Let the Bidding Begin…

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”—Upton Sinclair

Politics and Culture

Before anything can be said on this blog about ideas or issues or policies, we would do well to consider the two frameworks within which all our societal decisions must operate: politics and culture. For our civilization is such that we are constrained by the laws and norms of our time. Of course, we have the power to move these boundaries, but absent such structural change, few brave souls survive outside these walls.

Culture is a topic for another post, so much so that I will address it in great length in my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Sins of the Fathers: A Young American’s Take on the Great Financial Crisis. Politics, on the other hand, is today’s opening salvo. This blog, it should be noted, will focus on issues and ideas rather than the horserace of tactics and personalities, but before we jump into any of that, I must make one important claim: Barack Obama made a strategic error on day one, an error for which he has paid and will continue to pay until the unlikely day when he rights his course. Before we address that hypothesis though, let’s back up to the meme of the week.

“Political Reality”

Conventional wisdom has it that the President is both bold and wise—taking on climate change, health care, and financial regulation all at once, ever careful not to support too radical a shift on any one front lest he lose the broad support he enjoys for all three. It should come as no surprise then that advocates of reform (on the left and the right) are sounding the alarm that this President who promised change is now settling for weak tea. Seasoned Beltway veterans caution that he is performing a delicate balancing act, the mere specter of which is impressive. The lessthanideal proposals coming out of Washington, they argue, are a testament to the difficulty of forging consensus among divisive ideologies and competing special interests. Political reality demands moderate reform even if the Obama campaign gave the illusion of something more.

Both sides have fair points. Reform designed to please all parties runs the risk of worsening our problems. A climate change bill that caters to big energy companies may impose costs to the economy that outweigh the environmental benefits. Financial regulation that creates new loopholes may set us up for an even bigger crisis down the road. And yet politics has always been the art of compromise. The ideal reform is worthless if it doesn’t attract enough supporters to make it to the President’s desk.

The Solution: Lobbying Reform

On November 9, 2008, I proposed the following solution in the Hazleton Standard-Speaker:

Everybody wants to be H.R. 1.

By now, the President-Elect has probably gotten dozens of phone calls. “Hey, remember us? When are you going to pass that education bill we wanted?” “Just called to say congratulations! By the way, will that health reform bill be the first one out of the gates?”

One of the first tests of the new president’s so-called “first-class temperament” will be how he deals with the intramural politics and eager supporters who will gladly badmouth him to the press if he doesn’t pay them back for “getting him elected”—and we’re talking pronto. There is, however, a simple solution: Offend everyone equally.

I’m talking about lobbying reform. Make it your first punch, and they won’t know what hit ‘em. Ban political donations by all registered lobbyists, and ban their clients from contributing, too.

This is the foundation on which you build your “transformational” presidency. When all those voters wanted “change,” this is what they were talking about. Few things in Washington rankle Americans so much as the corrupting influence of money in politics. Every year, Americans feel like their voices are heard less and less, and this is why. You promised to change the way Washington operated, and this is your chance. Fulfill your campaign vision with one fell swoop, and you set the stage for re-election four years early.

More important than being a political homerun, it is the right thing to do. We’ve all heard the First Amendment defense, but money is not speech—and I can prove it.

Let’s assume you’re a person of modest means, and you donate what you can afford, say $500, to a challenger who opposes corporate tax breaks for which you would foot the bill. I represent the corporation who wants that tax break, so I donate $5 million to the incumbent. When my candidate wins, he graciously repays my support with that tax break—and your taxes go up.

Is that fair? Is that what the Founders intended?

Think about it this way: In that scenario, I have 10,000 times more votes than you. That candidate is going to remember my $5 million. He is not going to remember your $500, and what’s more, he needs me next time around. Your support is nice, but he’s not going to give me the cold shoulder to keep you happy. He may lose your vote, but my $5 million buys him thousands to make up for it.

Special interest groups wield more votes than you and me simply because they have more money. As the old saying goes, everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.

We have legalized bribery. This strikes some people as hyperbole. Maybe candidates receive money from special interest groups because they already support those causes rather than the other way around, right? That’s true in some cases, but ask anyone in Washington and they will tell you what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told me, “When it comes to money, politicians will sell their first-born to get what they want.” Everybody in Washington owes somebody, and that incest has tarnished our national image and our ability to govern.

From the first day a Congressman is elected, he starts fundraising for the next campaign. It’s a universal rule of thumb. Now ask yourself if he is giving his full attention to his job, let alone whether he makes poor policy decisions because he doesn’t want to offend donors (which, by the way, is the first thing most legislators consider when debating our laws).

