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Entries in campaign fianance reform (4)


Apathy is a warm gun

If it was true about Congress's failure to avoid sequester budget cuts, it's especially true about the U.S. Senate's epic miss on the background check amendment to the gun control bill last week.

Again, voters got the septic end of the stick. And who got to hold the clean end? That small, select group of campaign finance contributors--whose 'generosity' wields far greater force than 86% of Americans who support background checks.

What's more stunning than that injustice? Voters (you and I and everyone else we know) have no one to blame but themselves.

How could that be?

By and large, voters are not working together to draft candidates to run for public office. So, when a candidate for particular office emerges, he or she needs to reach the broadest audience of voters to win an election. That calls for mass communications--which requires immense financing. This is where the small, elite campaign finance community has emerged. Someone has to pay for those television and radio ads.

Most people have yet to acknowledge that between voters and wealthy campaign contributors lies a crucial fault line. The Senate's botching the background check amendment illustrates this influence gap. Very few elected officials are willing to talk about this--it would risk burning their own meal ticket.

Voters have surrendered their perogative as the majority interest in this nation; one that should be setting the terms over how much money a candidate can accept as a campaign contribution--that the amount should not wield a corrupting influence.

It goes without saying that very few voters would willingly elect a pederast or convicted felon to public office. The scruple is clearly defined. And though there is a general consensus about how much the current campaign finance system corrupts public policy, acknowledging this agreement is not enough.

It takes but a small, meaningful commitment by a pluralilty of voters to convey to all candidates for public office, challengers and incumbents alike: you're not a candidate worth our consideration if you accept any amount greater than $250 per campaign contribution.

If, ever, that day arrives, you'll observe a people taking responsibility for the republic and its destiny by which they live.


Electoral sabotage--by default

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. --quote attributed to Plato

The results of a USA Today/Suffolk University voter participation survey reveals no surprising details about the state of today's eligible voters; except that two thirds confirm they are currently registered.

Judging from a few of their primary reasons for not showing up at the polls on election day, apathetic voters illustrate how deeply uninformed they are about the inner workings of Washington, DC. They cannot fathom the degree by which lobbyists are organized, connected and relentless in the effort to influence elected representives.

For an example of the initiative that drives lobbyists, consider the 'day-in-the-life-of-a-lobbyist' guide offered by the California chapter of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. It encourages the effort to persuade elected office holders, by stating, "You have to be persistent... [which] means continuing to press your issue and recognizing that 'no' is only for now. There is no last vote. There's always going to be a next vote."

Now have a look at three of the various excuses eligible voters give in the survey for not going to the polls on election day:

"They aren't excited about either candidate."

"Their vote doesn't really matter."

"[N]othing ever gets done, anyway."

Is it little wonder that the lobbyist industry--which numbers only in the tens of thousands--out-maneuvers tens of millions of voters day-in and day-out in matters of public policy?

Call it electoral sabotage, by default--on the part of vote-eligible citizens too apathetic to participate. 

To remedy this state of affairs would require an immense messaging effort by elected representatives and participating voters. The message to non-participating voters should spell out what the cost is for not being politically engaged, for refusing to pay attention. An incumbent running for re-election must remind voters how much time is spent on fundraising when it could be devoted to legislating and problem solving--all because a plurality of voters haven't tuned in.

Given that wide margin of unengaged citizens, it means a candidate running for public office must raise mounds of cash for the cost of media buys that reach voters who aren't paying attention.  Money doesn't grow on trees, but it certainly finds its way from the wallets of the  wealthy elite and into the coffers of a political campaign.

This defines the influence gap between voters and high dollar campaign contributors, who always come out on top over matters of public policy.

So, who can deny that we the people no longer call the shots? And who among us is ready to accept responsibility for that reality?


When money is no longer coin of the republic

It is strangely comforting to watch as the Barack Obama campaign for re-election gets the short end of the fund raising stick. For the third consecutive month the Mitt Romney camp, along with its super pac surrogates, raked in millions more than than the incumbent president's organization. Too big to succeed could be one factor among others that buries Mitt Romney's campaign. Go ask Meg Whitman.

However, if Romney's financial braun prevails, then take a page from the things-must-get-worse-before-they-get-better manual. It would better serve this nation's long-term interests, for voters to watch the torrents of money washing into the election process--amplifying the echoplex of crass attack ads on radio and television. Then the electorate can go on pretending as though their influence over elections and governmental policy isn't already outspent into oblivion.

So, why not question our election culture's prevailing philosophy? That money makes the candidate? Yeah, okay--what about debating policy ideas? What values will prevail? And what happened to the one-citizen-one-vote fairness among all eligible voters?

Who has time for such quaint ideas? Mere distractions beneath the high-octane roar of the money derby.

Indeed, free speech is at stake here. If the corporations aren't allowed to wield their exploding bill folds to prop up either candidate--or both--then the First Amendment stands vulnerable to the tyranny of... democracy.

No matter which side you take on the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, arguing that the fundraising gap matters reinforces the delusional notion that money matters more than the exerted will of a U.S. citizenry. So, how long it will take for a plurality of voters to decide they are under no obligation to choose between bought-off Candidate A and greasy-palmed Candidate B--who knows?

However, it is fascinating that both the Romney and Obama camps go so far as credit small donors--those giving $250 or less--for comprising well over 90% of donations received respectively.

If that's truly the case (one can dream, no?) why shouldn't the presidential candidates and their supporters come to an election-landscape-titling the consensus? Why not adopt the $250 level as a campaign finance maximum? Why shouldn't voters demand it if both the incumbant and challenger are willing to acknowledge the measure of small donors' participation?

