Reposted from Jan 2010: A Proposal to Replace Our System of Bribery

I first wrote and published this on January 25, 2010, and it’s worth repeating… (note; some of the lobbying proposals were adopted after I wrote this originally, which is why some things may seem familiar. It was also written before Citizens United.)


It’s way past time for lobbying and campaign finance reform.

Of all the crap wee been forced to listen to during the debate over health insurance reform, one of the most troubling aspects has to be the size of donations from health care companies to individual lawmakers, ostensibly for their “campaign.”

I’m not going to claim that everyone who has received big money will automatically side with the health insurance industry, but the fact is, how do we know this? Isn’t it about time we removed that possibility from the equation?…

This is a democracy, in which everyone is supposed to be equal under the law. But when it comes to
our political process, a system of legalized bribery has cropped up that is absolutely unconscionable and unacceptable.

Take Max Baucus. Please.

Baucus is a Democrat, representing one of the most smallest and most right wing states in the union, Montana. He has also received more money from health insurance companies than any other Democratic Senator. It may be coincidence, but last week he came out with his own alternative health care reform bill, which many rightfully labeled as a pile of crap. It contained some of the same provisions
as the other four reform bills floating through Congress, but it included many proposals that would have limited the negative effect on the insurance industry. The Baucus plan basically gave the insurance companies a lot more money, while removing a lot of the oversight contained in other proposals, especially the ACA. The plan also would have killed competition, which any follower of capitalism knows is a necessary element in any healthy market.

Now, I am nothing if not fair; I’m a little more willing to give Baucus the benefit of the doubt, because he is from Montana, after all. But the fact of the matter is, a question must be asked here. Did he put together that bill to make the conservative base at home happy, or was he kowtowing to insurance companies because he felt obligated?

I know what most of you think, and I agree. He just won re-election, so he’s not up for another run until 2014, and the junior Democratic senator from Montana, Jon Tester, has the same constituents and isn’t going nearly as far to kill health insurance reform. But even giving him the benefit of the doubt, the problem remains; we don’t know. In a democracy, playing to a conservative base is a valid reason for what he’s done; he represents Montanans first, after all. But there should be no question that such a thing is his motivation.

Politicians getting large amounts of money used to be called bribery, and we used to throw everyone in jail for it. Now, we re-elect them in droves, because they’re able to drown out competition.

Lobbyists, too, have been a huge problem for a long time, and need reform, but even more troubling is the bastardization of the campaign finance system.  Democracy has been compromised, and we have to fix it, and pronto. I don’t give a damn if the politician is Max Baucus, Eric Cantor or Russ Feingold, and I don’t give a damn if the donor is a health insurance company or a labor union. There is no reason why a group of people with a lot of money should have more clout within the system than a single individual struggling to make ends meet.  We must take patronage out of politics, period.

I’m not just a whiner. I don’t sit back and complain, and let someone else come up with solutions. I have solutions to lobbying and campaign finance. In fact, I’ve been suggesting these solutions for a long time. It’s just that the country has been run by Republicans for so long, ya know? Now, with more Democrats and progressives in office, maybe we can make some headway. If not, we oust them in favor of some more progressives. Sounds good to me…

Let’s start with lobbying.

First off, every lobbyist is already registered, which is cool. But if they’re just going to register them and then let them do whatever they want, what’s the point of registration? The reason someone or something is registered is so that you can regulate and control it.  We have this database; let’s put it to good use.

First off, there should be a five year waiting period before any ex-politician becomes a lobbyist. If they want to instruct lobbyists, fine. But parlaying their friendship with other Congresspersons into big bucks for some huge corporation is just wrong.

Also, there should be limits on the number of lobbyists per group inside the Capitol at one time. And can we all agree that the whole idea of “industry” lobbyists is a joke? If we’re supposed to be a capitalist system,  and we’re supposed to be nurturing a competitive system, why would everyone in an “industry” get together to do anything? They used to call that “collusion,” as I recall, and it used to be a bad thing. It makes me nervous to think that every timber company is on the same page with regard to forest management, and given that oil is an effective monopoly already, the concept of an oil “industry” makes me shudder. For standard lobbying, in which a lobbyist is trying to get a Congressperson to support a bill, or to write a bill for them, no more than one lobbyist per company or group should be necessary. If an exception is necessary, they should petition and ask for permission from the panel. (What panel, you ask? I’m getting to that.)

