Too Much Money in Politics (What We Can Do About It)

Well, let’s work this out. We can skip problem definition. It’s been done for us on social media, television, newspapers, and among concerned citizens; often including words and phrases such as “oligarchy” and “the best congress money can buy.”

The money-is-everything paradigm is so ingrained in politics that the Democratic National Committee assesses the relative merits of candidates by – I hope in addition to other criteria – the amount of money they have accumulated for their respective campaigns by specified calendar dates. If a candidate meets a dollar benchmark, their backing from the DNC is expressed in (Surprise!) dollars. So the party which complains the loudest about Citizens United and too much money in politics both gauges electability in dollars from donations and reinforces such ‘success’ with more dollars. Their candidates decry the influence of money in elections and fight to be elected by collecting as much money as possible – and, if successful, do it all over again to stay in office. The candidate skill set we see considered as the most significant predictor of political success by the DNC is a cross between those of a used car salesman and a television evangelist.

Before proposals, some background:

During a Q&A at a local community college former Congressman Lee Hamilton made two points that stuck with me: (1) even if we assume money does not buy influence (Perhaps your representative is a saint, mine isn’t.) it certainly buys access – a level of access that the common citizen does not have – and (2) the pursuit of reelection donations starts immediately after election. It never stops. Constituent support, national interests, genuine committee research, budget priority determinations, negotiated compromise, all are secondary to posturing for reelection and the cultivation of donors. Within this political context pursuit and retaining power and the pursuit of money look the same, like the pigs and the humans in Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Excerpt from Representative Israel of New York Won’t Seek Re-election, NY Times, 6 January 2016:

WASHINGTON — Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who led political messaging for his party in the House, said Tuesday that he would not run for re-election, citing the unrelenting demands of fund-raising among the reasons behind his decision to retire.

“I don’t think I can spend another day in another call room making another call begging for money,” Mr. Israel said in an interview in his congressional office. “I always knew the system was dysfunctional. Now it is beyond broken.”

Votes are usually cast according to the voter’s party affiliation. Party affiliation is often determined by the party of the voter’s parents, socio-economic status, and character traits such as valuing loyalty above equal consideration of ideas, or, conversely, feeling each view deserves a hearing even at the cost of limited chaos. Progressives are somewhat justified in considering many conservatives as overly rigid as are the conservatives in considering many progressives as unorganized and dysfunctional.

But when it gets right down to the voting booth, too many of the relatively few undecided people whose votes decide elections choose as influenced by friends, by a phone bank telephone call, or – here it is – paid political advertising. Money. Money buys elections and the voters are selling.

Federally funded election campaigns: Congressman Hamilton, intellect and essayist Noam Chomsky, and many others support this proposal. Perhaps the most serious problem is that federal funding of elections requires passage of legislation. The majority of Congressional incumbents, who are ‘bought and paid for’ by the current system, would have to vote for replacing that system. Secondary issues include considerable cost, establishment of valid and equitable eligibility criteria, and inclusion of time and resource-consuming appeal procedures for applicants denied funding. A new federal office would be required with associated administrative staff, a central office, and a politically appointed head. What could possibly go wrong?

Run for office without accepting any donations: You there! You, reading this article! Why don’t you run? Your career is more important than the United States? What will happen to your career as the country goes down the tubes? Take a sabbatical. Retired? You have no excuse. Sure the odds are against you. Voters are conditioned to be swayed by the amount of money spent, to vote for the candidate with the most television spots, the loudest and most frequent message. But imagine answering the telephone your first day in the Longworth Building and being offered a sizable donation from a fossil fuel corporation. Imagine the dead silence on the other end of the line when you reply, “No thank you. I don’t accept donations.” Their means to leverage your vote would be useless. Citizens United would be – for your seat, at least – moot. If only one, that one chance out of ten thousand, could make the breakthrough surely others would follow. Each such victory would chip away at the accepted paradigm that “You must have money to be elected” and “The candidate with the most money wins.” Play David against Goliath. Use your opponent’s money against him: Why does he need over a million dollar campaign against an opponent who accepts no donations? Does he have to repeat his message over and over before people will believe it? Can it not stand on its own merits?

You aren’t smart enough? Have you seen these incumbents deny global warming, prefer government shut down and credit damage to compromise, and otherwise posture – or should I say prostitute themselves – for more money and to appeal to their base? Not only are you more than smart enough, you have higher ethics and a better sense of priorities.

Option 1: File in January to get your name on a partisan primary ballot. Option 2: It’s difficult but not impossible to get on the fall ballot as an independent. Don Quixote might have a chance after all.

Free television and radio campaign coverage: The single greatest expense in campaigning would be eliminated. Although providing time to candidates without charge is within the spirit of the existing mission statement of the Federal Communications Commission, legislation would likely be required for the FCC to specifically require stations/networks to do so. Great idea, used successfully elsewhere, and developed exhaustively by Kari Garcia in Broadcasting Democracy: Why America’s Political Candidates Need Free Airtime [17 CommLaw Conspectus 267, 2008]. Senator McCain and others have pursued this idea since at least 2003, when the Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act was introduced as S.1497. The Act included specific time and eligibility standards. Will this ever happen? Keep your fingers crossed.

