Fixing our Political System

The Problem

Our political system is based on the idea that we can elect good men who will do altruistic things to guide the country in a direction that is successful for the majority.

  • There will be an open debate, all issues will be discussed publicly, then an educated electorate will carefully consider the issues and come to an informed decision.
  • The electorate will ignore anything but objective, rational, factual arguments and vote for the person they feel best represents their views overall.
  • The person elected will always keep the Greater Good of his constituents in mind when passing legislation.

Hah!

What makes that a pipe dream is the fact that Human Nature is Human Nature.  Yes, we can expect our legislators to be paying attention more to the “Better Angels of our Nature”, but they are – after all – just human.

The Framers of the Constitution understood this.  The real purpose of the Constitution – and the Bill of Rights – is to act as an inviolable brake on the normal human desire to acquire power.   Fortunately they built a mechanism into it to allow it to evolve into the future.  Unfortunately the world has evolved to the point where that mechanism is hard to use.

Discussion

Our nation is based on the premise that we are a government “of the people, by the people”, with an expectation that our representatives will hold the interests of the people first and foremost.

The overriding principle has always been that the popular vote is the way we enforce the idea that our legislators will hold the majority of their constituent’s best interests in mind and act accordingly.

That has always been a challenge.   We are not a hive of bees, all in sync and agreeing on both the nature of our problems as well as the best solution.  We’re a community of independent-minded individuals.   Even on issues that seem very clear cut to the majority there are always those that disagree.  And issues that are not so clear cut are often split very close to the middle.

Our legislators represent us in that, not only in their variations and disagreements but in their own viewpoints, which may agree with their constituents most of the time but not all.

Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately), our legislators are also human.  Humans are far from perfect and often influenced in different ways by different incentives.  One person may hold to views they feel are “right” regardless of the impact that may have to their chances for re-election, another may change with the wind if he feels it will keep him in office.

Add to this immense pressure from the normal human tendency to do what rewards them the most.  Those rewards can take different forms, but in politics the most common reward is re-election.  Not only does this provide psychic rewards in that the legislator feels his constituents approve of the job he’s doing, but it also provides monetary rewards in that he continues to have a job and reap the benefits and perquisites that come with that job.

Often a long and successful career as a legislator may result in even greater financial rewards when out of office – being awarded a very well paying position with a private company, as a lobbyist, or perhaps as a media commentator or author.

The pressure to do what keeps you in office is huge and often somewhat irresistible.

Now, we throw in the money needed to do that.

As more money becomes available for campaigns, campaigning becomes more expensive.  Although of course the office-holder may want to squeeze the most bang out of each buck they get, there’s no incentive to not spend every dollar they’re given.  That creates a never-ending racheting up of the entire process, as one candidate spends more to keep up with the other, who then spends more to keep up with the first, etc.

This is a trend that has been in existence since the beginning, but recent developments have accelerated the process.   Particularly the Citizens United ruling and the effect massive infusions of cash as a result, have had disastrous impact on the cost of campaigning.

In an era when the only way to connect with the people was by riding the rails, holding debates, and publishing your views in newspapers, Abraham Lincoln spent the equivalent of $2.8 million dollars ($100,000 actual dollars)

http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2012/02/historic-price-cost-presidential-elections

http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-18561_162-2629080.html

In an era when there are more media outlets to buy time on than you can imagine, it required Barack Obama to spend $730 million in 2008, and the current 2012 election is on track to break $1 billion.

Obama will spend 357 times what Lincoln spent in equivalent dollars, or 1000 times as much in actual dollars.  That’s a lot of money.

Do you really think that’s being done just for the altruistic reason of “promoting good government”, or do you think the companies and people who fund that may expect something in return?

Getting that money has become the over-riding concern of our politicians.

A representative can take office with the most altruistic of goals, intending to hold his course and do the right thing regardless of outside forces, but if he does that at the expense of being re-elected then he may as well have never run.

Add to this the fact that it requires a consensus to pass laws, and the people he needs to build that consensus with are under the same pressures.

Unless we somehow put 535 of the most highly principled humans alive into the federal government,  and our own representative was able to get a majority to agree with him, and they were all willing to lose the next election if necessary to vote on what they felt was right, our representative would never pass anything.

