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.
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.
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.
Whenever I voice concern over a constitutional amendment being the favored solution for ending special interest control of government – something I strongly favor – there seems to be some consternation or confusion over what people see as a disconnect. The reality is I would be fine with an amendment if I thought it would be effective, but the fundamental problem is that there are two probable outcomes I can see emerging from taking this approach; and neither is good. They are:
1. It would fail to pass because it included everything necessary to truly solve the problem, thereby failing to garner the broad support necessary for passage.
2. It passes, but fails to fully solve the problem, while a public exhausted from the extraordinary effort required to pass an amendment (and thinking the problem generally solved) lacks the willpower to finish the job. The end result would be a feel-good reform which offered slight improvements, but where the majority of money would simply divert into new/different channels, leaving special interests in power and falling far short of the goal of reclaiming government from the 0.01%.
This is why I have primarily advocated for an approach other than an amendment; and will continue to do so. In fact, the recent call by Mitt Romney (and others) for the elimination of contribution limits entirely (due to the outsize effect of Super PACs in the GOP primary) gives credence to my solution The Common Sense Cure. I still believe it a better approach to act legislatively by electing politicians committed to a specific nonpartisan solution (thereby giving voters the ability to vote directly on the issue) which, in exchange for eliminating contribution limits, would put in place reforms to offset the effect of money on elections.
However, there is also recognition that the push for an amendment is a moving train which will be difficult to stop at this point. This is one of the primary reasons for the newly-formed collaboration with Americans United to Rebuild Democracy; a group seeking a nonpartisan approach like The Cure, but whose approach requires a constitutional amendment. If the solution must be an amendment, it is especially critical to actually listen to the voices of people from across the political divide when drafting language, because passage will require the buy-in of more than just one ideological group. The Rebuild Democracy model offers a nonpartisan approach capable of winning broad support, while offering a solution which comes closest to actually ending special interest control.
Currently there are three themes of amendment language most widely discussed: ending corporate personhood, declaring that money does not equal speech, and mandating publicly funded elections. Of course there are others, but most share similar shortcomings, fail to meet the criteria already outlined and/or lack much popular support. So for the sake of brevity this examination will focus on these three approaches:
1. Ending corporate personhood: The concept is fine but the first question is, are we talking about ending the ‘personhood’ of just corporations or all types of groups? One answer raises free-speech concerns when we are talking about public interest groups (like the NRA or Sierra Club) or professional trade groups; and perhaps even unions. The opposing answer raises the political concern that conservatives will feel that the special interests most closely aligned with their ‘side’ are being silenced, while unions & other liberal donors are unaffected. Both sides have historically attacked reforms giving this appearance with near-universal ferocity.
The other problem with an amendment which only ended corporate personhood is that all it would really accomplish is putting the power to control corporate political spending in the hands of congress. This would be the same congress thoroughly corrupted by special interest cash and full of members keenly interested in boosting the prospects for their own re-election. Wealthy donors could still donate to campaigns individually, just as they could prior to Citizens United, and bundling and other means to stretch contribution limits would all still exist. In light of this, what sort of laws are people hoping to see emerge in the wake of an amendment? If it’s loophole-filled and incumbent-friendly they’ll probably be in luck.
Don’t get me wrong, I am offended by the idea that a construct which cannot die and feels nothing is given the same rights as you & I; especially in regards to its ability to dominate the public conversation both politically & otherwise. But that is a different issue from how best to fix a corrupt and broken government. An amendment ending corporate personhood might make people feel better, but in the end it wouldn’t really accomplish a whole lot without additional reform; unlikely to happen given the way it is being sold. Sure it would allow congress to regulate corporate political donations and rein in Super PACs, but would they? And really, do we need an amendment just to accomplish that? Simply put, there are higher priorities than ending corporate personhood, especially given both the free-speech & political implications from its inclusion in final language.
2. Money doesn’t equal speech: Again, while it’s possible to favor the idea in principle, the same issues arise in that this by itself would merely give congress the ability to control political spending at its conflict-of-interest-plagued discretion; a somewhat less than ideal outcome. Throw in the free-speech implications it might have on the media, on our ability to organize in legitimate interest/trade groups and the like (and would this change apply only to campaign contributions or more widely; and is that distinction made or left to the courts?); and again the question arises whether this language can win conservative support, regardless of what widely-quoted polls say.
3. Publicly funded elections: As a long-time proponent of some form of publicly funded elections, I fully support the inclusion of this provision; yet still have two concerns. First is that by itself – while it would succeed in offering voters new choice in the form of candidates free from special interest influences – it would also leave these influence-free candidates at risk of being overwhelmed by Super PACs and other independent expenditures. Traditionally the spending floor in political campaigns has been more important than the ceiling, but the ability of Super PACs to dump enormous amounts of anonymous money in a very short period of time into campaigns is somewhat of a game-changer. Publicly funded campaigns alone would be far superior to the status quo, yet ideally any final solution would also address the proliferation of independent expenditures in some manner. (Note: The Rebuild Democracy amendment does not address this issue either; my primary concern with it in its current form even though it otherwise has my support.)