Occupational analysis approach to filling a political office. A seat in the United States House of Representatives would be a good start. Consider that we now use a much more logical, efficient, and effective method to select an income tax auditor GS-526-9 than a member of Congress – a man or woman who will vote on legislation impacting national security, the economy of the United States, national health, international relations, and many other issues of critical importance to the continued welfare of all citizens. Criteria established by occupational analysis leading to “applications” submitted by each of the candidates would provide voters the tools necessary for a rational selection. Why would we not wish to employ a proven method for determining the best qualified from among several candidates? Well, incumbents certainly would not want to do so. However, there may be a way to shame the incumbents into participating.

American Institutes for Research, Inc. (AIR) pioneered occupational analysis for the federal government. The procedures initially developed by AIR have been used to place the right people in the right positions since 1947 when pilot candidates were first scientifically screened by the Air Force prior to expensive training. Previous failure rates were catastrophically high, wasted resources, and deprived the Air Force of critically needed pilots. The departments of Labor (“O*Net” classification of occupations within the United States) and State (human resource system based on knowledges and skills of the employees) successfully applied the occupational analysis system, which identifies critical job elements and determines the relative importance of each. A valid study to determine the knowledges, skills, and abilities required to perform satisfactorily in Congress would require input from customers/stake-holders (voters/constituents) in each district as to what characteristics they feel are most important in their next representative. Former incumbents could participate as subject matter experts. The internet provides an efficient means to collect data from voters but can and should be supplemented by print media. Similar to applicants for a federal civil service position, the candidates would be invited to submit written applications describing how their education, experience, and other capabilities would meet the established critical job elements. Citing experience and accomplishments in each area would be helpful. These applications would be limited in length, each would follow the same format, and would be published side-by-side. Those candidates and incumbents who did not submit applications when invited to do so would be listed as “did not respond”.

As a not-so-secondary benefit, voters who participate in the data collection portion of the study would become involved. They would see their input reflected in the refined final criteria which would, through their contributions, be unique to their district. These participating citizens would become more likely to apply the tools they helped develop by voting and doing so intelligently. One would hope their friends and neighbors would as well. Just as we hope the contagion of “no donations” might spread, so might the concept of comparing the qualifications of the candidates before voting.

The occupational analysis approach to providing useful information to voters would require no legislative action and no federal money. The techniques, software, and expertise have been available for years.

Sortition: random selection of representatives. Ernest Callenback and Michael Phillips recommended random selection of members of the U.S. House of Representatives in A Citizens’ Legislature. Their arguments included fair representation for citizens and their interests, an elimination of many partisan issues, and a reduction in the influence of money. Sortition has been used successfully in selection of representatives in democracies (since Athens, 6th century B.C.) and democratic republics (most recently Switzerland, 1640 – 1837). “The Athenians believed sortition to be more democratic than elections and used complex procedures with purpose-built allotment machines to avoid the corrupt practices used by oligarchs to buy their way into office” – The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes, Mogens Herman Hansen. Sortition is currently used in jury selection, for citizen input to government decisions and election tie breaking in some nations, and was seriously proposed in 1999 for the United Kingdom’s House of Lords. The worse our Congressional situation becomes the more attractive becomes sortition. Ironically, no federal legislation would be required. The states control how their seats are filled in Congress.

Not mutually exclusive. The above proposals are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, each– with the possible exception of sortition – would help any or all of the others. Yet any one would be a significant step back away from the brink.

Ecclesiastes: But all the above alternatives are chimera, pipe dreams, if citizens continue to sell their votes, i.e., do not care enough to resist the expensive efforts to sway their votes, to do their own comparative research, to think critically, and to make an informed choice. Resist, research, choose, vote. Yeah. Rah and rah. If enough voters had been doing these things this article would never have been written. Money would have minimal impact on elections. Citizen United would be meaningless, indeed, would never have come before the Court. Similar to members of Congress, voters can only be bought if they allow themselves to be bought. It seems an ever increasing number want to be told what to think and for whom to vote. If the preponderance of voters met their voting responsibility with the appropriate level of dedication, we would not need to brain storm work-around gimmicks as described above. Conversely, if the preponderance of voters allow themselves to be bought, all the systems, research tools, means to inform, and occupational analyses we can dream of will make no difference. Lincoln’s government “by the people” and “for the people” will have perished from the Earth. Only “of the people” will remain.

If there is hope, it must lie with getting information to the educable and pointing out that repeating the same action (more money in campaigns) and expecting a different outcome (a better Congress) is, well, if not insane at least a genuine internal threat to the future of the United States.

This article was originally published on 6 January 2016.

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