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Monday, January 12, 2015

Election Reform Strategies -- Workable?

My last Post on this Blog talked about some of the ideas and concepts of Lawrence Lessig’s book, ‘Republic, Lost’.   He sets forth the thesis that what we are faced with (and have been increasingly for at least thirty years) is something he calls “dependence corruption” in which money (and moneyed persons) play a role in the bending of the true purpose of the government (and in particular, the Congress) away from serving the broad spectrum of The People, to protecting outside resources of rich and powerful interests represented by billionaires and wealthy corporations and banks. The Lobbyists who work for those entities are essentially the brokers, the go-betweens, the suppliers of subsidies, not only in the form of campaign cash, but in the form of legislative services: advice, research, support, guidance on issues and legislation.  The result is a relationship, a loyalty, an obligation, and a dependence on the part of the office-holder toward the employer of the lobbyist.  The most important asset put in play thereby is that of access to that congressman or senator. 

According to Lessig, those who think this is mere quid pro quo are misled because first of all, there are now laws against such forms of bribery, and, in the main, these laws are respected because of the consequences imposed, and because the current system is very effective.   In fact, Lessig states: “it is the core argument of this book – that the most significant and powerful forms of corruption today are precisely those that thrive without depending upon quid pro quos for their effectiveness.”  In fact, it is the relationships that are built by this insider gift or ‘subsidy’ economy that are of prime importance to the special interests.  Lessig contends that such a system is more dangerous than the old quid pro quo bribery precisely because of the on-going relationships and access that result.
And so, with this summary in mind, it is time to look at Professor Lessig’s proposed solutions for this systemic problem.  He first admonishes the reader to remember that our democracy does not have just one problem that a single reform would fix.  Indeed, he addresses two reforms already being touted as enough.  He says they fall short.  The first is Transparency; the second, Anonymity. 

As to “transparency”, Lessig maintains that it should not be abandoned – there must be a disclosure listing of contributors to avoid the more “grotesque forms of corruption.”  However, the problem with transparency is that it assumes the influence in the system comes with the gift, but influence can actually be independent of the amount spent on the candidate.  He makes the point that “there are many ways in which corporate wealth can be translated into significant political influence that would never be revealed by any system of disclosure alone.”  For instance, while listings of contributors and contributions are helpful, they do not record threats to support an opposing candidate should the initial recipient be recalcitrant in any way.  He concludes that transparency is being asked to carry too much weight in the reform fight.  Likewise, with anonymity, which he dismisses by asserting that recipients would surely know something about the sources of their campaign contributions; keeping sources completely anonymous would be almost impossible.  In support of that claim, he cites the lengths to which we would have to go to protect anonymity, as well as the lingering suspicions the public would have about any contribution being “anonymous.” 
To begin the discussion of reforms that would work to some degree, he cites the fact that three states have already been experimenting with campaign finance reform: Arizona, Maine and Connecticut. Each has adopted a system of small dollar contributions as the basis for state office campaigns.  Candidates qualify by raising a certain number of small contributions, and then they can also receive state funding for their campaigns.  While they have succeeded in increasing competiveness, Lessig doesn’t like the idea of bureaucrats setting campaign spending limits or the amounts available to candidates. 

He then moves on to explain and support the Grant and Franklin Project, based on the assumption that 90% of the People pay some amount to the federal Treasury in taxes – at least $50 a person in income, gas or cigarette tax.  Given this assumption, he expounds on this system:

1.       We convert the first fifty dollars that each person contributes to the federal treasury into something called a “democracy voucher.”  Each voter then decides how to allocate his/her voucher to a candidate or candidates.  Candidates receiving vouchers must opt into the system.

2.       If the voucher is not allocated to a candidate, it then goes to the political party in which the voter is registered.  If the voter isn’t registered in a party, it then goes to support the administration of the system, to voter education or to the G&F Project.

3.       Voters under this system are free to make additional contributions to candidates – up to $100 per candidate.

4.       Any viable candidate for Congress could receive such contributions if he/she agreed to fund his or her campaign exclusively with democracy vouchers and contributions up to $100 from individual citizens.  No PAC money and no contributions from political parties.

