The form of the government of the United States of America is one of, if not the best, ever to see the light of day. Certainly, the documents which founded it, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, contain the most revolutionary and noble thoughts on government ever written by human beings. We began as a beacon to the world, a light in the darkness that gave hope to all peoples. We have been a haven for the oppressed and a land of opportunity for those striving to better their conditions. The founding fathers who wrote the Constitution provided the ability to make adjustments, as conditions in the world changed, to compensate for their oversights or omissions. In some cases we’ve used that capability wisely, in others we have not and in yet others, we haven’t used it at all.
The time since the founding of our country has seen tremendous strides in technology. We’ve put men on the moon. Each of us is moments apart from almost every other person on the face of the earth. Most of us have access to almost all of mankind’s knowledge using the Internet. We have all kinds of electronic gadgets and the ability to quickly travel over most of the world. At the same time, our infant mortality rate has risen, the overall quality of our public education has gone down, our health care system lags behind many other countries, we’re involved in bad wars we can’t win and our Senate can filibuster its way to a stand still. How did this sorry state of affairs happen?
The answer, of course, is that it happened over a long period of time. It happened step by step in steps so small they were hard to notice. The boom times, in the aftermath of WWII, led to an unprecedented growth in business. Unions also grew in power as did other special interest groups. The population grew. Everyone wanted to do better and more pressure was placed on our legislators to pass laws that would facilitate more business and the accumulation of more wealth. we got TV, computers, cell phones, Ipods and electronic games. We got more and more professional sports, streaming movies and round the clock “news” that kept us informed of the latest scandals and who was marrying or divorcing whom. Newsmen turned into showmen and we got meaningless automatic replies to emails we sent to our congress people. We lost interest, we stopped paying attention and here we are.
Sad to say, the blame lies squarely on our shoulders, not those of our politicians. Yes, some of us cared. Some of us were activists for all sorts of causes and inequities. Yes, some wrongs were righted, but there were so many bad things to correct that our energy and our votes were unfocused. The power structure was happy to see us fight for our favorite causes because it kept us busy, just like the ball games. The problem was, folks, that we didn’t find the root causes of our decline and concentrate our energy on them. We didn’t focus on improving education and separating our legislators from the influence of money and power. This set of papers shows us just how to do that and how to make our legislators pay attention to our aims.
Why do we need election reform? The answer is that laws are passed now based on their benefit to legislators and/or special interest groups when they should be passed based on their benefit to the country. Election campaigns are too long and too expensive. Financing them obligates a legislator to the people and organizations who donate the money. Almost half of a legislative term is spent on getting re-elected and not enough effort goes into lawmaking. I’m not implying that legislators are crooked, but they are human beings, just like us. Their job constantly exposes them to tremendous pressures to influence their votes for the benefit of special interest groups. We should not expect them to resist these pressures anymore than we would expect ourselves to do so. It’s time to change our laws to reduce their obligation to special interest groups. Such reform would include; changes in election financing, pay, pensions, financial scrutiny and strong punishment for breaking the law.
In order to accomplish reform, we have to plan for each component of the process. These are: the primary election, the general election, the time in office and the time after office. The following remarks are not meant to be definitive and some may have already been implemented. These are only my preliminary thoughts on the solution of a very complicated problem that requires the attention of experts. Bear in mind that the goal of this reform is to reduce the obligation of our legislators to special interests so they may consider only how a law benefits their constituents and the country as a whole.
The basic method for election reform during the primary and general elections, where candidates vie for votes from the public, is that a candidate will receive campaign funds from the government based on the number of voters in the district in which he runs, plus a basic amount. Those amounts will be greater for the general election than for the primary. Needless to say, each candidate in a particular race will receive the same amount of money. No other funds will be allowed to be spent on the campaign by the candidate or his party. In order to establish the candidate as a serious competitor, he must obtain signatures from a fixed percentage of the voters in his district and thus be eligible for public financing. There must be a strict accounting of campaign expenditures and serious penalties for not following the rules. In addition, the candidates will be required to debate and appear before the voters to answer questions so that they may make an informed decision on Election Day. The appearance schedule will be a function of the number of people, the size of the district and the population density. If candidates are chosen by caucus or run unopposed, no funds will be given to them for campaigning in the primary election. In the general election, candidates who run unopposed will still be required to appear before voters to answer questions and will receive funds for that purpose.
The preceding ideas concern candidates and parties, but other people and organizations are able to spend funds on campaigns without the approval or knowledge of the candidates. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the same rights as individuals and restricting their ability to spend money on a campaign is a violation of their right to freedom of speech, a ruling that must have been made under the influence. There are two possibilities to control this spending. The first is to make it illegal by law, but this may require a constitutional amendment due to the court decision, a process that may prove too difficult. The second is to require every dollar spent on a campaign to be registered with the government. The candidate, if a winner, would be restricted from voting on any bills which may benefit the spenders. In addition, the candidate receiving such help will be restricted from receiving favors from or working for, at a later date, people or organizations that spend on the campaign. We will also require and publicize identification of all organizations that spend on campaigns, including the origin of the source of their funds. Needless to say, we must include the oversight in the legislation along with strict penalties to ensure the law is not broken.
Third, the time in office is when the paycheck is most important. Salaries can be increased and made a function of the number of terms served, encouraging good performance to ensure reelection. Personal finances must also be kept under a microscope. Voting on matters that benefit those who spent on the legislator’s campaign will be prohibited.
During the time after office, when a legislator retires or is not re-elected, the pension is most important. Pensions may also be made a function of the number of terms served and should be given for life. Knowing that they will be well taken care of by the taxpayers is a positive way of reducing temptation and a good influence on performance.
Oversight of campaign spending will begin when a candidate receives public funding. Every penny spent by the candidate and others will have to be scrutinized and any illegal spending punished. Oversight of personal finances will begin the first time a candidate is successful in a race and continue for the remainder of his life. That goes for the immediate family also. You may ask who will want to run for federal office with such tight controls. Well meaning, patriotic folks won’t be deterred. Yes, the costs involved for the oversight required to ensure that no laws are violated by our legislators or those who spend money on an election will be high. Unfortunately, the costs to the country now due to the passage of bad laws and the resulting loss of our integrity are much higher. We can simply raise taxes to cover these costs. Bear in mind that we are talking about less than seven hundred federal legislators, so the costs are relatively limited.
The above model for election reform may also be used for other federal offices in addition to our legislators. Portions of it may also be extended to serve for appointees. Please consider this paper a work-in-progress that will be updated as input from more knowledgeable persons is obtained.