The other concern is political in nature. While many conservatives oppose the Citizens United ruling, their preferred solution is generally not publicly-funded elections. Therefore it seems somewhat unlikely that conservatives would support this approach without gaining something they favor in return; such as congressional term limits.
Of course some proposals combine two or even all three of these approaches, and while the effectiveness increases with the inclusion of each, so too do the free-speech concerns. As those mount the likelihood that conservatives (or even moderates) would support such an amendment decreases exponentially.
People across the political divide are awakening to the idea that with both major parties controlled by special interest money, fixing a broken system becomes more important even than whom we elect. This joins a growing awareness that solving this problem will require traditional political foes to cooperate to some degree. But what has largely failed to occur is for reformers (on either side) to actually shift their thinking and attempt to see things from an opposing viewpoint when contemplating reform. The current crop of proposed amendments – which conflate broad opposition to special interest control of government with broad support for the solutions being proposed – are a perfect example. Without a change in approach, the error of that assumption will become apparent soon enough, to all of our detriment.
Ending special interest control of government, and returning our republic to its rightful owners, requires that we set aside the issues dividing us and focus instead on this single issue which unites us; regardless the final shape of reform. The first step is to actually listen to each other! There is no better time than the present to get started.
Reversing Citizens United (Part 2 of 2): A Misguided Strategy
Guest post by Stephen Erickson of Americans United to Rebuild Democracy
Does the so-called progressive reform community really want reform – you know, fair elections and clean legislation – or do they just want partisan advantage? The jury is definitely out on this one.
Most political reform groups – which are almost all run by progressives – are making it their focus to overturn the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. But if progressive truly want to fix our corrupted political system, the campaign to overturn Citizens United is really, really misguided. What’s needed instead is a paradigm shift when it comes to the politics of reform.
For progressive reformers to succeed in overturning Citizens United, they will theoretically have two paths forward. They can either support and win enough successive presidential elections until the current Supreme Court’s majority dies off and is replaced with a more sympathetic one. That’s the relatively easy route. Otherwise, progressive reformers will have to amend the Constitution against a hurricane headwind of conservative opposition. The politics of reversing Citizens United is in reality so daunting that the entire campaign seems designed more to rally the progressive base and raise money than it is to make our political system better.
To the detriment of real reform, establishment progressive reformers again and again side with their career politician allies in the Democratic party. It’s no accident, nor a matter of principled conviction, that Democratic senators, led by the likes of Wall Street-backed Chuck Schumer ($2,718,464 from the financial industry for his 2010 race), oppose Citizens United and are sponsoring a constitutional amendment to overturn it.
Undisclosed political expenditures, though potentially nefarious, do have the redeeming feature of threatening entrenched incumbent politicians. Schumer and his allies in Congress want all streams of campaign money to pass through their own hands, with full disclosure all around, so they know who to reward and who to punish based on campaign contributions. They want special interests to continue to invest in them personally, in exchange for influence, in order to perpetuate their own professional political careers and enhance their own political power. It’s a form of ongoing extortion befitting gangsters more than the representatives of a free people. The Citizens United decision slightly weakens their system.
Too many progressives can’t decide if they are reformers or partisan warriors and end up trying to be both at the same time. Along the way they create serious credibility problems for themselves. Their silence is deafening in relation to the clear signs of corruption – on an unprecedented scale – coming out of the Obama Energy Department. The rigged “Disclose” bill was obviously crafted with partisan advantage in mind. The attempt to revive the so-called “Fairness” Doctrine was clearly a bare-knuckled attempt to undermine conservative talk radio. The fight to reverse Citizens United is perceived by conservatives as just more of the same. But in this case the stakes for conservatives will be higher than ever before, for they will suspect that their First Amendment rights are under attack. At the very least, overturning Citizens United seems aimed at giving Congress the power to censor certain forms of political speech, a power that incumbent politicians will use to their advantage. Who knows where this power to censor might end? The United States has many media “corporations,” as Justice Kennedy in his majority decision in the Citizens United case pointed out. Could these, too, one day be gagged? Potentially compromising the First Amendment should be a frightening proposition to all Americans. Conservatives, at least, will fight furiously to stop it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s time for sincere progressive reformers to consider who their natural allies are. ( Hint: it’s not those Democrat politicians in Congress and in the White House who are taking money hand over fist from special interests. )
Progressive reformers seem to require a little primer on the conservative perspective when it comes to corruption. Grassroots conservatives know that our government is bought and sold. A system of institutionalized bribery and extortion operates in Washington every day, and conservatives hate this system every bit as much as progressives do. Maybe more so. True reform-minded people, whether on the Left or Right, share a fundamental understanding; our republic has become corrupted. If progressives wanted to, they could reach out and build on this large and substantial piece of common ground. But it would require a deliberate change of course and attitude.