There should be a complete and total ban on gifts of any kind, and all lobbying activities should take place nowhere else but inside the Capitol building or an individual Congressperson’s office. No lunches, no dinner dates, no nothing.  I know of companies (some of which pay lobbyists huge money, by the way) who
won’t allow their employees to accept so much as a keychain from an outside vendor, yet we “allow” members of Congress to accept all kinds of things for free. It’s absurd. What ever happened to handing them a nice brochure, printed at Kinko’s? They need information, not a bribe.

Sometimes, fact-finding missions are indeed necessary.To that end, a  lobbying review panel should be set up.  The panel should be independent of Congress, and no one should serve on this panel for more than 2-4 years. The lobbyist should have to submit an idea for a junket or a fact-finding mission to the panel,  who will review all of the details and approve or deny it. The GOVERNMENT shall pay all expenses for the Congressperson’s portion of the junket or fact-finding mission, NOT the lobbyist.  If the government’s paying for it, then there can be no question as to whether or not a lobbyist or lobbying group is influencing an elected official.

There’s nothing wrong with lobbying. Some of my favorite people are lobbyists, and a few of them even lobby for companies I hate. But lobbyists should be limited to providing a politician with information. If they can’t convince enough elected officials of the rightness of their cause without spending $100 for lunch at Oceanaire and/or two tickets to a Broadway show at the Kennedy Center, then perhaps they’re working for the wrong cause. And while a case could be made for sending politicians to Las Vegas or Florida for a fact-finding mission on a certain issue, the stay should be short, and nothing should be comped, period.

Campaign finance is even easier, because we already have the basics in place.

This may surprise a lot of people, but I am dead-set against public financing of political campaigns. If Barack Obama’s performance proved anything last year, it proved that we don’t need one. We  can have a system supported by the “public” without having the government run it.  I’m simply not comfortable with the government running a system in which they benefit from its administration.  For instance, in a public system, what’s to prevent Congress from passing riders and amendments to bills that  slowly morph the system into something that favors incumbents and major parties? And the problem isn’t that politicians raise hundreds of billions of dollars every election cycle, anyway; it’s HOW they collect it. The problem isn’t the 10 million people donating $100 each. It’s the 100 companies donating $10 million each. Better to leave the current framework in place, and tweak it.

First, make the maximum contribution $1,000 per election cycle. But that’s not just $1,000 per individual; that $1,000 is the limit for any entity, be it individual, company, etc to any campaign. That would include labor unions and PACs. If a PAC wants to raise a few million dollars, and give $1,000 to 2,000 different candidates or issues, more power to them. But NO SINGLE ENTITY should have a greater voice in the system than any individual, period, and that includes organizations on the right or the left.

All donations should be made directly to the candidate or issue, thus making bundling illegal. I’m sorry, but bundling is just plain evil. No one should be able to go door to door, or among employees or others, and ask for (demand? coerce?)  a check for a donation to a politician, and then act as if they’ve done something “patriotic.” No longer should we be faced with the specter of some fat, bloated “captain of industry” handing a politician a package of checks worth $1 million,  and implying that he or she alone was responsible for raising that money (wink wink nudge nudge).If Joe Dokes wants to give to President Obama’s re-election campaign, he can give his donation to President Obama’s campaign; there should be no need for a middleman.

In fact, I would  go even farther with this idea. All donations should go to a central independent clearinghouse. The clearinghouse could then monitor donations, and make sure limits are adhered to, and then the clearinghouse can disburse the money to the candidates. This way, candidates would have no way of knowing where the money came from, thus eliminating any possibility of influence of any kind.

These limits should also extend to “self-financing” of campaigns. A campaign should be seen as different from the individual campaigning, and the candidate should not be able to donate more than $1,000 to his own campaign. Likewise, the only loans that should be made to campaigns should be by legal financial institutions, under the same lending laws that everyone else has to follow.

There you go. Two modest proposals that only require the creation of, at most, two relatively small bureaucracies, and we can eliminate the system of legalized bribery that’s popped up over the years. The biggest barrier to health insurance reform has been the constant lobbying and influence peddling that’s undermining the system. It’s impossible to tell whether or not the people debating these bills are doing so honestly or not. We must work to eliminate all doubt, and that means taking bribery and extortion out of the equation.

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