Democratize America – A side issue for this Blog (funny how money plays a role here)
In all the patriotic fervor of teaching American history, we often down play the fact that the Revolution was led by wealthy, educated men. The same wealthy, educated group of men wrote the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. What they came up with is a republic-a representative form of government.
Under the Constitution, representatives are assigned to the states based upon population with the provision that each state shall have at least one representative and exactly two Senators. While the Constitution starts out with “We the People” the constituent parties to the Constitution are the states-“in Order to form a more perfect Union (of states). The States, former colonies, joined together. They had already coalesced in 1774 under the Continental Congress to jointly prosecute the war (rebellion) against the British. The states’ leaders were of like mind in realizing they needed to maintain a united international front. So, they created one nation out of thirteen separate former colonies. But, by in large, the citizens and leaders of the several states thought of themselves as Virginians, Massachusetts men, New Yorkers and the like rather than Americans. Indeed, as late as Civil War times, when Robert E. Lee wrote of serving his country, he meant Virginia. Carl Sandburg writes that the Civil War was fought over a verb. Prior to the Civil War the reference to the U. S. was “these United States are.” After the Civil war the reference to the U. S. was and is “the United States is.”
While the “We the People” document was ratified by the states, it still remains the case that the people have the ultimate “say” in whom is elected to the Congress as America has near universal suffrage. However, the peoples’ choices for representatives are restricted to those candidates who can raise money from the moneyed and producers in America. Only those potential candidates who can persuade enough wealthy people, organizations and corporations to donate campaign funds can be successful at the polls. It takes money, lots of money, to run a successful political campaign. House and Senate candidates raised over $1.75 billion in the 2010 election cycle (See opensecretes.org), $0.9 billion by the winners alone. 472 winning candidates spent $0.9 billion for jobs paying $174,000/year! That is less than $83 million a year or less than one-tenth of what it cost to get the jobs. Or, to put it another way, on average each winning candidate spent more than $1.9 million to earn $248,000 in the case of a House member and $1.9 million to earn $1.044 million in the case of Senators back in 2010. And that does not count the money spent by their opponents and independent groups (super PACs and 501Cs (nonprofit social organizations)) for and/or against the eventual winners. Nor does it include the administrative costs of actually holding the elections, counting and certifying the winners. In an election to fill a vacant congressional seat in Oregon in 2012 the state spent approximately $500,000 for the actual mechanics of conducting that election; and Oregon has mail in ballots. A lot of money spent to determine who would hold the seats in the House and Senate that were to be filled-435 voting members in the House (the entire House) and 37 members of the Senate (slightly more than 1/3rd of the Senate due to vacancies that had to be filled by election).
As a result of the $1.75 billion that candidates spent in the campaigns for Congressional seats how much do you know about the positions your representatives take on the crucial positions on subcommittee, committee and floor votes to change or not change the tax code that allows tax write-offs for corporations that have moved manufacturing, service call centers and financial operations outside the borders of the U. S. yet still sell products in the U. S.? How much do you know about the donations from those firms to your representative’s campaign for election or reelection? In contrast how much do you know about your Congressperson’s position on abortion, gay marriage, prayer in school and other issues that rarely if ever come up for a vote before subcommittees, committees or the floor of the House or Senate? Quite a bit, I would guess. Notice that issues that the Representatives and Senators almost never vote upon are featured in their campaigns: illegal immigration, flag burning, burdensome regulation on business and the like are front and center in their campaigns, yet these are not issues that they deem important enough to actually resolve with legislation. However, we have one of the best tax codes that big business and the wealthy can buy (with their campaign donations).
If one were cynical, one might suppose successful candidates used illegal immigration, regulation of business, abortion and the like to distract voters from asking the awkward questions of who has access to the Congressman or Senator and how the Congressman or Senator votes in subcommittee, committee and on the floor of the chamber when issues of financial and economic importance to their big money campaign donors come up?
A common complaint about Congress is that it is unable to get things done because of powerful lobbyists. This complaint is made by the president and members of both houses of Congress. Yet, lobbyists have power because lobbyists are employed by big money donors to congressional election campaigns. The donations buy access to the members at decision points on pending legislation-subcommittees and committees especially at mark-up, the point where a bill is being drafted. While buying access is not how anyone involved, the Member of the House, Senator, campaign donor, the lobbyist paid by the campaign donor or staff members on Capitol Hill, would phrase the arrangement, it is exactly what happens.
Specifically, if a Member of Congress receives tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars from an identifiable person or group of people associated with a firm or industry then when a representative from that person or group, a lobbyist, shows up in the Member’s office, the Member will see and listen to that representative, lobbyist. The term “quid pro quo” is barely capable of covering the sense of obligation that the Congressman or Senator has for the donors who employ the lobbyists. The Congressman will meet with and carefully heed the lobbyist. The lobbyist generally does not live in the Congressperson’s congressional district; indeed, donors who hire the lobbyists seldom live in the Congressperson’s congressional district or even state.
