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The Gross National Debt

Sunday, February 19, 2006

(Cross-posted at Daily Kos and my blog)

It's been a wild week over at Daily Kos.  We hate professional politicians.  We love professional politicians.  We hate liberal talking heads.  We think Kossacks are missing the point.  We post diaries to lift the spirits of our fellow Kossacks, designed to highlight the good and not the bad.  We witness the emergence of a Kossack "leader" (and hopefully get his point in the process), and we debate the ups and downs of actually winning in '06.  All the while we have had both excellent and downright goofy diaries on the birdshot-heard-round-the-world.

So now allow me to switch gears to a discussion of an issue that isn't sexy or necessarily inflammatory.  Money, politics, the power of potential reform, and the value of 624 hours.

In his Washington Post editorial, former Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings makes a simple and compelling case for a Constitutional amendment to drive substantive fundraising and finance reform.

There is a cancer on the body politic: money.

Indeed.  It's so obvious to all of us that money in politics, the need for money in politics and all the activities designed to ensure that money makes its way into politics and into the war chests of politicians is a corrupting issue.  Before reading the editorial, however, I had no idea how much of a politician's time is spent raising money:

When I came to the Senate in 1966, we invariably would have a vote scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday to be sure that we started the week at work. And the Senate regularly was voting Friday afternoon. Now you can't find the Senate until Monday evening, and it's gone again by Thursday night. We're off raising money. We use every excuse for a "break" to do so. In February it used to be one day for Washington's birthday and one for Lincoln's. Now we've combined them so we can take a week off to raise money. There's Easter week, Memorial Day week, Fourth of July week and the whole month of August. There's Columbus Day week, Thanksgiving week and the year-end holidays. While in town, we hold breakfast fundraisers, lunch fundraisers, and caucuses to raise funds. The late senator Richard Russell of Georgia said a senator was given a six-year term -- two years to be a statesman, two to be a politician and two to demagogue. Now we take all six years to raise money.

Let's stop and contemplate that.  People like me, who are (thankfully) employed full-time and hold exempt (salaried, not hourly) status work 2,080 hours in a year.  In my case, 72 hours hours are paid vacation days.  I get 80 hours of paid vacation time and have the option of using 40 hours of sick leave.  If I took all of these optional hours, I would work 1,888 hours annually.

Since time is not altered for public officials, let's work with the same 2,080-hour baseline as in my example above (and yes, I know that many of us - including me - work many more than 40 hours a week - I had to compare somewhere). I'll be kind and only remove Fridays when the Congress is in session from a Senator's "real" work, for a total of 320 hours.  Christmas and New Year's holidays - 80 hours.  February President's week - 40 hours.  Easter week - 40 hours.  Memorial Day week - 40 hours.  4th of July week - 40 hours.  Entire month of August - 176 hours.  Columbus Day week - 40 hours.  Thanksgiving week - 40 hours.  That's a grand total of 816 hours which, when subtrated from the 2,080 baseline, yields total actual work of 1,264 hours.  If you're keeping score at home, this is what it looks like:

Salaried humanity works 1,888 hours annually.
Salaried Congresspeople work 1,264 hours annually.

Call me crazy, but do you think the additional 624 hours would benefit a member of Congress by, say, giving them time to read legislation?  Just a thought.

Hollings does a good job of explaining how it used to be compared to how it is.  He talked about Maurice Stans' fundraising activities for Richard Nixon and explains how that led to legislation in 1974 that limited candidates' spending (and therefore fundraising) to x dollars per voter.  In the case of Hollings and South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, the limit was $637,000 for their campaigns.  Hollings says:

Fast-forward 30 years, taking into account inflation and the larger number of voters. Today a South Carolina race for the U.S. Senate would be limited to $3 million -- if the spending limits were still in effect. But the limits did not survive a court challenge; they were thrown out in a 1976 Supreme Court decision that has had disastrous consequences. So in 1998 I had to raise $8.5 million to be elected senator. This meant I had to collect $30,000 a week, each and every week, for six years. I could have raised $3 million in South Carolina. But to get $8.5 million I had to travel to New York, Boston, Chicago, Florida, California, Texas and elsewhere. During every break Congress took, I had to be out hustling money. And when I was in Washington, or back home, my mind was still on money.

