Thursday, February 02, 2006

How to change DC's culture of corruption

Restricting gym access by former house members. That is supposed to change the culture of corruption that pervades Washington, DC? Excuse me?

We need to go a bit deeper.

Who pays the piper ... If elected officials have to raise hundreds of thousands to run for election or re-election, where will they turn? To people with money--people who need something in return.

If we want them to be accountable to "we the people," we are better off if they turn to us, the citizens, for their funding. Arizona and Maine are two states that have achieved impressive gains through clean election funding. Because ordinary people are funding the elections, politicians can focus their time on meeting our needs, rather than those of large corporations and the small sector of extremely wealthy individuals.

Electronic town meetings But why has it become so expensive to run for office? In large part, it is the cost of running television and radio ads, and those ads have become unavoidable in the larger races.

So here's an idea that election reform activists talk about. Since we are letting the broadcast stations use our airwaves (they belong to the public) and allowing cable companies to use our rights-of-way for stringing their cables (they belong to the public, too), why not require them to give us time to run our elections. They could simply set aside time during the campaign season for the candidates to speak directly to the voters.

Imagine--if people could run for office for a fraction of the current cost, we might have candidates who run in order to make a contribution to society, and who represent the diversity of means and interests that makes up this country. The United States might start functioning as a democracy again.

Democracy relies on distributed power and distributed wealth ... and transparency Even if we did all that, any country that has huge gaps in wealth, will find those who control the wealth have an un-due influence on decision making. After all, corporate executives have the means to make lawmakers very well off, even if the payoff doesn't come until after the lawmaker leaves office. And the investment of a few thousand or a few million can produce payoffs orders of magnitude larger in the form of contracts and sweetheart regulatory deals.

Wealth concentrates power and power concentrates wealth. Concentrated power corrupts.

The only proven way to prevent corruption over the long-term is to distribute power broadly and transparently. The participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre and other cities in Brazil is an example of how this can work.

Regaining our democracy will take more than a few token restrictions on perks for lawmakers past and present. It can be done, but only if "we the people" insist on it.


At 5:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hear, hear! Yes! should cover Clean Elections more. It really is "the reform that makes all other reforms possible."

-Brodie Lockard

At 12:11 PM, Anonymous Randy Salzman said...


With everyone but Harry Reid scrambling to give away Abramoff contributions, campaign finance reform has again obviously failed. The big money simply shifted from political parties to beyond-contempt donors – like Jack Abramoff -- seemingly determined to destroy American democracy.
It is like Republican John McCain and Democrat Russell Feingold, who gave us campaign finance reform, have resolutely illustrated that democracy is up for bidding.
No wonder Arab states tell us to take a hike.
Consider our 527 groups in 2004. All ten of the top donors were in the Forbes list of America’s richest and six of them were billionaires. About 85 percent of $188 million raised came from people who dropped at least $250,000 on political issues.
I can’t come up with $250 to donate, much less $250,000. You?
It doesn’t make any difference if the giver is Democrat George Soros who forked over $24 million or Republican T. Boone Pickens who donated $4 mil, democracy suffers when checkbook based. People like Abramoff thrive.
There’s no hope for regular Americans – be we black, brown, fat, smart, stupid, actress, plumber, red state, blue state – if the ticket price to democracy is out of the question.
Naively, decades ago I hitchhiked to Washington to see Lloyd Bentson. I was told my senator held a breakfast and I could meet him. The price for ham and eggs?
I was a voter. I cared about America. I loved Texas. I was even a born-and-bred Democrat. Why couldn’t my hero go to Denny’s with me?
After three major finance reforms, ten grand won’t get me a thanks anymore.
Apologizing to the Vietnam-era general who said “We have to destroy this village to save it,” I’m suggesting something equally awkward: “To save the First Amendment, we have to destroy it.”
The Supreme Court has always ruled pure political speech should be completely unfettered but it’s also always ruled that political speech can be controlled as long as ALL of it is controlled.
That’s the theory behind “free speech zones” which kept protestors away from party conventions; the reason bus companies don’t have “vote for…” riding along their sides; the reason anti-abortion protestors are forced to stay away from clinics.
No law, the court consistently rules, can differentiate between political opinions but it can ban all political opinions. They call these “time, place and manner” restrictions on the First Amendment.
If we banned 30 and 60 second spots from cable, satellite and the public airwaves, politicians will be forced to speak with rational – rather than manipulative -- voices and their need for money would diminish. A ban on broadcast political spots will force politicians back to the First Amendment’s true purpose – unfettered political discourse, not unfettered 30-second trash.
My wife and I can’t decide where to eat in 30 seconds and yet political ads explain economics in less time than it takes to flush a commode? No issue facing this country, this state, this city can be discussed in such tiny segments of time.
Today, something like three in four campaign dollars go to TV spots. The Center for Responsive Politics reports $800 million of the $1.2 billion spent on the 2004 presidential race bought tiny bits of TV time – not including the production costs.
With any reform except diminishing the need for all that money, lobbyists and politicians – who actually write the law –always know how to bypass the letter of it while we slobs, like Abramoff’s Indian tribes, are stuck thinking there’s a “spirit.”
Consider the first proposals to crack down on the Abramoff crowd.
In House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s version, lobbyists won’t be able to buy politicians lunch anymore, unless they happen to also hand over a campaign check each and every time the bill comes.
We slobs out here think you’re supposed to tip the waiter, not your dinner guest. And that if you did tip your guest, it’d be illegal in every state except Nevada.
After McCain-Feingold, donors who reach formal giving limits today award PACs and 527 groups for more vicious attack ads, demonstrating that money talks.
Let’s urge Congress – at this critical moment -- to demand candidates, parties, 527 groups, PACs, anyone-with-a-political-message must buy 30 minutes of air time, not 30 seconds. Instead of viciously beating up opponents, politicians will begin discussing pros and cons of policy. They’ll again actually meet voters, hear honest feedback and generate ideas and long-term thinking.
The basis of the First Amendment, after all, is that “truth will prevail in a free marketplace of ideas.” Ideas require more than 30 seconds and with truth more complex than ever, there can be no free marketplace if only the rich present their versions of it.
Yes, immediately a ban on TV spots might benefit incumbents because their opponents could no longer pick out one vote or speech and pound them with it. But today 95 percent of incumbent congressmen win anyway.
In the long run, a ban would assure voters understand we’re not getting the full picture or we’ll get the full picture.

Randy Salzman


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