Lessig says this system has a number of appealing special features: 1) it’s voluntary; 2) does not allow “your money” to be used for speech you don’t believe in; 3) permits personal contributions in addition to the public funds (although he doesn’t think SCOTUS would agree with the low limit of $100!); 4) unlike most systems, this one would inject enormous amounts of money into the system (about $3 billion a year), thus having the potential to produce much competition; and, 5) this is not a solution that says, ‘speak less’ but ‘speak more’.”
The author makes it clear that this particular reform is the key to everything else that follows.  He makes a valid point that if we are, as a nation, willing to spend upwards of $750 billion on war in Iraq, presumably to make democracy work there, then we should be willing to spend one-twenty-fifth of that to make democracy work at home.  But will it work?  In so many cases, reforms have been defeated by some new clever technique designed to ensure that money has more influence than votes.  Nonetheless, he believes that this particular solution has more credibility than any other solution presented in the past forty years, but he does admit that in order to resolve this problem completely may require a constitutional amendment.  In the meantime, this particular first step toward a solution requires some strategies to bring it forward for serious consideration by congress. 

His first strategy holds some interest even though he rates it as having only a 5% chance to work.  He makes the difficult-to-argue-with point that the most terrifying idea for an incumbent is a primary challenge.  Thus, he proposes that across this country, we find “super-candidates” (citizen activists; not politicians) to run in multiple districts at the same time on a single clear platform: that they will remain in the race only as long as it takes for the incumbent to publicly commit to supporting citizen-owned, citizen-supported and controlled elections.  So how many of these super-candidates would it take to enter every primary where the incumbent was not committed to election reform?  He figures about three hundred!  No wonder he also figures just a 5% chance to work.
First, I’m not sure 300 such people with very special qualifications can be found to commit to the travel, the pressure and the activity required to perform this “super-candidacy.”  Second, I’m not at all certain that the public would see this as reform; they might view it as more of a gimmick on the part of “liberals”.  Finally, how do these super-candidates – these non-politicians – manage to finance a campaign of this sort when the only available adequate funding would have to come from the very sources being opposed and excoriated?   In other words, there will not be enough support for this from small contributors, nor from either Party, to make it work.  A 5% success rate may be overblown.

The second strategy presented is that of using the presidential election cycle to leverage fundamental change.  The candidate would have to be credible and demonstrate a singular focus on removing fundamental corruption from the government.  The candidate would make a two-part pledge: if elected, he/she would hold the government hostage until Congress enacts legislation to remove the fundamental corruption at the heart of our government.  Second, once the reform program is enacted, the person elected would resign.  No wonder again that he gives this strategy a 2% chance of happening.  It won’t because the voting public will never accept the hostage-taking nor voting for a temporary President.  Although Lessig modifies this strategy to say that even a “modest showing would spark an enormous amount of energy”, it is extremely doubtful that the voting public, already tired of “foolishness” in government, would get excited about this regency presidency.  This surge in energy sounds hollow and contradictory when Lessig noted in his introduction that systemic corruption has taken its toll on participation by the “sensible middle” of the voting public mainly because of loss of trust in the system. This strategy does not seem designed to restore that trust or that needed participation.

And so, we are left with Lessig’s final strategy: a constitutional convention; needed because “sometimes an institution becomes too sick to fix itself.”  While he argues convincingly for this strategy, he misses the whole point about the Framers motivation in their presentation of two quite difficult ways to modify our Constitution (by the way, the second path to amendment of the Constitution – the convention route—has never been used).  In any case, the Founders were not trying to involve the people in the amendment process, they were attempting to protect the ruling class and their own instrument of government when they proposed the two-fold amendment process.  I have spoken of this before and refer you to my Blog of 03/16/2014 for further elucidation of this concept.
Of far greater importance is to understand something that Lessig does not approach.  The most important amendment needed is one that makes it truly probable and possible for the People to control the process.  I have also spoken of that in another Blog published on 05/26/2014.  It is imperative that the people take back their rightful place as a branch of this government and that we have a dedicated process for amending the constitution which can work to involve a broad spectrum of the electorate. 

So, while thanking Lawrence Lessig for his assertion that election process reform is a necessary first step toward diminishing our “dependence corruption”, our strategy must be to bring about a People’s amendment for amending the Constitution.  Then, and only then, can we enshrine electoral reform, including at least: public financing, limited citizen contributions, no gifts from outside sources, no equating of corporations with individuals, and the goal of direct elections without an intervening Electoral College originally designed to place the elite in a position to elect the President. 
Let us remind ourselves that what the Framers wrought is still capitalized upon by the elitists of our day.  The latter tinker with voting rights; they distort the Electoral College; they use big money to corrupt the legislative and regulatory processes, and they establish a dependency upon their money and power that threatens the very existence of our representative democracy.  They have deviated from THE TRUE PURPOSE of our Republic: to serve the People, not the richest few who can hire lobbyists to deliver their message and their demands along with their largesse.  Income inequality is bad enough; voting inequality and the unequal immediate access by powerful special interests to legislators and regulators is intolerable.  We The People must re-assert our rightful place as a functioning branch of this government.