SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 6, 2012

Watson: Money is damaging our political system

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — Is there anybody who isn’t glad that this election campaign season has come to a close? And that we feel that way reflects what we all know to be true: The campaign process, the state of the governing process and the overall condition of our representative democracy are quite bad and exhibit much dysfunction.

As we all wait to see who becomes (or stays) president and who gets elected to the House and Senate, now is a good time to think about our politicians generally, and the environment they work in.

Although there are problems that can be attributed solely to the behavior of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, there are enough detrimental features characterizing the political system generally that we can focus usefully on those. If we were to eliminate or reform just the aspects of our political processes that are distorting or damaging both parties equally, or that both parties are exploiting equally, or that act to disempower citizens of both parties equally, then we could go a long way toward improving the responsiveness, performance and accountability of our elected officials.

Perhaps the biggest poison in the political world today is money. Afflicting the behavior and practices of both Democratic and Republican officeholders in roughly equal measure, unprecedented and constant sums of money are damaging the quality of campaigns and corrupting the ability of congressmen, especially, to legislate with independence and integrity.

The enormous flow of funds — now effectively unregulated at all — during the campaign season has become so large that political ads themselves are written hastily, aired relatively briefly, and meet no standards of accuracy or decency. Because neither the identity of the ad sponsors nor the authors of the ad contents are disclosed — for the “nonprofit” organizations created solely to run the ads — nobody can be held accountable, and citizens cannot know who is funding the poison. As a result, millions of dollars are spent entirely on smearing candidates dishonestly.

And because congressmen now expect these ads, and because campaigns have become yearslong affairs, incumbents spend huge amounts of time fundraising instead of working.

The need for incumbents to procure their own war chests further compromises them. They have become far more responsive to lobbyists, interest groups and wealthy donors than ever before. Lobbyists especially — there are thousands in Washington — who can funnel millions of dollars to politicians are granted privileged access to congressmen and are closely consulted on all significant legislation.

Lastly, the promise of a high-paying job with a lobbying firm when a politician (and often members of his staff) leaves office is an unspoken payoff awaiting the cooperative congressman.

The losers in a political system like this are ordinary citizens and the general public interest. Congressmen are simply not free to deliberate issues intellectually, or weigh and compare constituent and national needs honestly. They must constantly calculate the fundraising consequences of their legislative votes.

I want to emphasize that this problem starts with the system, not the politicians. It does no good to “throw the bums out.” Many a new, idealistic congressman has arrived in Washington, only to be turned by the reality that awaits him.

We could repair this system, however. There are straightforward reforms that, if implemented, would meaningfully reduce (not eliminate) the frequency and impact of abuses.

For starters, political donations should be restricted to individual citizens only — no PAC donations, no super PAC donations, no 501(c)(4) donations, no lobbyist donations, and no union or corporate donations. And the donations from citizens should be capped at some fixed amount, perhaps $500 per year, and the donors may not remain anonymous. No other “outside” spending could occur on behalf of a candidate.

Furthermore, lobbyists should be flatly precluded from funding any candidate or incumbent at any time, under any circumstances. And all current and ex-politicians (and their staffs) should be precluded forever from employment at any lobbying firm. “Forever” may seem strict, but it is the only way to prevent mischief, and I am confident that smart ex-pols would land other jobs.

Instituting these reforms would not make magic occur. Stubborn ideological beliefs would still separate the parties and make difficult the forging of consensus. But dramatically reducing the money in politics would make campaigns less reckless and destructive with their limited resources, and it would allow incumbents to be freer of the influence and pressure that big-money donors can exert on the actual governing process.

Here’s the kicker. Only a concerted campaign by the media and citizens can make these changes happen. Whether these reforms will take legislation, lawsuits, new incumbents or constitutional amendments, none of them will occur without citizen mobilization and a supportive media that — having decided that these changes are in the widest possible public interest — elevates this agenda to its front pages every week.

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Brian T. Watson is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at watson@nii.net.