I'm not breaking any ground by saying that spending and fundraising in the process of being elected to office is out of control.  What really caught my attention in Hollings' editorial was this argument:

From the beginning, candidates have had to raise money, qualify and run. It was the candidate's character and policy that attracted contributions -- the more contributions the merrier. But people resented the rich buying elections, either as candidates or contributors. What the court did in 1976 [in Buckley v. Valeo, legislation that declared the 1974 limits an unconstitutional limit to free speech] was to give the rich, who don't have to raise money, a big advantage -- in effect, a greater degree of freedom of speech than others have. No one can imagine that in drafting the First Amendment to the Constitution, James Madison thought freedom of speech would be measured by wealth. The Supreme Court, which has found constitutional other limits on speech, has rendered Madison's freedom unequal. Congress must make it equal again.

Imagine that - the wealthy have freer speech than those of lesser means.  Enter the Jack Abramoff's of the world and the corrupt K Street lobbyists:

Recently the cancer of money has metastasized. The Jack Abramoff scandal has revealed the poisoning of our democracy. The K Street lobbyists have become a cottage industry. A legislator who seeks money will do well to take onto his or her staff someone a lobbyist recommends. The staffer then arranges the industry fundraisers. And K Street tells you outright that if you don't have a Republican lobbyist, your legislation is not going anywhere.

The lobbyists don't bother with the senator; they take the staff to lunch. Legislation is not drafted in the Senate but in the law offices. Staffs are queried to make sure the senator is favorably disposed and once there are enough senators so inclined, the measure moves to the party leadership's staff. The next thing you know, the measure is a party position and becomes "must" legislation. Sometimes a senator is on the way to the floor to vote on it, asking his staff, "What's this all about?" and the staff replies, "You're for this, vote 'aye,' or you're against this, vote 'nay.'"

Although Hollings' conclusion comes in the middle of the editorial, it is simple and it is this:

What is needed is a simple one-line amendment to the Constitution. It would authorize Congress to regulate or control spending in federal elections.

The political pollyanna in me believes with absolute conviction that the vast majority of individuals who decide to run for public office do so out of a sense of duty and a belief that, if elected, they can make a difference for their constituents and Americans as a whole.  In the beginning they are, in my opinion, motivated by ideology.  But the constant necessity to raise and collect money in order to hold one's position to institute change corrupts the politician and therefore the process.  Again - no great revelation there.

The Supreme Court will be taking up the issue of Buckley v. Valeo next month.  From US News and World Report:

That may change next week when U.S. Supreme Court justices consider the constitutionality of a Vermont law that takes on the troublesome partner--the court's own 1976 landmark Buckley v. Valeo campaign finance ruling, which limits individual contributions to political campaigns but allows candidates to spend as much as they please in pursuit of public office.

Fat chance the money- and corporation-conscious SCOTUS will make any groundbreaking decisions, but I can dream, can't I?  Given that it's unlikely the SCOTUS will limit campaign spending commensurate pre-Buckley v. Valeo efforts, a Consitituional amendment is what solves the problem.  In the wake of the Abramoff scandal and the Duke Cunningham scandal and the Delay scandal and [insert your scandal here], the time is right to write your Congresspersons and demand meaningful reform in the form of an amendment.  Public visibility on the issue is high, and all but the most far-right of right-wing Congresspeople have an '06 election advantage to calling for the amendment - they can take the high ground and claim ownership of "meaningful" reform and free all but the most cynical and power-hungry to return to the roots of why they sought public office in the first place.

And remember - if my pollyanna-ish brushstrokes have painted an unlikely scenario, the people - you and I - have the power to amend the Consitution.  Yes, I realize that a Constitutional Convention has never been used to successfully amend the Constitution - but the language is there and if I know one thing, it's that if we don't focus on it it will never happen.

Finally, gaining seats in the 2006 mid-term elections could substantially increase the liklihood of a legislative amendment effort.  If Democrats are to retake one or both houses of Congress, it will be on a desire by the American public to change the complexion on Washington DC.  A huge part of that is any effort to reform Congressional corruption.  This amendment should be a talking point for every Democrat who throws their hat into the ring.

posted by RenaRF at 2:04 PM 1 comments links to this post


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