“Today Washington has been totally corrupted by special interest money which determines how Congress acts.
The political system is sick ”
PUBLIC OFFICE AS FULLTIME JOB
There is a systemic “hole” in our political system which often makes serious deliberation of difficult issues all-but-impossible. It’s a “hole” that too often obliterates whatever ideological differences may yet exist between Democrats and Republicans and too often makes ideological differences irrelevant.
The “hole” keeps getting bigger and bigger because of the money being spent in politics – money which makes no effort to differentiate between a party or ideas but which simply purchases access and influence. The influence of money in politics mirrors the influence of money in every aspect of American society where increasingly, every human value seems to have developed a price tag: money buys and money talks!
That “hole” exacerbates many of the difficult problems we face in the systems that are the essential foundation of our society – financial, healthcare, education, industrial development, juvenile and criminal justice. That money not only keeps our political system working as it does, but it also keeps these other systems afloat – working unceasingly against any changes that won’t benefit the sources of that money.
Anyone following the news of America’s financial system’s meltdown and the war against health insurance reform can readily see how ‘that money’ works. It is clearly apparent that the funds pouring in from industry sources are working against any changes that the politicians might make to reform those systems. Despite the recent Congressional approval of health insurance changes, it would be the height of foolishness to believe that the fight is over.Similarly, it would be foolish to believe that Congressional and Senate subcommittees on finance will all too readily support the reinstitution of regulatory controls over the finance industry – the kind of controls that we had working successfully for more than 50 years following the Great Depression. The presence of finance industry lobbyists is enormous. As this is written every single Republican Senator has promised to say “no” to whatever the bill says if it calls for reform. At this moment there is no clearer example of how “money talks” to influence Congressional action than in this very specific and important area.
A fair question is “Why does it seem so easy to “buy” votes?
The answer brings us to that “systemic hole”.
The systemic “hole” we’re talking about is the fact that being a politician who seeks to hold public office, has become a full-time job, accepted by Americans as a legitimate career, a lifetime’s work in which a person can earn a living by being elected and reelected to public office.
In every career there is an element of upward mobility a force that eventually helps each of us reach a level where the money we earn and work we do combine to provide us with the kind of life we’d like to lead. Each person entering politics may follow the same upwardly mobile course: from a position in local government to one on the state or regional level and then on to national status, as either a member of the US House of Representatives or the US Senate. The latter is the more desirable because you have to run for reelection to Congress every two years.
The salary and job benefits increase as you move up the ladder. As one continues to be reelected, the perks of office can be considerable and in many cases very financially rewarding – more so than most people know. For instance, all the unspent political contributions made to a candidate during a campaign become the property of each candidate – win or lose. Many politicians either retire or are retired by the voters, with millions of dollars in their campaign accounts – money which belongs to them and them alone. As an example, recently defeated Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi had two million dollars left in his campaign account when the election was over. He had decided not to spend the money because he thought he’d be reelected without any further campaign expenses. Today Mr. Suozzi has a nice $2 million cushion for any new career or new campaign.
As we look at the face of our government today, we see many men and women in the Senate and Congress (and in local and state government as well) who clearly plan to serve in that capacity ‘forever’. All they need do is learn to do the things they must do to keep their jobs.
You may say, “ but their job is to serve our community not get reelected to office.” Well that should be the case and there’s a lot of lip service to that effect – but it’s not the way things work. Every politician committed to a career in politics, learns the necessities of keeping the job. The effort they make to do so and the opportunity they have because of our systems’ political design (redistricting, fundraising strategies) makes that effort worthwhile for them but not necessarily for the community.
Questions that are rarely asked and so never answered: when did running for and holding public office become a fulltime job? When did we as a nation come to believe that reelecting one politician to the same office term after term makes our political system produce a better society for all of us? And finally, now that “experience” no longer is necessary in running for any public office – from the Presidency on down – will America ever “get” the value of term limitations and start cleaning house of career politicians?
If you consider the institutional credo that we’ve been using to test the viability of other systems – a system has failed when those working in it care more about their own benefits than they do about the benefits of those they are supposed to be serving – and apply it to our political system, you’ll end up seeing where so many of the problems we are having come from. Accepting that credo as truth, we can readily understand what politics-for-a- living means to the community and the society. In too many cases nothing good!
The political system we have known all our lives has failed because an overwhelming number of politicians have made politics their life’s work and so must care more about their own survival than they do about the needs of their constituents.
No one who makes a career in elective politics can put the concerns of their constituents above their own because being elected and then reelected has become their principal means of making a living – it is what they are paid to do. It is what supports them and their families. When it comes to making a living, the natural response is to make ourselves the number one priority. Who can argue that point?
Is this an overly harsh verdict on of our political system? Is it all about the money necessary to “underwrite” political careers? And the income derived from that career? Isn’t there any evidence of political ideology making a difference in the way we are governed? Well some, but not much.
Whatever ideology existed as we moved from the 20th to the 21st Century, has all but slipped away until it is often impossible to tell legislative contestants apart, beyond their labels. It often seems that candidates could change parties in the middle of an election and no one would know the difference.
It’s no accident that we label our States with colors to signify party positions – red states for Republicans (that’s ironic), blue States for Democrats. And why do we do that? Because the television networks began using those colors on Presidential election nights to show us at a glance, how America was voting. Pretty sophisticated…huh?