The case of lobbyists hired by the sponsors of super PACs or 501Cs represent a fairly new phenomenon. However, super PACs or 501cs could spend more money than candidates in the next election cycle. I would hazard that successful candidates will be as receptive to meeting with and listening to super PAC lobbyists; for winning candidates would want, at the very least that the super PACs and 501cs not support their opponents in future election cycles.
The questions are how does a big money donor choose candidates to support and how do candidates decide whether or not to accept campaign donations from any given donor? Notice that the second question does not apply to expenditures by super PACs and 501cs, for, technically, they are not allowed to “coordinate” expenditures with a campaign organization or a candidate. None-the-less, would a Senator or Representative decline to talk to a lobbyist from a super PAC or 501C that campaigned heavily for the Senator or Representative? I think not.
Big money donors screen candidates based upon their records in offices the candidates have held. Big money donors examine public statements candidates make and any op-ed pieces and other writings. Groups, in particular, have given questionnaires to candidates. Big money donors will sit down and talk to candidates to ascertain the candidate’s stances on questions of particular interest for the big money donors’ bottom lines.
Examining new congressional candidates’ campaign budgets, one finds that those budgets are relatively small. Consider that a non-incumbent does not have committee assignments. So, big money donors cannot estimate the potential impact on their bottom lines by future votes in Congress by those candidates. A first reelection campaign budget will also be modest, but larger than a non-incumbents. When the Representative holds a subcommittee chairmanship, his or her re-election campaign chest will begin to swell. Senior members, members in leadership positions and ranking members or full committee chairmen are all able to initiate their own PACs with their excess donations and donate to other congressional candidates. In short the more impact a congressman or senator can have on specialized legislation due to the perks of seniority, the more big money donors contribute to insure favorable policy continues.
If you or I tried to meet and talk with a congressman in whose district we did not live, we would be politely directed to the office of the man or woman elected from our district. This is a problem because Members of Congress have divided the policy pie into segments controlled by 21 committees in the House and 20 committees in the Senate. Committees and their members jealously protect their committees’ turf. So, if you or I wished to have some input on a topic that your representative’s committee assignments does not cover we would have to move heaven and earth to talk with another Member. If we were a lobbyist hired by a large donor we would have almost instant access regardless of our residency in or out of the Members’ district.
So, actually, who does the Congressperson represent? Dare I say not you and I. Yes we vote. However, as asserted, we choose between (in some cases among) candidates financed by corporations, organizations and individuals who can afford to keep lobbyists on staff as well as make multiple, large campaign donations. So, why do corporations, organizations and wealthy individuals go to this expense?
Expense might be the wrong word. Investment or operating costs might be better words. For a corporation can realize massive savings by not having to install expensive scrubbers on their smoke stacks. Firms can realize tax savings by accelerated depreciation schedules. Individuals can save hundreds of thousands by paying a low rate on passive investments-capital gains on returns from selling stocks and bonds. Organizations can reap benefits for members by expanding entitlements. Everyone who contributes big bucks to a political campaign serves to either gain from the donation or protect a current benefit.
It is convenient that big money donors can claim they are contributing in the public interest or doing their civic duty to enable candidates to bring their messages to the voters through radio, television, internet, newspapers, magazines, direct mailings, door to door “pamphleting,” speeches, telephone calls, bumper stickers, social media postings and campaign buttons All of these campaign techniques cost money. Evidence and common sense tells us that self-financial interest is a very strong motivation.
So, we live in a system in which those with resources determine, within limits, the choices the rest of us have at the polls. Indeed, those with resources have moved from direct control of American government to indirect control with every extension of the franchise. However, as long as money is confused with the speech protected by the First Amendment, democracy will not actually exist in America. The one way to “democratize” the US is to amend the Constitution to remove private money from controlling the choices we have at the polls.
Removing private funding would radically change candidate selection and require that governments provide the funds for campaigns. Initially incumbents would have an advantage because of their name recognition. Under the present system, incumbents in Congress have over a 95% reelection rate. So, initially, there would be no change. However, people elected under a completely publicly funded campaign would not have to respond to lobbyists. Nor, would incumbents who no longer need their funding to mount campaigns for reelection. This would be a major change from the current system. Indeed, the predominate lament about the role of lobbyists would simply go away–lobbyists power would be eviscerated immediately.
If elected representatives are no longer beholding to campaign contributors they will quickly find that more transparent decision processes and more pertinent campaign issues will be needed to stay in office; for representatives will no longer have the security of large campaign chests to saturate the air ways with the kind of advertising they have used under the current system. Elected representatives will have to be responsive to voters and no longer be shackled to large money donors.
There will be a great deal of debate over the particulars for public funding elections and how to qualify candidates. Indeed, over the wording of the Constitutional Amendment that eviscerates Citizens United. It should be an interesting time. The consequences will be democratic elections.