Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Campaign Finance Reform

The significant level of criminal, illegal, unethical, inappropriate and generally unacceptable behavior by our elected representatives in federal, state and local governments in recent years has been shameful and embarrassing. Recent scandals demonstrate that some politicians are more than happy to trade away their offices for private gain, often referred to as "pay-to-play" practices. It understandably but unfairly makes voters cynical and suspicious of all our politicians, the great majority of whom are most probably honest and hard-working, and also has had an adverse impact on the governments' productivity and efficiency to the detriment of the public's best interests.

It's my view that much of poor behavior is directly associated with campaign financing practices and the complex and frequently violated underlying laws and regulations. Major reforms are needed in one form or another. It was therefore rather surprising and disappointing that so little attention to this issue seemed to be given in last year's presidential campaigns.

What unacceptable behavior am I thinking about? Two of the most notable decades ago were those involving U. S. Senator Joe McCarthy and his very questionable congressional hearings held in the early 1950's, and the the Watergate scandal involving President Richard Nixon in the early 1970's, forcing his resignation.

More recently, a noteworthy example is associated with disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who provided free lunches, luxurious golf outings, and luxury box seats at professional sporting events to well-known politicians in return for legislative favors helpful to Abramoff's clients in violation of government rules. Abramoff pleaded guilty to three felony counts, including conspiracy to bribe lawmakers, mail fraud, and tax evasion. Some of those implicated were President Bush's senior advisor, Karl Rove, former Congressman Bob Ney, and former House Majority Leader Tom De Lay.

Other examples include the scandal involving former Congressman Randy Cunningham, who resigned in November 2005 for taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors, and former Congressman Mark Foley, who sent solicitative emails and sexually explicit text messages to young men who previously served as congressional pages. Then we have the recent scandal involving U. S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, convicted of seven corruption counts in October 2008. Finally, among many others, there's former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, arrested for trying to sell his nomination to replace Barack Obama as Senator for the state who's possibly facing up to thirty years in prison.

There's no doubt that greed, a deep desire to gain and maintain political power, and a belief many of these characters have that they will never be caught and prosecuted were factors in this very poor behavior. However, I think it's clear that a bigger factor in most of these, and many other examples that could be cited, are the increasingly high costs of election campaigns and our complicated campaign finance laws and regulations.

In the 2004 presidential election the candidates spent a total of $718 million. In the 2008 presidential election Barack Obama reportedly spent $730 million alone and John McCain spent another $333 million. It's crazy. The way it is now you can't compete unless you are very wealthy or are prepared and able to spend a great deal of time and effort in fundraising to support your campaign financing needs. Most of the larger contributors expect tangible political favors, good jobs in the administration, or special access for themselves or hired lobbyists after the elections. As we've seen, this breeds actual or de facto corruption and impedes efficency and good government. Major reform is needed, notwithstanding objections from those who lean heavily on First Amendment rights related to free speech.

Campaign costs need to be greatly reduced and regulations need to be greatly simplified with limited, if any, loopholes. An important goal of the reform should be to make running for office more affordable and attractive, and make massive and time-consuming fundraising less necessary. One approach to this is strong bipartisan support for reasonable spending limits. Another approach is to pursue voter approval for public financing covering, for example, up to 50% of presidential and congressional campaigns with a fixed upper limit. A third approach, which perhaps is best, is to use the leverage of the Federal Communications Commission to secure a certain level of free and equal TV and radio time for the major candidates in general elections, coupled with an agreed spending limit for other needs.

Regrettably I'm frankly not optimistic about the near-term prospects. There are so many other important issues that seem to have a higher priority, including foreign policy, healthcare, education, energy, and Social Security. In addition, legislative efforts to rein in campaign spending have almost always attractived stiff resistance. Unfortunately, there are so many entrenched interests who want to retain the status quo, including incumbent politicians, the hospitality industry, and wealthy individual and corporate campaign contributors who want favors in Washington.

No comments: