Apr 11

Published 4/4/14 at www.commonsensecure.com

The Common Sense Cure was born in the wake of the Citizens United decision, and it is in the wake of the McCutcheon decision that it is being brought back to life. Much progress has been made in the interim, and the public is catching on to the real problems caused by money in politics. But most still do not appreciate the dire scope of this problem and continue to feel impotent about their ability to change matters. Progress is being made, but far, far too slowly. McCutcheon is a wake-up call and a call to arms, and how we respond will ultimately determine our chances of success.

The writing has been on the wall for years that the courts would soon have campaign finance limits going the way of the dodo. So now that this has (all but) come to pass, it is critical that the reform community centralize around a plan which features both a workable & effective reform which does not utilize limits, as well as a nimble & multi-faceted strategy to enact that reform. We must then figure out a way to explain this plan in an easy-to-understand manner, which allows the average voter to buy in and mobilize in a way they’ve been unwilling to in prior elections.

Whether the Common Sense Cure is that plan or not, it is at the least a model of what such a plan might resemble. There are lots of other plans out there, some similar, others not. Whichever plan reformers rally around however, to succeed it must have both an effective reform and a workable strategy

…and it must be nonpartisan!

This was the other issue The Cure sought to address in its initial incarnation, that too often, the idea of campaign finance reform, or any other attempt to mitigate the influence of money, was a partisan, liberal affair. Reformers should work to dispel this idea –and some do – but too often, you’ll hear the need for reform mixed in with other, more traditional political arguments. This muddies the waters and alienates potential allies.

To make matters worse, many in the reform community align themselves closely with members of the Democratic Party. Of course, it would be silly to spurn allies who are in a position of power and can help one’s cause, but there must be more visible outreach to the Republican Party so that this doesn’t become just another partisan issue lost in the whirlwind of noise. Even if the Democrats are more natural allies, there are Republicans who agree on this issue and there is a damaging perception that little is being done to work with them.

Plus, after years of alliance, where has working with Democrats gotten reformers? Nowhere is the answer, because even well-meaning Democrats see the issue of reform primarily as a way of raising money & support. Well-meaning or not, they all know they’re unlikely to ever have to take a meaningful stand on the issue when government is now so systematically corrupt from top to bottom.

So Democrats aren’t the answer if success is the goal. No, this has to be an independent movement composed of those from all across the political spectrum, demanding the sort of changes that a captured government cannot & will not apply to itself, or it will surely fail.

Of course, reaching out to those with whom you might disagree politically can be tough when the media and people trying to raise money for political operations work so tirelessly to convince us that those on the other side are horrible, evil people. But the reality is the people with whom you disagree politically mostly want the same things – a good job and a happy life for them & theirs – they just don’t agree on how best to accomplish our nation’s goals.

However, so long as money rules in politics, all of it is just a sideshow anyway. If we put aside our differences and work together to fix the issue at the heart of things, we remove the true impediment to finding solutions which might ultimately satisfy both sides. The people who run things want us distracted and at each other’s throats. Nothing scares them more than when we set aside differences and work together (which should tell you something).

Forget Iraq, Afghanistan or the War on Terror; getting the corrupting influence of money out of politics is the defining battle of our generation. Until we fix this, things are just going to keep getting worse and worse, and no amount of hunkering down and hoping disaster doesn’t find you will prevent that. This will touch us all in a profoundly negative way in the end and it is time all of us get to work in whatever way we can to find a solution. A captured government won’t fix itself. We must fight or surrender…there is no third option.


Jul 30

7/30/2012

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.


Jun 1

6/1/12

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.


May 25

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.


May 4

5/4/2012

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.


May 4

5/4/12

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.


Apr 26

4/26/12

Guest post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.rebuilddemocracy.org

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently wrote an interesting piece based on his interview with Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama, you may recall, is the author of The End of History in which he reassured us that – with the end of the cold war – democracy would triumph everywhere. Tyranny was doomed. Not only is reality forcing a revision in Fukuyama’s thesis, but he now tells Friedman that that American government has “a crisis of authority.” Authority?

So what we need then is not more democracy but more authority? What happened to “the End of History?”

Yes, we all know American government has become highly dysfunctional. And Friedman and Fukuyama get it right when they point out that our national government has been reduced to little more than a hoard of special interests vying for money and power. The Founders expected government to serve broad and long term interests. Preventing members of Congress from taking campaign cash from special interests would steer government toward serving the national interest, something Friedman only alludes to in this article.

Rather, for the United States today, Fukuyama and Friedman prescribes changes in the institutional rules of the US government to prevent what has become a “vetocracy.” He and Friedman say we have too many checks and balances, like the Senate filibuster. Is that really the problem?

The filibuster, while probably often used too casually, can be a pretty good unifying device. Consider the passage of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare.” Everyone knows that the bill was completely partisan. Not a single Republican voted for it. It only escaped a Senate Republican filibuster because of a technicality that allowed it to pass through a process called “reconciliation.” The partisan passage of the Affordable Care Act set off a firestorm of ideological warfare that still rages. But what if the Republicans had been able to block the Democrat healthcare bill, then what? The President and his party might then have turned to the bipartisan Wyden- Bennett bill, arguably a superior bill, that would have resulted in a better healthcare law, more ideological peace, and would probably have the President in a better position for reelection today. The filibuster can be a useful tool, but like many tools, can also cause damage when used recklessly.

Friedman cheers Fukuyama when he calls for “heavy technocratic input.” That kind of tool sounds similar to a sledgehammer. Friedman and Fukuyama favor elitist solutions. They just can’t help themselves. All of those interests need to be “managed” in some top-down structure, they seem to suggest.

But the problem is not too much democracy. Rather, it’s not enough democracy. If our government was led by people more like average Americans – with the same priorities as average Americans, like balanced budgets, good education, clean water and air, a fertile business climate – then we’d have a healthy political system. Instead we are plagued by career politicians, enabled by special interests, whose primary focus is the maintenance of their own positions and political power. The filibuster will be used more responsibly when we have term limits and clean elections.


Apr 12

4/12/12

The claim is often made (especially by political insiders) that the case for money controlling things in Washington is overstated. They claim that in instances where voters make their wishes well known, money doesn’t stand a chance. This is actually true…sort of. But at the same time, nobody is really saying that special interest money literally runs government – it’s more subtle and tougher to pinpoint than that; which is exactly what makes it such a difficult problem to deal with.

On issues where the public is activated and aware, money doesn’t have nearly as much influence as it might otherwise. Under those conditions, it can only nibble at the fringes while lawmakers appease anxious voters. Of course moneyed interests still do okay, either by preventing certain options from being considered (a ‘la the public option, single payer or even tort reform during the health care debates) or by watering down legislation so lawmakers can say they did something without actually doing much of anything (there are countless examples of that).

Even when the public scores a win against a special interest, they are usually thwarted in the end by a captured & compliant regulatory agency who – with the public’s attention elsewhere – implements the new law in special interests’ favor. So yes…people can still win hollow & meaningless victories over moneyed interest when they are fully engaged and able to cow government into not completely selling them out on a specific issue. It’s just as the founders envisioned!

But wait. What about issues where the public isn’t engaged or even aware? Most of what government does takes place far outside the public view. Trade agreements, tax policy, regulatory policy – these and other obscurities are what government spends most of its time on. Absent the public’s attention, special interests and their money generally rule the day.

This isn’t to say that corporations or other special interests conspire to run the government or harm individual citizens; they are just looking out for their own interests with ruthless efficiency. The problem is that the most sure-fire way to profit or succeed is not to work harder, but to rig the game in your favor. Since we allow anyone with enough money to do pretty much exactly that, no one should really be surprised when they take full advantage.