Add to that the legislators who are campaigning for higher office. Does anyone honestly believe that Barack Obama and John McCain were able to perform their senatorial duties fully while they were running for president? I’d be surprised if they performed them at all.

Billions in tax breaks for corporations. Billions in earmarks for unnecessary projects. No health care reform. No climate change solutions. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Enron and Wall Street derivatives. The price we pay is incalculable.

This is the bill that sets up all the rest. It takes one less obstacle out of all those debates.

The initial opposition will be stiff. We finally have the fundraising advantage, Democrats will cry, and now you want to change the rules? Here the new president can look for compromises that do not weaken the reforms.

Old political hands James Carville and Paul Begala, for instance, suggest raising congressional pay in exchange for showing lobbyists the door. Challengers can raise all the money they want, but the U.S. Treasury would credit the incumbent’s campaign with a comparable donation. If the incumbent wants to spend their own money, the Treasury would write a check in the opposite direction.

“Once you assume an elected office, you achieve a new status,” they write. “You are no longer a campaigner. You are a public servant. As such you should not be in the fundraising business. You should be in the exclusive business of making policy.” They estimate the total cost to be $800 million, compared with billions upon billions saved by eliminating incentives for wasteful spending and ineffective legislation.

It’s just the right kind of gutsy. Wow them without losing allies for future legislation. Lobbying reform would be the most powerful message the Obama administration could send to the nation—and, indeed, the world: There is a new sheriff in town, and this one believes that change is not just a word on a bumper sticker.

Those of us in the punditry and the blogosphere are political junkies. We can’t stand what electoral jockeying does to the system either, but we eat it up like a bad soap opera. We often forget that the vast majority of Americans are repelled by this system. When I ask folks across the country what they think of politics, their smiles turn to furrowed brows. They are indignant and driven to apathy. The way the modern political system is structured, their voice is negligible, and they know it. After I published that column, one reader said that that one act would make him feel that his vote for Barack Obama was justified.

The President’s crackdown on lobbyists in the executive branch has been admirable, but in the grand scheme of Washington politics, it is a joke to say that politics will now become an honorable game. Only one branch writes the laws, and they still operate by the old rules. I’m reminded of the scene in Charlie Wilson’s War where Tom Hanks’s character laughs off the idea that you get re-elected by the voters. No, he says, “you’re re-elected by your contributors.”

A Long Tradition

Corruption has stained politics from time immemorial.

Despite all our differences, the one canard that unites Americans is the belief that Washington has become too self-serving, too dishonest, too ingrained in a culture of lies and favors and money. Yet it was Socrates who opined, “I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live.”

Indeed corruption has been with us since the very beginning. Crack open any American history textbook and you’ll find Teapot Dome and Watergate, Whitewater and Koreagate, Abscam and Wedtech, Bobby Baker and Duke Cunningham.

It’s not hard to understand why our Founding Fathers agonized over the Constitution in 1787 to create checks and balances and separation of powers. James Madison spent many a late night poring over historical accounts of the rise and fall of empires, possessed by the fear that a republic serving only its leaders would eventually crumble under its own inertia.

But even Madison did not have perfect foresight.

A century after our nation’s founding, Chester Arthur entered a political system that would have appalled its creators. Arthur seems like an odd character to continue Madison’s legacy, but history is funny like that.

In Arthur’s day, politics was akin to the Mafia. Political bosses ran chunks of the government and rewarded loyalty with favors. They euphemistically called it “patronage.”

Arthur learned to play this spoils system with precision, vaulting him all the way to the Vice Presidency. When President James A. Garfield was felled by an assassin’s bullet in July 1881, Arthur became the accidental—and unwelcome—leader of the land.

Since the scandal-ridden years of the Grant administration, Americans had been crying out for reform. Now, their president had been slain by an unsuccessful office seeker. Like Lyndon Johnson many years later, Arthur felt the weight of a suspicious public who hadn’t elected him and set out to prove his worth.

In January 1883, President Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act, the most sweeping civil service reform the United States had ever seen. It created a Civil Service Commission, placed government employees on the merit system, and set the stage for the reforms of Teddy Roosevelt.

For better or for worse, that is how democracy works. Politicians will always hold re-election above all other aims, and so they take their cues from us. Only when Americans become so enamored by an issue that it builds to a feverish pitch do our legislators act. This blog will strive to encourage that civic duty by giving Americans the information they need to hold their leaders accountable. So long as we operate within a system ruled by money though, we will be paddling against a brutal current.

What Changed?

You might say we have always been paddling against that current, and in a sense you’d be right. The battle between “the moneyed interest” and “the public interest” stretches back to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson rabblerousing against the Bank of the United States. On the other hand, something is distinctly different in contemporary politics. Two forces with no parallel in American history are stretching the country in opposite directions.

