How to remove corruption from our political system and regain the government “we the people” deserve
Most Americans believe our country faces a number of major problems which appear to be intractable. Americans agree on this even if they disagree violently on solutions. Our financial system shows signs of breaking down in ways we have not encountered in decades. Our national debt is growing at the most rapid rate ever. The debate over the level of financial support and role of our national defense continues generating heated debate. The specter of terrorism looms over us as we continue debating how we should counter it. The best means of delivering health care to our citizens continues to provoke major debate. We continue to debate why the middle class is shrinking at a rapid rate and the gulf between the rich and poor is growing wider by the day.
These issues are easier to identify than to resolve. Our financial system suffered a near meltdown in 2008. Actions taken then and since to address it continue to be hotly debated. Should we or should we not have bailed out banks, insurance companies and auto manufacturers? Was enough effective regulation in place then? Should more or less be done today? On the health care issue, few dispute reforms are needed but agreement on how to do it is elusive. Should the ‘market’ determine our future course of action? Should a single-payer system be adopted? Or some combination?
‘Town hall’ meetings do not cut it when it comes to governing a nation of a over 310 million people. Instead, we elect representatives who formulate policies and laws that address our constantly changing set of challenges. Two senators represent every state regardless of size. Members of the House of Representatives come from districts more nearly equal in size. Simple arithmetic shows that each one represents a little over 650,000 people.
In order for this system to work, voters need to choose between candidates that most closely share their views. Further, they need to have confidence that if elected, their candidate will perform in a way consistent with what he or she promised during the campaign. They particularly do not wish to discover that their member’s voting has diverged from not only what he or she promised but becomes inconsistent with the public good.
How well has the system worked in recent years? Judging by Congress’s nearly vanishing ‘approval ratings,’ not very well. There are a number of reasons for this including our highly polarized society and the fact that issues really are as complex and difficult as they appear. There is another reason, one that is so dominant as to render meaningless any attempts at reform until it itself is resolved. Our system of government has become corrupted with the infusion of vast amounts of money. It begins with a candidate’s campaign and continues through his or her time time in government and frequent ‘graduation’ to the ranks of the lobbyists. Special Interest Groups largely provide the vehicle by which the money is distributed.
The need for money becomes all too apparent from the day an aspiring candidate thinks of taking on an incumbent. It must be raised in large quantities for there to be any chance of success. For the relatively few who are successful, the pressure to begin preparing for the next election – two short years in the case of the representatives – is felt immediately upon taking office. They may use different words to describe the situation but they are in constant fund raising mode from day one. This not only increases their dependency on Special Interest Groups but consumes vast amounts of time they could be – and in the past were – spending on items they were elected to address.
Politicians to a person will tell you they are not ‘bought,’ they are not influenced by large donations from Special Interest Groups and profess to be offended if anyone even implies they are. There is plenty of evidence that large contributors often get the results they expected and the return on their investment is huge. The ‘contributions’ from Special Interest Groups are not confined to the time that issues are being considered. Given that large and increasing numbers of legislators move on to the lobbying ranks of K Street, officials often do not risk alienating those who may reward them handsomely after they leave office. (In 1970, 3% of former members of Congress became lobbyists. Between 1998 and 2004, more than half of retiring senators and 42% of retiring House members became lobbyists. As of June 2010, 172 former members of Congress were hired lobbyists. In 2009, the financial sector alone had 70 former members of Congress actively lobbying. Lobbyists usually get several times the salary they received serving in the House or Senate. Sometimes the earnings are in the millions. It has become a highly lucrative form of ‘retirement’ for many.
Special Interest Groups have a right to express their ideas but they should not have the right to buy results. If Special Interest Group money is not taken out of politics, we will never get our country back on its feet. We must radically reform the procedures we use in electing our officials, how their offices are run after being elected and what they are permitted to do after leaving office. In the process of implementing this reform, we will be regaining the democracy we once enjoyed instead of the oligarchy it has become. In this American oligarchy, Special Interest Groups fund our candidates’ campaigns and because of that they have excessive control of our government. This affects us; it will affect our children and grandchildren even more and in more negative ways. The remainder of the paper will outline a proposal that remedies the concerns cited above. It will also describe the means by which they can be achieved.
