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We’re Sorry. You Have Been Disconnected
Separating money and influence in politics
By Tom Williams

There are two ways to succeed in politics if you don't want to run yourself: Get your man elected, or have good access to him once he's in office.

Both have honorable histories. The whole point of democracy is to elect someone who you trust to represent you. You should think alike, and you should do everything in your power to help him win the election, including giving money to get his message out to the voters.

Elected officials can't make policy in a vacuum. They need to know what's going on out there. A lobbyist's job is to act as a trusted source of information for politicians, presenting a side of an issue they might not have seen. It should be the truth. If a lobbyist lies or plays tricks, word gets around pretty quickly that he can't be trusted, and his connections will be severed.  A good lobbyist's access is contingent on his ability to provide information that helps leaders make fair, balanced decisions.

But that's not what's happening.

You can't seriously say you're supporting your candidate and you're giving him money to help him win the election if you give donations to both opponents. And Congressmen don’t need to be taken out to dinner and eat lobster to learn about an issue in their district.

So why do they do it?

The $3.7 billion dollars donated in the 2004 election was not about bribery. It's about access.

Five thousand dollars won’t give you a Senator who will enact whatever law you tell him. But it will give you his ear at a campaign fundraiser or buy the skills of a lobbyist whose personal relationships allow your voice directly into the back office. When a politician's attention is focused on your issue, things get done. A single word can set wheels in motion that years of working the bureaucracy couldn't achieve. It's not bribery. The official may have taken the same actions without a donation, but without the access made possible by money, it's not brought to his notice, it doesn't make his list of priorities, and nothing gets done.

The problem is that not everyone has access, so it isn't fair and it’s contrary to the values of the democracy which state that the people in government should represent everyone in their constituency, not just those with money.

The Answer

Some people want to get rid of campaign donations entirely. This is not yet a viable option. In a democracy, everyone should be allowed to make their opinion known, and until it's shown that every voter has equal access to the Internet in order to read candidates’ websites, then TV, radio and print will have to serve as the conduit of communication to the voting public.

Then there's the suggestion that the public should pay for candidates' airtime. There's a variation of that theme in the United Kingdom where all major parties regularly get free airtime for party political broadcasts. Maybe we could toss a coin, heads it's free airtime, tails we pay the media to run the ads.  

There is a third way.

In my proposal, individuals will be allowed to give as much money as they like to a candidate's campaign.

But it must be anonymous.

All contributions will go through the Federal Election Commission, and at the end of the month, each candidate will receive a single check from the FEC for the amount of the aggregated donations (minus a small administrative fee of course).

No candidate's name will be on the donation receipt, only that a certain amount of money has been given to someone via the FEC. Of course, the FEC will know what's been donated and from whom and can still investigate when looking at actual bribery allegations, but candidates will have no idea whether the person who says "I gave your campaign forty thousand dollars, listen to my idea about a new gas pipeline" is telling the truth or not. In fact, it's more than likely that hundreds of people will attempt to gain access with bogus contribution claims.

With anonymous donations, the original intent of donating to a campaign will remain intact – more effective communications through  the pooling of resources versus everyone creating their own slogan and each buying a $50 classified ad in the back of the paper.

With no direct return, the self-interest donations will dry up. It will be tough for corporations to justify giving money when the best result they can hope for is one of two candidates gets elected. They'd get no special priority, no access, just someone with a basic agreement of philosophy. Which is exactly what's supposed to happen in a democratic election.

The candidates that can attract the most money will still have a huge advantage, and maybe it's not fair that rich people's candidates can buy more TV time than the advocate for the poor, but it would be that way even if everyone were putting up their own campaign posters on their own paper on their own dime.

The solution for lobbying is a little more extreme.

With access at the fundraising dinner locked out, special interests will turn to lobbying to get their voices heard, exercising their right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Again, it's not bad that this communication between special interests and government exists: it has to, or our policy makers won't have the information they need to make decisions.

The problem is that access is not equal. Highly paid lobbyists have an connection which can get one side of the story presented over the other guy's. Behind closed doors, a lobbyist presents his client's perspective, a suggested solution and even the text for new law. By the time the other side even hears of the new regulation, its momentum is so strong that debate is useless.

My proposal is a tri-cameral system, a third body in the Legislative branch : The House of Special Interests to complement the House of Representatives representing the people and the Senate, which is supposed to be representing the States.

This new chamber would be charged with bringing attention to important issues and offering new policies to the House of Representatives, much as lobbyists currently do, but it would be in broad daylight, not in a back room on K Street. Any group that could show a number of members would have the right to a seat; industry groups could buy a seat, with the money going into the general fund. Other seats could be awarded by acts of Congress or Presidential decree.

Before anything could be forwarded to the House of Representatives, it would be debated in the House of Special Interests and opposing parties would have an opportunity to submit alternative opinions and evidence, or heaven-forbid, work with each other and reach a compromise amongst themselves before it reaches Congress.

In return for an officially sanctioned place inside government, special interests would no longer have the right to petition the House of Representatives directly. That right would be reserved to the people, as it was intended.  With their schedules cleared of lobbyists, Congressmen could actually have time to hear the concerns of the only people they’re actually supposed to listen to: their constituents.

There would still be interaction between special interests and Congress, but it would be in  Committee hearings when a Congressman subpoenaed a Member of the House of Special Interests for clarification on policy officially submitted from the lower House. And special interests could still appeal to citizens to talk to their Representatives, they just couldn’t go directly to a Congressman as a professional representative of a larger group.

Every nation is comprised of competing interests. With equal access and fewer private connections disturbing our checks and balances, we can all work productively towards the compromises we need to live in the same country. Without them, we will continue to splinter further and further apart until government completely collapses, and that doesn't help anyone.

 

 

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