Monday, April 07, 2014

Time For A Diet

  I like ice cream.  My favorite is Blue Bell Home Made Vanilla.  It's flavorful, creamy (of course), and a great base to add fresh peaches, blueberries, some walnuts, etc.  It's really, really good.   I unfortunately indulge too much as anyone who has recently seen my waistline can attest.  I was enjoying a bowl of the aforementioned delight while watching the final round of the Shell Houston Open yesterday when I realized I am enjoying this way, way too often and need to scale back.   I also started thinking about the recent case decided by the Supreme Court; McCutcheon v. FEC.  I know, I know, why would someone watching a golf tournament start thinking about a Supreme Court case?   Was it brain freeze brought on by the ice cream?  No, it was the act of consuming the ice cream that got me thinking about the case.  So forgive me the somewhat awkward analogy, but I suddenly realized that our politics needs to go on a diet just like I do.  
Why? would one ask does our politics need to go on a diet?  Well, the perpetrator of the bloated waistline in our politics is not Ice Cream, rather it is the system's insatiable appetite for money.   Ah, there it is;  The ever needed, always tempting, very sweet and yummy, highly caloric and very bad for you if consumed in mass quantities item our system just can't seem to push back from. 
Now, with McCutcheon v FEC decided, like it's cousin, Citizen's United v FEC, our Supreme Court had once again made it harder for our system to inject some discipline and get it's addiction under control.  McCutcheon was decided last week, on a party-line basis and a 5-4 decision with Roberts writing the majority opinion that allowing no limits on how many candidates one person can donate to doesn't constitute a "quid pro quo" situation or harm the election process.  The Court decided that sufficient regulations existed to protect the process and in holding with the appellate court's decision it would infringe on the plaintiff's first amendment protections.  The issue at play was that Mr. McCutcheon, a wealthy businessman from Alabama contributed to 16 different candidates for Federal elections, and was not allowed to contribute to another 12 that he wanted to due to a Federal Election Commission  (FEC) regulation that curbed the aggregate amount of contributions by an individual.   The Court decided in Mr. McCutcheon's favor, and now, if you so choose, you can donate to any number of candidates up to the federal limit of $5200 per person.  
Doesn't sound like a big deal does it?  After all, $5200 per person is not that much.  So what is the big deal.  Well, the big deal is this.  This case, along with Citizens United, which basically held that restricting political contributions by corporations, associations, labor unions were both violations of first amendment protections.  Essentially, this Supreme Court has decided that realistically there are no limits of money that can be applied to the political process because money is speech.  Now, it's a nice sentiment. It's nice to think that if you want to support someone politically you should be able to do so, whether via a political contribution or your service being volunteered to answer phones, stuff envelopes, etc. etc.  The problem is the same problem I have with ice cream.  The political system can't seem to moderate itself and deal with the money responsibly.  All it wants is more and more.
The amount of money in the system has grown to a point of ridiculousness.  the 2012 presidential elections spent a collective $1.8 billion dollars to end with the election of President Obama.  Congressional elections are just as outrageous.  Consider the data below:
Dollars Spent by Winners of Congressional elections
Year - 2012:  House Winners average spend:  $1.5M - Senate Winners average spend: $10.3M
Year - 2010:  House Winners average spend:  $1.4M - Senate Winners average spend: $8.9M
Year - 2008:  House Winners average spend:  $1.3M - Senate Winners average spend: $7.5
Year - 1992:  House Winners average spend: $556K - Senate Winners average spend: $3.3M
Year - 1986:  House Winners average spend: $359K - Senate Winners average spend: $3.0M
So in 26 years, the price for a congressional seat has gone up 4.4 times, or over 400%.   It's not surprising really, as the cost of a congressional seat has a lot of value.   It an interesting point to note that on the day that a member of the United States House of Representatives is sworn in, from that day forward that member must raise $2,187 per day (730 days over a two year term) in order to keep pace with the spend of a winning candidate.   How does a candidate do that?  Well, they have fund raisers like Mr. McCutcheon, interest groups like an industry association, corporations, and Political Action Committees, and finally the party committees who all contribute.  Nonetheless, it is a mind-boggling activity when you think Congress actually has a day job.  How hard is it? Well, you try picking up the phone and talking to your best friends, family, and neighbors and asking them for two-grand a day. Do that for two years and see how many friends, family members and neighbors you still have let alone anyone who will talk to you. 
Look, campaigns are expensive.   Media buys are expensive. Travel, hotels, staff, etc. are expensive.  It's not surprising, because it is a sales campaign to convince a group of people to put their trust in this person.  Takes a lot of face time, talking, publishing of papers, etc. etc.   It's really not hard to understand that it takes a lot of money to run and win. 
The problem here is this.  Now that there is an ability by anyone, pretty much anywhere to donate however much money they want, the cost of democracy only goes up.  It's not a long leap to connect the dots that those who have a lot of money, whether they are organizations or individuals, can "buy" a lot of goodwill through their donations and contributions.   Favors are currency in politics. Debts are always called in, and you can bet that if the AFL-CIO or Charles and David Koch pour a lot of money into your campaign and you get elected, there will come a time when they come calling.  It will be expected that you vote a certain way on a piece of legislation, or keep a piece of legislation from coming to a vote, or whatever the favor is they extracted by helping to make you a member of Congress.  "A member of Congress always pays their debts", whether they want to or not.
The question the general public needs to ask themselves is this:  Do I really feel unlimited money in the system is the best way to elect our representatives?  If you do, then fine, the system is working great for you and you do not need to worry.   If you feel like no, the system is overweight, bloated, hypertensive and diabetic from all that "ice cream" it is eating, then you need to get busy and do something about it.  We've all seen the "pledges" that Grover Norquist exacts from the GOP about raising taxes.  Well, perhaps we should also have a pledge requirement for congressional candidates to not take private money contributions other wise we vote them out of office.  
The fix is simple, it is public financing.  We used to have it.  We've thrown it on the ash heap of history an look at what it has wrought.   We have a President now (Yes, Mr. Obama) who turned his back on public financing and raised almost a $1B in each of his elections.  So both parties are at fault here eating like pigs at the dessert buffet of political contributions. It needs to stop.  We need to stop the purchasing of elections, or at least make every member of Congress as well as the President start wearing the logo's of their "sponsors".  At least it would make watching CSPAN a little more interesting.
American political system:  put down the spoon and step away from the ice cream.  Please.
Tell me what you think.