First, technology has made Americans “an electorate of information junkies,” as political strategist Dick Morris puts it. “Through the CNN, Fox News Channel, CNBC, CFN, MSNBC and C-SPAN TV networks, talk radio, all-news radio, news magazines, the Internet, prime-time TV Shows like ’60 Minutes’ and ‘20/20,’ and the nightly news on the major TV networks,” a more-informed populist uprising is pushing to make the average American’s voice heard.

But something is pushing back. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls it Supercapitalism. Over the past century, corporations have gained so much power that they overwhelmingly influence the political process through lobbyists, campaign money, and influence on everyday life. Government, he argues, has been unwilling to address problems if the solutions might anger their backers.

It’s an Ugly Business

It’s not hard to understand why John Godfrey Saxe quipped, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” But Saxe said that in 1869 before special interests competed with such vigor. Back then, men with big wallets sat in backrooms electing legislators over brandy and cigars. Money in politics seems to be one area where Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand hasn’t worked its competitive magic to our benefit.

And that’s because they’re different animals, money and politics. Government is supposed to be a countervailing power to the market, in the phenomenon John Kenneth Galbraith famously coined. Companies work best with a profit motive; governments do not.

The date of Saxe’s comment, well before the rise of the modern corporation, gives us another warning: Tearing money from politics will not make politics perfect. Politicians will never cease the pandering, vote-calculating game they play. Such is the price of democracy. Trust me, the price of dictatorship is higher.

Barack Obama promised to rise above that game, but we all knew it was part bluster. No politician can succeed without playing politics. Despite this fact, he has tried to forge bipartisan consensus as fervently as any president of the last half-century—and for that, he deserves praise. It is when this pursuit rubs up against his promises of progressive change that his supporters lose their patience. But that’s who he is, and it isn’t like we weren’t given advance notice. Calm, rational Barack Obama will listen and extend a hand to all; that was the picture the campaign painted. Disgruntled as they may be, few in Washington would trade that attitude for the last eight years.

If partisanship were the only obstacle though, what a wonderful world it would be. The beauty of a political system without lobbyist money or expensive elections is that ideas and issues—divided and frustrating though they may be—come front and center. Outside the Beltway, most Americans don’t want their respective parties to win so much as they want it to be a fair fight. They want the two sides to fight like hell for what they believe in. They want a debate they can be proud of—a debate based on facts and opinions and values, not votes or donors or lies. Of course that is impossible in the extreme, but it wouldn’t hurt to move our system a little closer to it.

Wrong Solution?

Critics say it’s a waste of time. Better to shrink government to a size where all its faults can’t do much harm. This blog will argue for shrinking certain areas of government, but it will do so on the merit of each program—not in some ruse to blunt the beneficial effects of government in other areas. Moreover, the image of politicians cutting the very programs upon which their war chests depend doesn’t pass the giggle test.

Maybe government just needs more competition, they say. Alexis de Tocqueville famously connected much of America’s success to the proliferation of private institutions like nonprofit groups, families, communities, and companies. And I say more power to them, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that they are competitors with the government when they’re the ones who are funding elections.

When it comes to health care, climate change, financial regulation, and all the other challenges our nation faces, this blog will discuss the issues and mostly leave the politics to someone else. But when we do talk about the political roadblocks, can we not forget the structural elements that prevent real change? In all these discussions, everyone—companies, unions, economists, scientists, policymakers—should be at the table, but that doesn’t mean they get to buy the reform they want.

A Mockery of Democracy

If we’re not willing to fix the system, I think corporations should go to Capitol Hill and demand they get airtime. I envision billboards along the walls of the Senate. Of course, the prime position would be right behind the Speaker of the House—you know, like those ads behind home plate—just so C-SPAN can’t miss it.

Then I’d like our legislators to change their outfits. Enough of these boring suits. Can we get them those NASCAR jackets, the ones with fifty-six patches advertising different companies?

Maybe the President can have his favorite soft drink indiscreetly displayed on the podium during the State of the Union like the Coca-Cola resting aside Paula Abdul during American Idol. In fact, whenever anyone delivers a speech to the House, there should be a broadcaster who says, “Representative XYZ, brought to you by…” and list his top three contributors.

What, no good? You fear it would make a mockery of our democracy, I suppose? Yea, you’re probably right—we can’t have companies just buying up our government like some pop entertainment fad.

What’s that, they already have?

Politics has always been built on favors, but over the last century, we have somehow legalized corruption. It’s never been perfect, and it never will be. But it has been better, and it can be again.

Or maybe you prefer the status quo. Hey, let’s not shortchange ourselves. Maybe we can auction off the Capitol. No wait, I’ve got it: How about we ask our president to live in the Enron House?