it might seem, this is especially true for progressives & liberal-leaning reformers. The average conservative sees most efforts to enact campaign finance or other good-government reforms as attempting to rig the game in the favor of progressives. Attacking corporations while ignoring the influence unions still wield over the political process (no matter how disproportionate) is just one way reform groups’ can often act counterproductively.
A perfect example is the recent attack on ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) by ‘nonpartisan’ reform groups in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. For groups seeking to unite political factions to suddenly champion a highly partisan issue such as gun control is both puzzling and short-sighted.
It is perfectly reasonable to highlight how ALEC acts as a conduit between big donors and legislators; as well as to ask the very legitimate question of whether we want private groups writing the laws we live under. Attacking specific issues championed by ALEC on the other hand – such as gun control – reverts to the same old go-nowhere partisan politics we need to be rising above in order to achieve a much more meaningful victory.
This particular battle might yield a ‘win’ for one political side or the other, but waging it at all counts as a major loss in the broader and more important war to end corruption and repair our broken government. Reformers should certainly fight for what they believe to be moral & just, but they must also be mindful of which battles it is appropriate to wage and which they should let others fight in their stead.
Above all reformers must be aware of the broader implications of their actions and understand that the coalition necessary for success will never be built by attacking the political beliefs of prospective partners.
Guest post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.RebuildDemocracy.org
In January of this year, Gallop continued its practice of polling Americans on their political ideologies. As you can see here, the pattern is fairly consistent over time, but in 2012, 40% of all Americans described themselves as “conservative,” 35% as “moderate” and 21% as “liberal.”
Given that a highly motivated supermajority of voters is needed to enact the kind of sweeping reforms readers of this page know is necessary, then isn’t the support of conservatives also necessary?
You wouldn’t know it to read and listen to the rhetoric of so-called “reform” organizations, who in this election year seem more interested in defeating Republicans and electing Democrats than they are in real reform.
Indeed, all of the big reform organizations couldn’t alienate conservatives more if they tried. Some of these groups help our organization in various ways, so out of a sense of diplomacy they will go unnamed.
First, any conservative who is even a little interested in reform has read or heard about Peter Schweizer’s book, Throw Them All Out. Many reform groups have in fact used Schweizer’s information on congressional insider stock trading in their advocacy for the recently passed Stock Act. That legislation was produced as a result of Schweizer’s reserach, though he says it does not go far enough.
But these same reform groups who embraced Schweizer’s work on congressional insider trading won’t go near the other findings in his book. They won’t touch the charge that the Obama Energy Department has probably engaged in the worst case of crony capitalism in American history. Schweizer, taking into consideration only one green energy loan program, reports that “$16.4 to $20.5 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b”!) in loans granted went to companies either run by or primarily owned by Obama financial backers-individuals who were bundlers, members of Obama’s national Finance Committee, or large donors to the Democratic Party.” Solyndra is only the most well-known green energy boondoggle reeking of corruption.
Reformers won’t criticize Nancy Pelosi, who appears to have engaged in insider trading and corrupt land deals, according to Schweizer.
Instead one reform group has targeted conservative Senator Tom Coburn for his opposition to the Stock Act. Coburn said he was against the bill because insider trading was already illegal and he did not want to participate in what he saw as a charade designed only to make Congress appear responsible. He also curiously said that he did not believe members of Congress were trading on inside information. One can certainly disagree with Coburn’s position, yet it seems principled, even if potentially flawed.
Coburn has never been accused of the least bit of personal corruption, unlike Pelosi or those involved with the green energy loan program, which stinks to high heaven. Yet one powerful reform group is trying to make an example out of Coburn, one of Congress’ cleanest Republicans. It only makes sense if they are partisans first and reformers second. (You can watch this recent interview with Coburn on “Morning Joe” and decided for yourself if he sounds corrupt).
Second, reform groups are targeting – and successfully intimidating – the corporate funders of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC typically funds conservatives and conservative causes. One reform group has even shamefully exploited the Trayvon Martin–George Zimmerman tragedy by creating an alleged conspiracy between ALEC and Martin’s death. The campaign against ALEC seems coordinated with the White House, which is also engaging in intimidation.
Obviously no conservative would be interested in supporting any “reform” organization which only targets conservative funders and is obviously allied with the Democrat establishment.