How Do We Remove Corruption From Our Political System?
In this proposal, we intend to revamp the means by which campaign funds are collected and spent. We intend to define clearly who can donate money, how much they can donate, who can spend it and for what purposes. (Specifically, we are talking about those running for President, the Senate and the House of Representatives. There is no reason, however, why it or something similar should not become the norm in all elections at all levels.) In addition, once elected, they will be unable to receive anything of value from any source other than from their government salaries and funds earmarked for the operation of their office. We also intend to eliminate money spent on behalf of someone running for office other than that coming from campaign donations. Finally, we intend to make it impossible for a politician to make an immediate transition to the lobbying ranks and begin attempting to influence their former colleagues almost immediately upon leaving office. The details of our proposal follow.
I. Collecting money in order to run for office
- Only individuals of voting age who are citizens of the United States are permitted to contribute money to political candidates. Further, no more than $500 may be contributed by an individual per candidate per election cycle. An election cycle begins when a person declares him- or herself to be a candidate and ends when an official (president, senator, representative) is elected. The candidate him- or herself is subject to the same cap.
- A candidate may only collect money from American citizens who live within the jurisdiction he or she aspires to represent.
- No non-monetary donations of any kind may be made to any candidate. This includes but is not limited to travel, lodging, supplies, etc. Individuals may volunteer unlimited amounts of their own time.
- No individual may receive or spend any money for the purpose of obtaining office prior to becoming an officially acknowledged candidate. Further, no other individual may receive or spend money in an endeavor to aid someone else prior to that person becoming an officially acknowledged candidate. At that point the candidate may receive the capped amount from individuals only. An individual becomes officially acknowledged as a candidate when he or she proclaims and announces that fact.
II. Disposal of unused campaign funds
- The money donated can be spent on the primary and election campaigns, nothing else. Money not spent does not belong to the candidate. Any remaining funds at the end of each election cycle must be distributed to certified charities active in the candidate’s jurisdiction and those charities must not have any relationships with the candidate which can cause any conflicts of interest. The choice of charities must be made known and be readily available to the public before fundraising by the candidate begins.
- The only money that can be spent in a candidate’s quest to win a primary or general election are the campaign funds collected by the candidate as previously described. The only exception to this involves money spent by volunteers as described in item 1. above under ‘Collecting Money in Order to Run for Office.’
III. Spending money in operating the office once elected
- Funds necessary to operate the office will come from government sources only. No non-government sources may pay for any activity performed by an elected official or his or her office and staff.
- No office holder may receive funds for entertainment, travel, ghostwriting position papers, books, speeches, etc., from any outside source. The group writing proposed legislation will consist only of legislators and their staffs. Any individual or group can submit proposals for legislation. The proposal’s content must be written in a way that the American public can understand.
IV. Earning money while in office
- The office holder shall not earn any money other than his or her government salary. The only exception is that received from savings and investments. (Investments must comply with existing law.) Examples of sources of income not permitted include but are not limited to speeches, books, articles, personal appearances, consulting, paid vacations, trips, dinners, physical gifts of any amount, etc.
- The office holder shall not receive any gifts from any source during his or her term. Officeholders may not have their expenses paid for trips of any sort. This includes trips to give speeches, visit a company, an individual or anything else. In short, if something is worth doing by an officeholder or his or her staff, then the government must pay for it.
V. Upon leaving office
Elected officials may not accept any position outside government in which they can influence government decisions for a period of three years. If the most remote possibility exists that government decisions may be influenced, then the three-year waiting period applies.
VI. Role of and Funding for Political Parties
Political parties at all levels – national, state, county and city or town, etc. – are Special Interest Groups. They are, however, different from others in that their objectives are political, i.e., their main reason for existence is to elect their members to office. Political parties provide a useful setting for like-minded people and they should be able to do some things that other Special Interest Groups cannot. Political parties are subject to the same rules as other Special Interest Groups except they may do the following:
- Write platform, mission, position and issue papers in any form including multimedia and make them available to their candidates
- Develop strategies
- Organize and run conventions
- Recruit candidates
- Create ads and other promotional material and make them available to candidates. They can not, however, pay the cost associated with running the ads or the cost involved with use of any other promotional material by the campaign
- Funding for political parties may come only from individuals who are citizens of the United States and live within the geographical area of the organization to which they donated the funds. Individuals may contribute up to $400 per year per level (national, state, county and city or town, etc.). The money may be divided among more than one party. An individual is limited to a maximum of $1600 per year.