But if someone is winning, that means someone else is losing; and decades of legislation designed to look out for these narrow interests has created a god-awful mess for our country. We now face a tsunami of unforeseen consequences and externalities hammering us from all sides. Yet inexplicably we keep turning to the same system with the same actors indebted to the same special interests which tied this noose around our necks to begin with.

Even though everyone can see where our current trajectory is taking us, those in power continue to do the same things…with predictable results. Politicians are stuck; to challenge the money would take a majority of lawmakers willing to stand up in defiance of the special interests. Since this is so unlikely, everyone just plays along so as not to be the peg which stands up and gets pounded down; and the knot around our collective neck gets tighter and tighter.

Of course, the best solution would be to somehow sever the link between money and policy so that government would be free to act independently; while also being held accountable to act for the greater good. As long as private money funds campaigns however, politicians will do whatever is necessary to ensure they have enough money to succeed. They won’t sell their constituents out and side with a special interest if doing so would harm their public standing; but they will change an “and” to an “or” in a trade agreement; eliminate a cap or limit in a tax exemption; or a million other things far beyond the notice or understanding of the average American. No enemy abroad can hurt us as much as we hurt ourselves by allowing these millions of small, self-inflicted wounds to continue to accumulate.

Ironically, the sort of centralized control by corporations or special interests often used as a straw man by those arguing against reform would actually be preferable to the status quo. If we can’t have a government responsive to its constituents, we’d be better off just letting GE or Nike or Disney run things. At least then there might be some coherence and consistency to our policy.

By placing the power of money in elections above all else, we have made government minimally accountable to voters and it shows. Government is similar to a teenager who we have virtually no control over; who is out driving our car (on our insurance), has our credit card and is using our ID to buy alcohol…but for whom we are still 100% accountable. Whenever we demand to be heard, our government humors us until we are placated; just like a teenager. But this is not accountability, and the reality is we have very little control over what our government does the majority of the time. Until we fix a rigged system, giving ourselves the leverage we need to demand such accountability, we never will.


Apr 10

4/10/12

Guest Post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.RebuildDemocracy.org

The President signed the “Stock Act” into law this week.

Passing the Stock Act was probably a good thing, though some say the kind of insider stock trading (exposed by Peter Schweizer in his book, Throw Them All Out) it’s meant to address has been illegal for years.

Perhaps now they are signalling that they are really, really serious about policing themselves.

Even with the Stock Act as law, the problems associated with stock ownership by Members of Congress are still there.

Consider the case of House Minority Nancy Pelosi and her stock ownership in Clean Energy Fuels Corporatation (CLNE).

It’s well known that Democrats have been putting the brakes on the development of America’s natural gas resources because many environmentalists are concerned that the means of retrieving the gas – a process known as “fracking”- is polluting groundwater.

But the Pelosi’s stake in Clean Energy Fuels suggests that environmentalists are about to be betrayed by the Democrats and that Pelosi and her husband are poised to cash in.

Clean Energy Fuels is positioning itself to own a monopoly of natural gas automotive refueling stations all across the country. If the government were to ever get behind a serious exploitation of domestic natural gas – a move essential to energy independence – it would be a bonanza for Clean Energy Fuels, and those who own stock in the company, like Nancy Pelosi and her husband.

No matter where you stand on the issue of fracking (I am for it, with regulation), wouldn’t you feel better knowing that the economic self-interests of our law makers were not tied to legislative outcomes?

As documented by Peter Schweizer, the Pelosi’s have a history of insider trading and using the power of Nancy’s position for personal gain. Progressive reformers almost never talk or write about the corruption of the Pelosis. It’s too painful for them and it might help elect Republicans. But in the end, partisan muckraking discredits the cause of reform .

The most important reform offered up in the Stock Act debate was a proposal by Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), which would have forced all members of Congress to place their stock holdings in a blind trust while they serve in office. It was voted down 26-73.

(Full Disclosure: I own shares in CLNE. You should too, because Nancy Pelosi does)


Mar 27

3/27/12

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.