Third, as has been repeatedly discussed, the focus on Citizen United is inspired by partisanship as much as by reform. Important Democrat politicians on Capitol Hill – who take money hand over fist from Wall Street – support overturning Citizens United because undisclosed contributions to ALEC or American Crossroads threaten their political careers. The undisclosed nature of contributions to some of these groups means that the funders cannot be intimidated by those in power, and that makes those in power unhappy.
Again, reversing Citizens United does not fix the system. Professor Larry Lessig, a true progressive and authority on the subject, has himself said it won’t fix the system. Yet partisan reform groups have effectively convinced their liberal base (and many moderates too ) that a constitutional amendment reversing Citizens United is the most critical reform. Without conservative support, they have virtually no chance of passing such an amendment, but imagine if they did. Can the nation really afford a constitutional amendment with limited reforming power about on the scale of McCain Feingold? Imagine the cynicism when people discover how feeble such an amendment would actually be? At least some Democrat incumbent politicians would be happy.
Professor Lessig has also warned that ending “corporate personhood” won’t necessarily even change anything about Citizens United, but language like “ending corporate personhood” is red meat (or is “fresh bean salad” a better analogy?) to the progressive base and sure helps with the fundraising for progressive reform groups. The funders of the reform groups, by the way, are undisclosed and therefore protected from the sort of intimidating pressures that the funders of ALEC are now experiencing.
The conduct of progressive reform groups infuriates and disgusts conservatives who understand reform issues and care about them. For conservatives who know less about reform, they just assume that reform is about progressive politics, and they’re against it. And who could blame them?
If we assume that a united front of citizen outsiders – including conservatives – is necessary to break the Washington establishment and enact real reform, then the many partisan progressive reform groups are doing more harm than good. They are their own worst enemies, unless of course their real missions are to elect progressive Democrats.
If you’re at all politically inclined, chances are that in addition to a deluge of campaign mailers, you also receive the occasional (or not so occasional) entreaty for money from a candidate, political party or interest group. These solicitations usually focus on a recent hot-button issue or make a more general ideological driven appeal to sway supporters to pledge money. The one constant is political opponents portrayed in the most unflattering way possible (to say the least). Is it any wonder we are so polarized when in addition to increasingly vitriolic campaigns, we must also endure non-stop year round appeals for money to stop the demonic hordes from the other party?
Is it any wonder compromise has become a dirty word when people are led to believe at every turn, in the basest terms possible, that the other side is one to be despised and feared?
The relentless and never-ending effort to finance the campaigns of those running for office has helped coarsen the discourse in this country to the point where we are now barely governable. You often hear people talk about speech needing to remain free for a democracy to function, and that is true, but democracy also requires respectful discourse so that mutually beneficial compromises can be reached. Our system has become a bi-annual system of mutually assured destruction in that, no matter which side wins, the public’s belief in the institution erodes that much more. In the end, it doesn’t matter who is in charge if all that remains to rule is the rubble of our once great country undone by our inability to cooperate.
Yet how do we improve the quality of discourse without infringing on freedom of speech? As long as the driving force in elections is money, pursuit of money will trump all else. Lessen the need for money, and the incentive to pull out all stops – including demagoguery or slandering of opposition – lessens as well.
A few options:
~ Clean money systems which provide qualifying candidates funding to compete with the candidates who are little more than mouthpieces for special interests – corporate, union or otherwise – would offer voters alternatives, but wouldn’t completely forestall fundraising efforts.
~ Increased transparency might discourage some of the nastier stuff. Just as candidates tend to be more polite at debates when their target is standing there ready to defend themselves, so too would the tone modulate if people knew who was financing all the political activity. Politicians know who’s behind these ads – instant transparency would ensure voters and regulators (or whatever passes for them at the FEC) would as well. This alone would not significantly improve the quality of discourse, but amongst its many other benefits, it might take some of the harder edges off political rhetoric.
~ An opposing approach is to create a blind trust for political donations so no one would know who funded campaigns and there would be no quid-pro-quo. This is the hardest to predict the outcome of – it could have a huge effect, or none at all as campaigns would still need anonymous money and the pleas would continue unabated.
~ Finally, constitutional amendments attempting to take private money out of elections or allowing Congress to regulate political spending might have an impact; but would also (likely) leave independent groups unaffected, and so the affect would be negligible. Even so, such an amendment is unlikely to gain the broad support necessary to gain passage, and might have unintended consequences if it did.
