Publius Speaks

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Friday, December 23, 2011


The time has come to make reform the imperative for our times.  We can no longer function as a government without in-depth reform of our mode of operation.  We can no longer function as a capitalist system without fundamental changes to how business is done.  We can no longer function as a representative democracy without changes to our foundational document: the Constitution.  We can no longer function as the world’s leading nation and Super Power without making changes in our attitude toward other nations and without a commitment to peaceful means of solving problems with others.  In short, we cannot continue the status quo; we must move beyond it; we must progress and not regress; we must reform our institutions and our organizations.   And, we must start with the people we elect to political office and other leadership positions.

The time has come when we must demand a reform plan from every candidate running for any office or leadership position.  It is no longer enough to be a Republican or Democrat, a Conservative or Liberal, a Tea Partier or a Progressive.  We must elect Reformers.  Without a commitment to fundamental change, we cannot move forward as a nation.  The problem, of course, is that there is a breakdown of agreement around which we can coalesce.  Nonetheless, we must attempt to put forth the fundamentals of a reform plan so that debate and discussion may begin.  Here are some basics I offer for your consideration.

1)    We must get private sector money out of politics.  Money in politics is not free speech; it is coercive speech.  Money in politics does not promote freedom; it’s purpose is to defeat and restrict. Third parties, like rich individuals and large corporations, have agendas that they want to impose on others, and money is their way to get politicians to do their bidding.  Dylan Ratigan of MSNBC has made this issue his own, and his effort to seek a constitutional amendment to “get money out of politics” is worthy of praise and our commitment.
    A)    reverse Citizens United decision with a constitutional amendment
    B)    get money out of elections by an amendment calling for limited individual contributions to government, along with the use of a small percent of tax dollars to be put in an Elections Account overseen by an independent Board, including ordinary citizens who are not office holders. Allow only public funding from that Account with limits for every office as to what can be spent for a campaign
    C)    outlaw PACs and all 3rd party advertisements, letters and brochures; enact a Truth in Advertising bill for political campaigns
    D)    limit campaigns for office: primaries to be held on the same date countrywide just as general elections are held on a national day of voting.  Campaigning for office must be limited to a certain number of months - say 6 - before primary day and before election day.

2)   We must get coercive money out of the Congress.  We must undo the use of money  to influence legislation and special favors.
    A)    We need a constitutional amendment to forbid congressmen and senators from accepting any gift, emolument, in-kind contribution, monetary contribution, loan, grant, trip, or enticement of any kind while in office.  Anyone offering, or receiving, such gifts shall be fined, jailed or impeached.
    B)    We also need a constitutional amendment to forbid congressional members (executive and judicial branch members and staff as well) and staff or family members from associating in any way with a corporate law firm, consulting firm, lobbying group or party-affiliated think tank or corporate board while in office and until 12 years have passed since they last held federal office.  Did you realize that, according to Peter Schweizer in Throw Them All Out, just two years ago one-third of the United States Senate members had family members who were registered lobbyists or were working for lobbying firms?
    C)  By law, put restrictions on lobbying by all groups: it must be reported, recorded and published whenever any type of contact is made with a member of Congress, member of the White House staff, or a member of the judiciary.  Failure to do so must result in prosecution and disbarment from public office.
    D)  Apply the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act to Congress
3)    We must disallow any special privileges and exemptions for the Congress.
    A)    All laws passed must apply to Congress as they do to others; no exceptions.
    B)    Congress must learn to live without special privileges, such as taxpayer-subsidized surgery provided by army and navy surgeons and on-site clinics run by navy physicians; junkets, limousines, chaplains, chauffeurs, and private jets provided by 3rd parties can go as well.  
    But, most of all, there is absolutely no reason why Congresspersons should be excluded from standards and laws concerning insider trading, conflict of interest, nepotism and cronyism.  Likewise, whistle-blowers deserve protection from reprisal if they report financial corruption within our governmental bodies.  Here are the initiatives, in brief, that Peter Schweizer in Throw Them All Out suggests:

    1.  Create a legal code that makes trading on nonpublic information illegal both for those who offer it and those who trade on it.
    2.  Members of Congress should disclose all transactions above $5,000 within two days, including price and number of shares, to be placed in an online database.
    3.  Members of Congress should not be allowed to trade stock in companies that are overseen by their committees.
    4.  Apply whistleblower laws to Congress, since there are already such laws that apply to federal workers and corporate employees.
    5.  Disallow “sweetheart” IPOs; members of Congress should not be allowed to participate.
    6.  Review, revise and enforce existing conflict-of-interest laws.  Require abstaining from voting when a conflict may exist, or appear to exist.  Place assets in mutual funds rather than individual stocks.  Extend such laws and requirements to senior White House officials and political appointees.
    7.  Earmarks in which a member of Congress will receive a direct, or indirect, (through a third party) financial benefit should not be allowed.
    8.  Family members of legislators (or of executive branch senior members and members of the judiciary) should not be allowed to become lobbyists or “consultants”.
    9.  Campaign contributions should be forbidden when Congress is in session.
    10. The Federal government needs to get out of the business of offering grants and taxpayer-backed loans to friends of legislators, of appointees or of senior officials.

4)   We must have term limits for all federal and state political offices.  We cannot survive a system of office-holding that prevents our government institutions from renewing themselves.  We cannot survive professional politicians who get rich off inside information and lucrative deals that only they can access.  Elsewhere on this BLOG, I have proposed a three-year term for Congressmen with a limit of 12 years (4 terms) overall, plus the same limit of twelve years for a Senator (2 terms of 6 years each).  It is absolutely ridiculous that we apply a two-term limit to the Presidency without a corresponding application to legislators.  Such a one-sided approach promotes an imbalance in our system.

5)   Blind trusts for public officials must be just that.  No more appointment of family, friends, business associates, colleagues, acolytes or cronies as trustees of blind trusts.  Rules of the Senate must be changed to require detailed annual disclosure of assets in a blind trust (which is not a requirement currently). 

That’s enough for now, even though it is just a beginning and not meant to be definitive.  But let me ask you:  when have you heard any such talk from a political candidate?  How many candidates can even present the elements of a reform plan?  They don’t think that way.  But it’s time they did, and, what’s more, it’s past time that we required such a plan of every one of them! 

Let me end by quoting some thoughts from Schweizer’s book:

“The problem with Washington isn’t gridlock.  It isn’t that things aren’t getting done.  The problem is the corruption of the public spirit.  The Permanent Political Class has no sense of urgency to change because, for them, business is good.”

“We need to break the cycle of crony capitalism, land deals, and insider trading.  And we can do it simply by applying the rules that the politicians expect the rest of us to abide by.”

“The rule of law, and the notion that no one is above the law, is fundamental to a healthy democracy.  If we accept crony capitalism with a shrug and an eye roll, we might as well accept a world of bribery and out-and-out vote buying.  Crony capitalism has a corrosive effect on our politics, our economy, and our character.  And we don’t have to accept it.  Let’s be clear: we need to stop coddling these people.”

“What we face is a system that is compromised by the perception that U.S. public policy is a marketable commodity.  It’s time to fix it.  Let’s relegate the Government Rich to the ashbin of history.”

Reform is the imperative for our times.  Are YOU ready and willing to demand a reform plan from every candidate for office, at all levels?