If the legislation they were advancing had a majority of the moneyed interests aligned against them, even if this coalition held together for one election cycle, in the next election they would undoubtedly find their ranks reduced as special interests backed their opponents.

The current system cannot – by design – product an objective legislative body.  At least, not without completely re-engineering human beings or developing super robots and allowing them to govern us.  And I’m not down with either of those.

Proposed Solution(s)

As Dan Carlin has put it, our system is one where “bribery is legal, as long as you disclose it…”

Do you seriously think that if a congressman is given a million dollars for re-election by Company A and is then asked to vote on legislation that may negative impact Company A’s business, he’s going to vote in favor of it?  Seriously?

There are two solutions I know of for this, and they both involve greatly reducing the influence of donated money in politics…

Ban paid political advertising

To follow this to the root, what causes that pressure to raise money?  The need to advertise.

What if we did one simple thing, and banned any paid political advertising?

Defined as “any advertising that mentions the name or uses the likeness of a candidate for office.

Yes, I know, I know – first amendment issues….  Maybe it would take a Constitutional Amendment.

If so, is there any issue that is more vital to keeping America “the America we want” than this?

The original Bill of Rights was put in place for the sole reason of restricting the power of our politicians, this seems just as important.

We’ve already established that paid advertising can be regulated.  When was the last time you saw an ad for cigarettes or liquor on TV?

It’s certainly a slippery slope, but if we used the rule above to limit the amount of advertising that can be done, we’d certainly limit the effectiveness of political donations.

We would not, of course, restrict the ability of politicians to express their views in any way – except that they can’t pay someone for publishing those views.

Remember an era when we got politicians like Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, JFK…?  They all “made their case” – in long form, in detail, to the people.  Certainly they advertised – slogans have been around forever – but the majority of their policies were put out in the form of speeches or quotes in newspaper articles, all of which provided far more detail than what the public sees today.

Speeches?  Nothing would restrict the candidates from making them.

Newspaper and magazine articles, websites, social media postings?   Nope, no restrictions.

Interviews with the press?  No restrictions at all.

Anything that involves the candidate themselves “making their case”, without paying anyone to publish that case, would be fine.

Just an idea….

Matching Funds

Now…. if we want to give up on reducing the cost of elections (via the advertising ban above) we could go the route that I first heard Dan Carlin propose, in his “Common Sense” podcast.

What if we said that politicians are welcome to raise as much money as they want, but for every dollar every politician raised, all opponents who qualify for the ballot (a separate issue, see my page on “Real Democracy”) would automatically receive an equal amount of matching funds from the government.

In other words, Jim Smith and Joe Jones are running.  Jim Smith raises $100M from donors.  Joe Jones raises $50M.

Joe is then automatically given another $50M from the government….

Now… this one would certainly greatly reduce the value of “working hard to get contributions”, since you’re effectively working for your competition.

And it would take some logical “thought through” legislation to make this work.  We’d have to revise the current Super PAC rules (otherwise every single campaign contribution would just go to a Super PAC, which would then disavow any connection to a specific candidate…)

Hmmmm… just an idea….

Conclusion

Because I’m a “100% solution” kind of guy, I have to point out neither of these are 100% solutions…

There are still many ways a politician can be influenced by money.

Some of those are already outright illegal – bribery, for instance.  But those are already illegal and we’ll never avoid having criminals out there.

Some of those are more tenuous connections that are harder to define.

For example, suppose a politician owns ABC Corp stock as part of a market index fund in their retirement account, and some vote on a bill might result in that stock going up?

Or, how about a politician’s brother works for ABC Corp?  To take that to an extreme, what if ABC Corp gave that employee a “merit raise” based on the fact that they got some new government contract…  And what if ‘bro was a generous guy and used some of his new money to buy a nice vacation home that he could share with his family…?

Or, how about when the politician leaves office, and finds a nice, cushy “spokesperson” job available at ABC Corp, for a nice half-mil a year….?

You can’t stop every form of influence, all these suggestions would do is stop the one that is currently responsible for the majority of our political spending.

You’ve got to start somewhere, right?