Clearly this is not an easy question to answer, but it is important to note the constant barrage endured by the most politically active people in this country – one which constantly paints the opposing side in the worst possible terms – and the corrosive effect this has had on our ability to govern ourselves. Under such relentless reinforcement of this narrative, it takes a conscious effort to remind ourselves that most people who disagree with us politically are not our enemies, just people working towards a similar goal with a different idea for how to get there. Unfortunately few are willing or capable of making this effort and the quality of both discourse and governance have suffered accordingly.
The ironic part is that we don’t even like the people shoveling this swill. Opinion polls would not be so universally low if most Americans agreed with the platforms of the two major political parties, yet our willingness to buy into the two-party dynamic ensures that nothing ever changes. The problem isn’t that left and right can’t compromise, it is that the Democratic and Republican Parties stand in our way from doing so. They cannot effectively raise money if they work harmoniously with the other side for the greater good, and because money rules all in Washington there is zero incentive to do something so damaging to the bottom line.
The rot of money is not just in the direct (and disastrous) effect it has on specific policy decisions, but also in the pervasive coarsening of public discourse that is making us increasingly ungovernable. Whatever the solution to this problem, it must deal with the effect money currently has on our political system and eliminate the incentive to constantly paint the opposition as evil.
Cooperation shouldn’t be a dirty word, and those with different political beliefs don’t need to be sworn enemies demonized at every turn. Money in political campaigns creates a motive for political players to pretend otherwise…especially when we keep rewarding them for doing so.
Guest post by Stephen Erickson originally published at www.rebuilddemocracy.org on 2/23/12
Surging Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was declared one of the “most corrupt” members of Congress in 2006 by a group called CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington). The charge is often used against Santorum in the presidential campaign by his Republican opponents. Santorum denies any wrongdoing and claims that CREW is a politically-motivated left-wing organization. Let’s take a closer look.
CREW makes a number of connections between contributors to Santorum’s campaign organizations and legislation he sponsored or supported while serving in the Senate. Most damning is the $44,750 Santorum received from hospital-related interests in Puerto Rico, which appears to have been in exchange for Santorum sponsoring the Medicare Puerto Rico Hospital Payment Parity Act in the US Senate.
Santorum also sponsored legislation that would require the National Weather Service to provide data to private weather forecasting companies but prohibit the government service from disclosing the data itself in most cases. The founders of AccuWeather had “contributed $40,000 to Santorum and the Republican Party since 2003,” reported CREW.
There’s more. The day after a vote in support of tobacco interests, Santorum’s leadership PAC received $10,000 from the tobacco industry. Santorum also took in $6,000 from Miller Brewing Company and Anheuser-Busch while sponsoring legislation to cut in half the excise tax on large brewers.
Rick Santorum engaged in crony capitalism when he secured a $100 million loan in an earmark for Waste Management Processes, a Pennsylvania company that converts coal to diesel fuel. The company’s CEO and his family members donated a total of $16,500 to the Senator’s campaign committee and $8,500 to his PAC.
CREW also makes some lesser charges against Santorum, but the above examples seem to substantiate accusations that Rick Santorum is indeed what most ordinary citizens would consider a corrupt politician.
But is Santorum among the most corrupt? Here is where CREW gets into trouble. To look at CREW’s list for 2006, one would think that being a Republican is as much of a problem as the corrupt system. They list twenty-one Republicans and only four Democrats. Most of the Democrats are such egregious cases that leaving them off the list would have been impossible without CREW losing complete credibility. For example, CongressmanWilliam J. Jefferson of Louisianawas caught with his refrigerator full of cash from a bribe. CREW goes after only token Democrats.
CREW’s 2011 list of the most corrupt members of Congress is at least better balanced. But it’s not good enough. Partisan reformers discredit the cause of reform. Progressive reformers still refuse to go after the most corrupt and most powerful progressive politicians, like President Obama, Congressman Barney Frank, or former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Consider the case of Pelosi, who was exposed by conservative muckraker Peter Schweizer in his book Throw Them All Out. Pelosi and her husband were able to secure shares ofVisa’s initial public offering (IPO) at a price unavailable to the public while important legislation affecting Visa was before Congress. The Pelosis’ investment in Visa was quite substantial, representing 10% of their total stock portfolio. The IPO soon paid them a handsome 203% return. Pelosi, a credit card reformer, chose to focus on regulations that affected the banks that issue the cards, and not the card companies like Visa, which were targets in some other unsuccessful pieces of legislation. The Visa IPO was just one of several that Pelosi and her husbandconverted into big personal financial gains.