- No non-monetary donations of any kind may be made to any party. This includes but is not limited to travel, lodging, supplies, etc.
- Money received from individuals and not spent during the year may be carried over to the next year
Summarizing the key points, only individuals living within the candidates’ jurisdiction may contribute up to a capped amount. Nobody else. Those prohibited from making campaign contributions include among others corporations, trade and labor associations and Special Interest Groups of all kinds including those espousing, say, ethnic, nationalist and social causes. Finally, it precludes political parties from contributing any money to campaigns.
How do we Make This Happen?
Enacting the reforms we’ve outlined will be difficult though certainly not impossible. It will be attacked on all fronts by those with vested interests as well as by others who disagree with us for ideological reasons. It has Constitutional implications involving freedom of speech issues among others. Recent zany Supreme Court rulings which seem to equate people with, say, corporations will add to the arsenal of those resisting it. We believe most people will find themselves seeing merit in our proposal.
We believe nothing short of a Constitutional amendment is required. Forbidding as that may sound, it’s been done 27 times in the past, many involving issues arguably less important than this one.
Article Five of the United States Constitution provides two ways in which amendments are proposed. The first involves having a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress. The other involves holding a national convention which Congress must call upon being requested to do so by two-thirds of the states. Three-fourths of the states are needed to ratify what comes out of the convention for it to be enacted.
The first procedure under which Congress initiates and writes the amendment is clearly a non-starter since we ask incumbents in Congress to give up their favored status which practically guarantees them 100% job security. That leaves the second. Our only hope – but one that can be entertained seriously – is that a true grassroots movement occurs. It begins when we the people become aware that we have lost our democracy and how that occurred, and realize that money and its destructive effects must be removed from politics. The movement then convinces enough states to request that the US Congress call a constitutional convention. The solution to our problem as outlined above is then presented to the delegates of the convention. The convention takes our proposal and translates it into one or more constitutional amendments. The amendment(s) is then presented to the states. Now it remains for us to convince three-fourths of the states to ratify the amendment(s). This too is work to be done by the movement.
The likelihood of success depends more upon strong grassroots support than on all other factors combined. It is absolutely vital. Without it, it cannot succeed. With it, it cannot fail.
Success of this effort will enable our government to begin addressing the myriad problems whose solutions have been postponed or simply ignored and have piled up. Failure, well, is unthinkable and it can destroy our democracy.
Politicians claim they are not dishonest and we believe most of them are not. They further claim they are not influenced by money. Indeed, many if not most politicians begin their careers with every intention to do good. However, the evidence shows overwhelmingly that money influences not only priorities, it even stops common sense solutions from becoming law. There must be something in the system itself that enables this kind of corruption.
The primary elections of 2012 provide a classic example of a system badly in need of repair. So-called SuperPACS have taken full advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling last year and are playing a pivotal role even as this is being written. The vast amounts of money being poured into the treasuries of some of the candidates is hugely influential as is the resulting sense of indebtedness felt by the recipients. This whole scenario comes perilously close to being one where political candidates are being bribed. That it is deemed to be legal, at least for the most part, is irrelevant – it is still bribery. Our system is more than broken; it is corrupt.
While it may seem hopelessly idealistic, small and capped amounts given by individuals will remove this corruption. Our proposal accomplishes this. We can ensure that our country will no longer be run by a few Special Interest Groups and wealthy individuals. We can return to our democracy, remove the corruption from the system and return control of our government to the people.
We firmly believe a grassroots movement can accomplish this. Following this success, it should not be hard to motivate the same grassroots movement to convince enough states to ratify this great improvement to our system of governing. The net effect of all this would be to make our representatives once again dependent upon the people which was precisely what our Founding Fathers intended.