I was debating writing a post to celebrate two nice occurrences this week. The first was agreement between the President and the leading Republican Presidential candidate that it was time for Augusta National to have a female member. This united voice is very refreshing in today’s world of we/ they-ism. The second was the JOBS Act that was signed into law yesterday. It is nice to see a collaborative effort between the political parties produce some meaningful legislation. It is not perfect, but it does show something can be done. We should applaud these efforts and reinforce more of the same.
Yet, the issue that I found most troubling is also a bi-partisan issue or I should say problem, which unless we have major election reform cannot get better. There was a group of 38 Republican/ Democrat Congress men and women who put forth a bi-partisan budget that had elements of the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Reduction Plan. There was a greater number in Congress who supported the proposed budget, yet when the rubber hit the road, could not publicly advocate for it. The line that resonated with me most was uttered by an unknown member of Congress as relayed by one of the budget proponents. The unknown member said, “I would like to vote for this, but it would cost my favorite lobbyist (his or her) job.”
Recognizing fully this is hearsay, it is nonetheless believable that these words could have been uttered by a member of Congress. I am sure the person relaying the story would not make this up, as that person is likely as dumbfounded as I am. I am suppressing names as I don’t want to let the message get into a he said/ she said thing. I want the words to echo like they did with me. “I would like to vote for this, but it would cost my favorite lobbyist his or her job.” This example is evidence of a pervasive problem we have in our Congress and among all elected bodies. It costs so much money to get elected, that representatives are beholden to special interest groups represented by lobbyists. They need their money to get elected and stay in office.
One issue that seems to get bi-partisan and, especially independent voter support is some form of election reform. I think many tout term limits as one way of limiting the influence of a politician. I have advocated in earlier posts this is a must. The other items I have advocated and seen advocated elsewhere is to permit public funding of a general election fund by position and need. This could be required as part of the tax process where a portion of the money would fund this. If you are running for a position that covers a larger geography, then you would need more money. All other funding would be made illegal as influence buying.
The other suggestion is to shorten the campaigns based on position sought and geography. I think if the parties want to change how they do business, they could vet candidates to put forth reasonable candidates without flooding the market like it was done when Iraq had its first democratic elections. Also, people not affiliated with mainstream parties could run provided they got enough signatures to qualify. Yet, the key is to shorten the campaigns and have organized debates over specific subjects of relevance – economy, environment, energy, education, etc. I would also advocate very short position papers on issues – this is how I see the problem, these are the issues, this is what I would do about it, this is how long it would take to see results, etc. These position papers would be released before each debate, so that people could read them beforehand.
The length of the campaign is important as well. In the UK and other places, the campaigns are not near as long and dragged out. The longer the campaign the more money it takes to get elected. So, local officials could have a three-week campaign, state officials – four weeks, US Congress – four weeks, US Senators – six weeks and Presidential candidates maybe two – three months. If the discussions are issue focused, we can cut out needless debate which is more sensational, but less relevant. This would get at another key problem over our discourse, the issues are complex and people and the press want panaceas. I also see too much time spent by pundits on the art of spin-doctoring and the process of getting elected as if it is a game. In other words, who one-upped or got the other becomes more important than what they believe or said. Campaign consultants are looking to pounce on mistakes like the recent “Etch-a-Sketch” comment. It may be a game to others, but we must live with the consequences.
Another key problem is we have a short-term focus. Many of our problems – education, environment, energy, infrastructure, e.g. – require long-term strategies. Not only do panaceas not exist, the problem resolution will take longer than some terms of office. It will take a well thought out plan that will last 10, 20 or 30 years. Americans are not known for their patience, but that is what we need more of. Moving away from fossil fuels is a must, but we cannot cut the cord immediately. Yet, we can be more strident than we have been and move at a faster pace. This is why we need more fact based discussion and less industry lobbied facts discussed. Of course, we need business input but it needs a long- term focus, not a short-term one. When businesses think longer term they will come to more rational conclusions than what will make money today. There are some businesses today that will not be in business in the future unless they change. My favorite business book is “Built to Last” and one of its tenets is “good enough never is.” In other words, businesses have to embrace change and not rest on their laurels.
Yet, the business interests need to be measured against the impact on the environment and people’s lives. These voices are critical. We hear often that by adding more regulation it will cost jobs. The issue is not regulation it is bureaucracy. We need regulation. We need the EPA – when I hear people say to do away with the EPA I feel they are about as misinformed as they possibly can be. We need the FDA. We need Consumer protection agencies. Otherwise, the pursuit of short-term profit by businesses will supersede the rights of others and will haunt more thoughtful, longer term decisions. We will move into a buyer beware market.
I have digressed as I wanted to show an example of how lobbyist efforts greatly affect the debate. If the lobbyists frame the issue using biased or dressed up data meant to obfuscate the real issues, then we will not get a holistic view of the issues and possible solutions. I find the Oil and Gas Industry lobbyists as key examples of framing the debate in an inappropriate manner. The science is pretty overwhelming we need to move away from fossil fuels, but when you are in the fossil fuel business your opinions tend to be biased. Since the financial aspects are significant, a lot of dollars flow into campaign coffers and influence is purchased.
Our country needs to back away from the influence purchasing and more toward fair elections and limitations on the campaign process and period of governance. I get back to the only things we can effectively do – tune out the commercials, understand the sources of information, understand who has vested interests in decisions and vote out politicians who tend to influence peddle. And, advocate term limits to start. I think that will at least minimize the power of the position.