Schweizer also shows how Nancy Pelosi secured transportation infrastructure projects near property she owns in California, dramatically increasing the value of that property. Schweizer spotlighted a similar deal that Speaker Pelosi’s Republican predecessor, Dennis Hastert, got for himself by funding a highway project near land he owned. By calling his book Throw Them All Out, and going after powerful Democrats as well as Republicans, Schweizer models a non-partisan muckraking approach that progressive reformers need to learn to emulate.
Was Rick Santorum one of the most corrupt members of Congress? Sadly, he is probably more typical than especially corrupt, but that important point gets lost when partisanship and reform get mixed together.
Now that the battle over Voter IDs is afoot, it becomes clearer & clearer that increased voter cynicism and a weakened democracy are the most likely outcomes; barring a change in the terms of the debate. The biggest problem at this point is that whatever the political motivations behind efforts to enact Voter ID laws, those opposing these new laws fail to acknowledge the fact that most Americans required to show photo ID in so many facets of their day-to-day lives aren’t likely to have much sympathy for people who can’t be bothered. They might be sympathetic to the plight of the millions of voters now potentially disenfranchised, but that won’t make them think it’s a bad idea to require ID to vote; they’ll just think people without ID should go get one. Of course that is sometimes easier said than done, especially when political operatives pushing Voter IDs are simultaneously creating new roadblocks to securing that ID. All of which adds up to more cynicism and little chance that voting conditions will actually improve.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to combat voter fraud without disenfranchising anyone. Even better, it can make our election process much more secure than Voter IDs alone could ever accomplish, while providing immeasurable benefit to communities across the nation. All that is required is to conditionally embrace Voter IDs as part of a more extensive reform making it “easier to vote and harder to cheat” as GOP Party Chairman Reince Priebus put it. Here’s how:
1. Create a new federal photo ID which could be used in situations requiring ID, including voting. Provide federal funding to libraries and law enforcement agencies who agree to take on the task of helping citizens procure a federal photo ID. The extra funding could be used for any purpose, as long as basic requirements were met in regards to assisting with photo IDs. This approach to the Voter ID problem kills two birds with one stone – reversing the counterproductive trend of decreasing funding for these public resources at the exact moment when public need is increasing – while simultaneously providing voters a convenient outlet to procure a free photo ID.
2. Ensure that lack of one form of documentation (such as a valid birth certificate) doesn’t prevent procuring ID if another means to verify identity can be produced; a major issue for older, minority and/or rural Americans. Library or law enforcement officials would review required documentation, enter the person’s relevant information, take and record a digital picture of the person, and then send this information off for processing. The ID would be produced centrally, most likely by a private company contracted to do so by the government, and mailed either directly to the person or available for pick up where the ID was generated.
3. Disabled, elderly or rural voters (living more than 10 miles from any library or law enforcement office assisting with IDs) would be able to schedule in-home appointments to procure photo ID. A contractor – much like a notary public – could be hired to drive to that person’s house, verify documentation, input data, take a digital photograph, and send it off for processing. Hospitals, Long-Term Care and Elder-Care Facilities could be serviced similarly.
4. Provide funding to states who voluntarily expand access to voting via early voting, voting by mail, or similar ways to give voters greater ease & opportunity in casting their ballots. Similarly, in states where photo ID is required to vote, allow voters with photo ID to register to vote on Election Day.
5. Require voters in any state using computers to either record or compile votes to initial a paper record of their vote. This paper verification could come in the form of a punch-hole or mark next to the candidate’s name, or a print-out from a computerized voting machine. The voter would simply verify his/her choice(s), initial the paper copy and place it in a receptacle. There would be an automatic audit of a small sample of paper records contrasted against the computer result. Discrepancies would trigger a wider audit or even a recount, ensuring that it is the will of the voters and not that of computer hackers (or those employing them) being carried out. Finally, states would receive funding to update their election equipment and train election officials in order to become compliant with these changes.
This approach would put people’s right to vote – and to have that vote accurately counted – above petty partisan politics. The first four reforms would protect against voter fraud by requiring ID, something the Democrats would need to accept as part of a larger compromise, while making ID easily available and thwarting Republican attempts denying ID to Democratic-leaning constituencies. The fifth & final reform deals not with the individual fraud that Voter ID targets, but the system-wide fraud perpetrated by computer hackers; which is the greater threat by far.
If the Department of Defenses, CIA and FBI can be hacked, it’s probably safe to assume that the unsophisticated array of voting systems we have across this country wouldn’t be too great a challenge to any hacker even mildly determined to tinker with voting results. Yet even as we require people to show ID when voting at the risk of disenfranchising millions, we remain completely trusting of the computers recording and/or compiling votes; so much so that we require absolutely no means to verify the accuracy of their count. Does that strike anyone else as odd?
