Special interest groups buying access to our representatives, representatives kowtowing to wealthy donors…it looks rather corrupt. And it is not just the power-hungry giving money. Many businesses are giving to whichever party is in power in order to have access, protect themselves from mob rule, get lucrative contracts, get special loopholes in regulations and/or get protection from competition.
The problem has gotten so bad that those paying the “bribes” are complaining about the cost, and those receiving the “bribes” are complaining about the amount of time they spend raising money.
Campaign finance reform was tried after Watergate and the result was that it became even more difficult for outsider candidates and third parties to get the start up funds needed to get their messages out. Incumbents are favored by restrictions on donation sizes since they have the ability to garner large numbers of contributions as well as being able to use their offices for campaign purposes (franking, ribbon cutting, constituent service, etc.).
The latest attempt at campaign finance reform threatens to give incumbents a greater edge – it contains restrictions on free speech to prevent citizen groups from reporting the voting record of those sitting in office! What’s next? Monarchy?
Update (2018) The paragraphs above were written before the Citizen's United decision.
Some Simple Reforms
Any time the government passes a huge, complicated law in the name of Reform, the result is loopholes that can be exploited by the powerful and greater barriers to entry for the not so powerful. For truly democratic campaign finance reform, we need to keep it simple. So here is Carl Milsted’s brute force ultra-democratic, brain dead simple campaign finance reform proposal:
If you are holding political office, you cannot raise money. Period.
That means no raising money for re-election, no raising money for the party, no raising money for other candidates. Once you take the oath of office, you are working for The People.
Some might wonder how incumbents are to run for re-election. Do we limit our multi-term office holders to the rich? No. We need to invoke a corollary to the first rule:
If you are holding office, you cannot run for office. Period.
With this rule, we truly become a government of The People. No more professional politicians. No more overlords posing as democratically elected representatives.
Under this system, you may hold more than one office during your career. You may hold the same office for more than one term. But in between each term of political office, you must spend a period of time as a private citizen.
Eliminating incumbency has implications that further the cause of Democracy worldwide.
- An elected official who knows that he will be a private citizen gains the perspective of one of The People. He legislates for the kind of government he would like to live under rather than the one he would like to run.
- The seniority system in a legislature gives unequal representation to elected officials. Those with a senior representative or senator get better represented. (This also adds to the incumbency advantage.)
- Other democracies across the world often descend into dictatorship. The elimination of incumbency is the ultimate check on power. We owe it to the world to set a good example.
Do these measures go far enough?
- Should a sitting congresscritter be allowed to own stock in a private corporation? Sign a book deal? Have a sideline business? Be a partner in a law firm?
- How about the spouse of a sitting congresscritter?
On the other hand, do these measures go too far? The U.S. Senate is well designed for one term office holders, as the elections are staggered. But what about the House of Representatives?