If ever such an opportunity emerged--that would be the day when votes became the coin of the republic.


Beyond 'lesser of two evils'

Article first published as Beyond "Lesser of Two Evils" on Blogcritics.

No one needs a long lecture about how thoroughly the U.S. Congress has squandered “the consent of the governed.” It’s no secret that the current campaign finance system enables and reinforces Congress’s preferential treatment of wealthy donors and their corporate masters. The exclusive access and legislative consideration they enjoy are the expected ‘return’ on their investment. So, when push comes to shove about a crucial decision, voters can forget about their phone calls, letters or protests—they don’t stand chance against the tsunami of large donor dollars that fills an incumbant’s (or challenger’s) campaign fund every election season.

Even after a clear majority of voters have voiced their support for a balanced approach to resolving the debt-ceiling impasse, their showing wields no influence on legislators bent on forcing a national default. Indeed, Tea Party pol’s rush in... .

Given such dim prospects for fair, accountable representation, voters return to the polls every election with the task of choosing between ‘the lesser of two evils’—and regrettably they believe this is a cemented status quo, since this is how it has always been. To imagine and believe otherwise is where we should begin: to see and know that with enough effort and cooperation among voters we can elect representatives worthy of our trust; legislators whose decisions remain transparent and accountable to vigilant electors.

Toward that end it is worth mentioning one or two initiatives in politics just peering over the horizon. They present a couple of the best, though underdeveloped, prospects for  voter-responsive governance.

Calling the current U.S. tax code an “insanely complicated system of special favors to the richest and most powerful in our society”, former Louisiana governor Charles “Buddy” Roemer has recently re-entered the political arena to declare his candidacy for the 2012 presidential race.  Front and center to his platform is campaign finance reform.  To underscore his commitment to the issue he has sworn off PAC money as well as any individual contribution greater than $100.

While everyone should applaud his initiative, one of his arguments about election financing could benefit from some fine tuning.  Reform should not limit how much any donor can give, he asserts. Rather, every voter should contribute to the candidacy he or she favors.  Since Congress remains dependent on large dollar donors, “our first objective must be to remove this dependency by expanding the number of givers… .”  Doing so will “balance the system,” he suggests.

Keep in mind that almost sixty percent of the funds raised by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign came from donors who gave less than $1000. In spite of aggregating the majority share of Obama’s funding, one can trust that very few of those givers enjoyed the access and consideration granted to the likes of a Robert Wolf or Blair Effron. In spite of that small donor majority share in Campaign Obama’s 2008 victory, the president still went with the Wall Street- friendly appointees and economic advisors.

Another emerging reform phenomenon to take notice of is an organization called Americans Elect. So far it has signed up 1.7 million voters with the intent of qualifying in all 50 states to run a small-’i’ independent candidate for president in 2012. With plans for “THE FIRST EVER!” open  primary scheduled for June 2012, Americans Elect aims to give rank-and-file voters of any- or no- party affiliation, the chance to participate as delegates.

From a first glance, AE appears as a well-coordinated attempt to connect voters directly to the nominating process. However, its web site gives no information about the group’s leadership and funding. These omissions resemble the kind of secrecy that never bodes well for accountability to voters. (Paired with The Los Angeles Times profile of the group [dated 28 July] was an article with a link to its board of directors roster just recently distributed).

Looking at AE’s ‘About’ page, what neglected and downtrodden voter could dismiss seductive appeals like “A greater voice for all Americans, no matter their party. Every registered voter can be a delegate. Any constitutionally-eligible citizen can be a candidate”? Or a gem like “The power to choose your candidate in the 2012 election. Real issues. Real candidates. Real votes.”

Yet trouble abounds for this wired and well-oiled machine. Among a number of complicities that gum up its purported independence, most obvious are the organization’s disavowal of influence by any special- or corporate interests (thanks goes to Jim Cook’s Irregular Times, which has charted AE’s story from what appears its beginning). However, a significant fraction of its 50-member board of directors seats investment industry insiders; and--perhaps even more damning--includes the presence of Morton Meyerson, chairman of Alsbridge, who the company credits as an “innovator of a concept called outsourcing.” That alone should earn plenty of praise from the ‘vocationally-challenged’ community.

All complicities aside, the crucial element to campaign funding reform that Gov. Roemer and Americans Elect overlook is how influence is cultivated and wielded. It is only very recently that a critical mass of voters have begun to recognize the impact of PACs, large dollar donors and the lobbyist apparatus. It has had the effect of thwarting their physical, political and economic destinies.

It is doubtful that Roemer or AE would make a point to remind many voters of their own responsibilities as citizens in our democratic republic: to stay informed; to continually engage elected officials as well as one another.  Least of all would either candidate or organization impress upon Americans to vote only for candidates who refuse any donation greater than $200 per individual per year. That determination has to be self-realized.

The immense financial resources required of a campaign for public office no one underestimates. In place of the oceans of cash necessary to achieve “viability”--a motivated and organized class of voters could make known their solidarity for at least one goal: to eliminate money’s obligating influence upon an incumbent or challenger.

What if a plurality of voters within any congressional district committed to this citizen-imposed limit?  And while they’re at it, draft candidates willing to abide by this limit.  It’s the only campaign pledge of any merit with the most far reaching impact. Establishment candidates would seriously have to consider whether to embrace the campaign finance limit--or face losing the election. No matter which competitor won the election, all voters would be the winners for having the resolve to reassert their “consent”.