An agreement between progressives and conservative reformers would begin with a prohibition against our lawmakers knowingly taking campaign cash from the same interests they regulate. In other words, we would expand our definitions of bribery and extortion so that when it comes to elected officials and special interests, an explicitly articulated quid pro quo would not be necessary to punish influence buying and selling. Political campaign funders and law makers would and should be completely disconnected. Collusion between the two could be punishable with jail time. Grassroots conservatives would heartily cheer this approach. They would fight for it and would willingly toss out Republican politicians who stood in their way (The Tea Party has already started doing something that resembles this by challenging establishment politicians in primaries and Tea Party members of Congress have had some success fighting the corrupt practice of earmarks).
Mutually agreeable steps might also be taken to help limit the influence of special interests unleashed by Citizen United, without amending the Constitution or compromising the First Amendment. It all begins by putting down our partisan weapons and listening to each other.
Undoubtedly, building a new clean election system together would be challenging. Progressive and conservative activists might not agree on what that new system should look like. It would require negotiation. But as citizens outside of the Establishment – whether we call ourselves progressives, conservatives or something in between – we agree on the essentials of reform. Fixing our broken democracy is just too important for partisan games. Please, let’s try working together.
The Jack Abramoff story has become emblematic of – and his name synonymous with – corruption in our government. The photo of him in his fedora & trench coat leaving court stands as a symbol of shady backroom dealings where moneyed interests get their way at the expense of the average voter (or a typical workday as it’s known in D.C.). This symbolism is perfectly understandable, as human beings crave these sorts of representative emblems which allow them to understand and face up to complex and/or unpleasant issues. At the same time, it illustrates the conundrum facing those wishing to end the type of government corruption that Abramoff represents…
What symbol is there capable of representing the almost complete corruption of nearly every facet of our government?
Sure we have single representations such as Abramoff symbolizing a piece of the puzzle, but the sort of unifying symbol which allows voters to see the corruption afflicting our government in it’s entirety, and subsequently what must be done to fix it? That is elusive (to say the least) and a huge roadblock for reformers to overcome.
As our recently published guest post on Abramoff points out, there were numerous corrupt acts in his story which went unpunished. But the reality is, even had everyone involved in the Abramoff affair been indicted for their part – the government officials at the state & federal level and even the reps for the Native American tribes – it still would not have had the hoped-for effect of making Americans confront a system which is itself thoroughly corrupt. This is the advantage that the status quo always has over those working towards reform; that even had all those involved been frog-marched into court and made to pay, most voters would have concluded that justice had been served, the bad guys went to jail and now everything was more or less fine. But as we know, everything is not fine; in fact we are a pretty fair stretch from fine.
Just as Worldcom, Enron, et al turned out not be just a few “bad apples” spoiling things for all the fine, upstanding people on Wall St who would never, ever, ever do anything like rip off their customers; neither are Abramoff or any other sacrificial lambs periodically trotted out for the public to tar & feather the only corrupt players in our government. They are instead just the tip of a massive iceberg that is ripping our ‘ship of state’ to shreds underneath the water line while we satisfy ourselves with making an example of these scapegoats rather than addressing the real problem.
The ironic part is that many people actually understand a lot of this at some level, but cognitive dissonance just won’t allow them to face the reality of the situation without something to jolt them into action. Through some combination of dread over what they’ll find, and the fear that perhaps nothing can be done no matter what is discovered, the much-needed examination & overhaul of our government simply never comes. It is human nature to avoid or postpone unpleasant tasks, and tasks don’t get much more unpleasant or difficult than reclaiming our government from parasitic special interests; and then subsequently cleaning up the mess they have made of things. It is much easier to throw a corrupt lobbyist in jail than to examine the system which made him such a fixture in government to begin with. But if we truly want to solve the problems we face, if we want to face the challenges of a new century and continue to have system which stands as a shining example for the rest of the world, we must turn our attention to this unpleasant task that we have ignored for too long already.
I will leave you with one bit of good news in the form of a new symbol on the landscape. Super PACs – and their ability to flood elections with money – have very much become a symbol for how the corruption in government takes root via money in elections. Whether this ultimately leads to fixing our rigged election system remains to be seen, but it is exactly the sort of symbol necessary to tell the story not of a corrupt man or group of people, but of an entire system rotted out from the inside and in dire need of repair.