If we are going to protect our vote, let’s really protect our vote from all threats of fraud; without forcing voters to choose between allowing voter fraud or disenfranchising voters. We can do far better than that. Adopting this solution has the potential to transform a looming dark chapter in our electoral history into a reaffirmation of our commitment to a government chosen by a popular vote of its citizens. Join us in demanding of our leaders a better approach to protecting our vote, our right to vote, and ultimately…our democracy.
As big-spending Super PACs continue to dominate our election process this year, the debate about the role of money in elections will continue to heat up. Yet while it is a near certainty that the media will portray the opposing views of those on the left & right as being incompatible with one another, there is more common ground on this issue than meets the eye; and a solution which benefits all sides equally is possible.
The conservative viewpoint on political spending generally holds that money will always find a way in, and any obstacles put in its path easily circumvented. Add in the fact that such obstacles are often seen as either violating free speech rights or putting too much power in the hands of congress, and it’s little surprise conservatives show little inclination to support (progressive) solutions which offer more of the same. Instead, conservatives often counter with the argument that money should flow freely without limits, but in a transparent way so voters can know who is funding whom. Progressives are of course horrified by this prospect, and argue that such a deluge of unlimited money would completely drown out ordinary voices already struggling to be heard.
The reality is that both views have merit. Money has consistently found a way into the process no matter what limits or restrictions have been enacted, reinforcing the conservative argument. On the other hand, simply letting the money flow without acknowledging the corrupting effect it has had on our system would take a serious problem and make it much, much worse. So the question then is, if there are flaws with both approaches and neither is likely to get the broad support necessary for success anyway, why do both sides continue to cling to dead-end solutions?
Frankly, progressives are worrying themselves with the wrong thing in this debate. Rather than focusing on limiting the money, and immediately making conservatives dig in their heels, why not focus instead on the influence and/or control which that money buys? If there were a way to use the conservative model, and thus gain necessary conservative support, why should it matter whether the money flows or not if the influence/control it buys has been dealt with?
What if in exchange for eliminating all contribution limits, and letting the money flow freely and with more-or-less instantaneous disclosure/transparency, the following reforms were implemented:
~ Clean funding for the campaigns of federal candidates, offering voters the choice of quality candidates free of the strings often attached to special interest money.
~ Congressional term-limits with provisions to ensure people leaving government service can’t immediately spin through the revolving door and profit from their ‘service’.
~ An independent oversight authority free of congress’ influence, which would be able to legitimately enforce election, lobbying and campaign finance laws. No more lax enforcement and slaps on the wrist for those not playing by the rules.
~ An end to gerrymandering and other types of voter fraud which allow politicians to pick their voters, rather than the other way around.
The only thing this approach would fail to accomplish is to ensure that ordinary voices were given the opportunity to be heard. But really, at what point in our entire history as a nation has that been a priority in our electoral process? Sure we celebrate the vote in our democracy, but the wealthy and powerful have been the driving force in elections since the very beginning. In fact, with the advent of the internet and other modern technology, one could argue that average voters have never been more likely to have their voices heard than they currently do; even as difficult as it can be to penetrate the cacophony created by special interest money.
Additionally, as Obama’s 2008 campaign & the Tea Party in 2010 have both recently demonstrated, enthusiastic volunteers/supporters can still have an enormous impact on elections regardless of special interest money. Perhaps candidates free of special interest influence (and more in touch with concerns of voters in their communities) would lead to even higher levels of involvement; especially if the current gap in relative worth between campaign volunteers and special interest money narrowed as a result of changes to election law.
At the end of the day, if we can somehow strengthen the voices of ordinary voters and limit the influence of special interests on our government…does it really matter whether or not we ‘get the money out’?
This question is especially pertinent when you consider how ineffective existing limits on contributions have been. Bundlers easily circumvent limits on direct contributions to candidates in order to gain influence; and who knows what sort of favors are being bought with the gobs & gobs of money pouring into Super PACs and other independent groups?
The money is already flowing freely and influence being bought left & right. If a compromise could be reached using the conservative framework which focused on limiting influence & control rather than money, we would emerge with a system infinitely better than the current one. Abandoning solutions which truly get the money out of politics(and thereby avoiding entirely any free speech concerns) would be a small price to pay for such a colossal improvement in our electoral system; and in turn our government.