Thursday, December 5, 2013

It's called Representative Government for a reason

This idea is something I've advocated for a while.  I don't claim it's unique to me, and someone else may well have proposed it long ago, although I've not heard about anyone doing so.  It would solve a number of problems, and perhaps even point the way to our collective future.

First, just a little background:

The Congress of the United States is composed of two bodies...the Senate and the House of Representatives.  It is sometimes said that those exist because the English government, which many colonists knew, had a House of Commons and a House of Lords.  Assuming that has at least an element of truth it might explain why terms in the Senate are longer than those of the House.  It might also explain why there are two restrictions on function included in the Constitution.  Only the Senate is allowed to approve treaties, albeit by a 2/3 majority, and only the Senate is allowed or required to confirm Presidential appointments...both of which were things thought of as being "Lordly" level duties.  Perhaps as a trade off, only the House can initiate revenue bills.

In any case, that's not the complete reasoning behind the structure.  As Federalism was being hammered out, the smaller States wanted to be equal, and in the Senate they are.  However, the big States felt that based upon population they should have more representation, thus the proportional distribution of House seats.  It may or may not be a perfect system, but it makes some sense and it can work when properly implemented.

Now, however, the whole system is screwed up.  The cost of running for election is so high that few common people could ever do it, and it takes raising huge sums of money.  That, in turn, requires two things.

First, a candidate must effectively quit working at whatever job he/she has to become a full-time candidate/fund raiser to run for office.  Obviously that cuts down the field significantly.  Given that the 2014 races are already in full swing, it's pretty easy to see that the ordinary candidate must take at least a full year off from a regular job, and few could ever afford that.  The result is that the pool of candidates is often trimmed to the rich, and they do not have a corner on intelligence or good ideas.  In fact, I would argue they have no idea how the rest of the people actually live...and recent comments have tended to support that notion.

Second, to raise money candidates accept donations from lobbyists and others with a strong agenda.  Most of this money comes from the rich and powerful, and that money completely distorts the idea of Representative Government.  House and Senate seats are openly for sale, and the so-called 1% can effectively buy them.  Heck, I'm surprised Wall Street hasn't found a way to make money by doing that.  Maybe there will be House Futures traded soon, and short selling a Senate seat in a swing state could be a big investment.

So, how do we remove the distorting influence of money in politics?  Actually, it's easier than you might think, and it would pass Constitutional muster.

A candidate for Federal Office can only accept campaign donations from people eligible to vote for that office.

There it is, plain and simple.

Now, for some details.  Let's say you live in Oregon.  You could contribute to candidates for your House district, for anyone running for one of Oregon's Senate seats, and for the President.  That's it.  Even if you have money to burn, you can't contribute to somebody running in Arizona or Maine or Maryland.  Why should you?  They don't represent you, they represent their own districts and least they're supposed to.  It's true they might have great ideas, but that's not the point.

Without outside money, they answer to no one but the people who elect them, and that is the way it ought to be.  They should be considering legislation based upon "is this the best thing for my constituents" not "what is best for the Wall Street people who support my campaign."

Now, someone is going to object, saying that the big money will just be funneled through local donors.  Nope, there's an easy fix for that too.

Let's say somebody on Wall Street wants to give money to a candidate in Oregon.  Since they don't live in the state or that district, they can't.  So, they give money to "Bill" and he then contributes.  Sounds simple.  However, under this proposal, Bill must declare that money as income...and he must pay income taxes on it.  Also, the candidate must report the donation.

So...Bill, who makes $50,000 per year in his job is suddenly going to pay taxes on that plus the $350,000 that some bank gave him to pass through.  Bill's not going to like that.  Also, someone is going to be looking at the donor list and ask the obvious question:  "Where did Bill get that kind of money to donate?"  Bill's going to end up in court, explaining where the money came from, facing some sort of "money laundering" charge, and the Wall Street folks are going to be in similar trouble.

A couple of other subtle details that cover other situations.

Notice carefully the wording of the proposal.  It says "PEOPLE."  That means only People, not corporations and not other groups like PAC's or unions.  It means the candidate is running to represent the People.  It doesn't matter if the company operates within the state or district, they're still not allowed to donate.  It doesn't matter if the union is comprised solely of people who live in the district or state, they're not allowed to donate as a group.  They are, however, free to donate as individuals.  The candidate can represent them.  The candidate should not be expected to represent the Union or PAC.

Now, one last observation.  The proposal says "people eligible to vote.  You don't have to be a registered voter, nor do you have to vote in the election in question.  I suppose we could also specify what happens with people who live in the district or state but aren't eligible to vote...namely undocumented immigrants or possibly convicted felons who have lost voting privileges.  Personally I'm almost inclined to simply ignore those folks because they generally aren't a huge influence in the first place...but if somebody wanted to include that provision that's fine with me.

In short, this would do two things:

It would take money out of politics, mean the cost of elections would plummet and common folks with a nice supply of common sense might be able to run for office again, and

It would remove the power of money from elections, preventing the rich from buying the Congress they want.

In the end, I think it would bring us much closer to the intent of the Constitution...that we have a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."  What we have right now certainly isn't.

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