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Political money buys influence and access. Clearly, the more money contributed, the greater the access and influence.
There are two kinds of political money at work. The significant money spent on special interest causes to keep things in place and work against change. And the significant money spent to elect candidates who will support the positions of those contributing to their election.
Corporate and union lobbyists represent most of the big money. The amount of individual gifts to candidates during a campaign is usually governed by Federal and State election laws. But these laws are designed with loopholes in them because loopholes appear almost as soon as Congress or a State Legislature passes a new finance law.
That is especially true of contributions for candidates. Finance laws exist nationally and sometimes, on a statewide basis. They are supposed to regulate how much money individuals can give to a specific campaign for either city, state or national office. Not every State or municipality has carefully defined regulations in place but the national government does.
It often seems that no sooner are there new laws governing how much money can be contributed by individuals, then there is a new series of loopholes found to circumvent them. This is true with what is called “bundling”. Here an individual(s) assumes the responsibility for reaching out to colleagues in various businesses and professions to raise maximum individual amounts and then bundles them together to present to the candidate. In New Jersey for instance, the new Governor Christopher A. Christie began his career in public office by bundling $150,000 in contributions for George W. Bush’s reelection effort. Soon thereafter Mr. Christie became US Attorney from his district and now, just a few years later, he’s Governor.
Special interest money is everywhere. It influences domestic policy as little else does.
One of the defining stories about the strategy used by the Obama Administration to push through health insurance reforms, is what was learned in the 1990’s when the Clinton Administration tried for those reforms. Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, worked with the Clinton’s at the time and saw their plans for health insurance reform obliterated by the chief critics of reform: the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries and the physicians. Coming to Congress with a 1,000 plus page legislative package, the Clintons did nothing to involve Congress, the physicians or the two industries in the process. The industries let loose a $100 million lobbying and advertising campaign (remember Harry and Louise?) which stopped the Clinton program so effectively, that a supporter, US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York never even bothered to read the legislation.
Learning the lesson well, the Obama people: pushed Congress to write and argue through the legislation (until the last months of the struggle) and made early deals with the American Medical Association, the insurance companies and Big Pharma. Even though the health insurance industry found it necessary to spend millions opposing certain aspects of the eventual bill in the waning weeks of effort before the vote, they never had reason to let loose another $100 million campaign to defeat it.
Another excellent example of special interest money at work is happening now in California where legislation to toughen auto emissions is being fought with a $500,000 lobbying effort by a big petroleum refiner, Vallero. There will be others in this fray and lots more money. In fact, special interest money has been extremely influential for years now. Sometimes there are small contributions from citizens involved in a struggle for one policy or another. Mostly though, big business spends big money to influence policy decisions.
Is there any way to stop the influence of money in politics?
Yes. But to do so we must close that “systemic hole” in our political system. Running for and holding public office must no longer be a career option. The fewer number of years a person can be in office, the fewer number of campaigns that person will need to finance.
Often, the very idea of term limits seems to bother many liberals. We make this suggestion to them: if we can limit the term of office for President – we can certainly limit any other term of office.
And let’s face it. The public no longer demands any experience prior to running for any office. The idea that we can’t lose our best or more experienced lawmakers because of term limits seems old fashioned today. Those entering the race for any political job need no longer prove that they have the experience to do it. They’ve got to “prove” they are able to do it to win election. But they no longer need to have a resume that fills the bill.
So if we place intelligent, new term limits on the major elective jobs in our system, we’ll be able to do two things:
First, we can end the idea that holding public office can be a career choice.
Second, we will limit the opportunities that money has to “buy” votes.
What follows is based on these two ideas. It is also based on this reality: that running for reelection means that halfway through a specific term of office, the incumbent begins the reelection process – the fundraising, the travel and the speechmaking. A President starts running for reelection in the third year of office. A US Senator begins the campaign for reelection in the third year of office. A Congressperson begins campaigning after only one year in office. This being the case:
We should limit the term of office for President to one six year term. If the President wants to serve another term, he or she must wait six years before running again for the office. This would mean that once elected, a President would have six years to fulfill whatever his or her goals are without ever having to stop halfway through to start running. Perhaps more importantly, knowing there will be no immediate second term, a President will devise and present policies because he/she believes they are good for the country without having to run every policy decision through a polling process to see whether itt will help the reelection process.
Genuine leadership and polling do not go hand in hand.
We should limit the term of office for every U.S. Senator to one six year term. If a Senator wants to run for reelection he or she must wait six years before running again.
We should limit the term of office for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives to two three year terms. In this case, a Congressperson would have only one opportunity to run for reelection and should he or she win, would have to wait another three years before being permitted to run again.
These changes in our political system might have to come as the result of a national referendum or even a change in our Constitution. But unless we limit the terms of office accordingly, the need for bigger and bigger campaign contributions and the expenditure of so many millions of dollars to hold public office will continue to dominate the way our country is managed.
And continue to ransom that management to big money interests.
Increasingly, running for public office has become the new game for wealthy Americans. As if their accumulation of wealth in business, makes them ideal as Mayors, Governors or legislators on all levels of government.
If we do not change the system, we’ll continue to see the total domination of it by big money. There’s nothing said by our Founding Fathers to indicate that this great American experiment would eventually be sold to the highest bidders.