There are 537 elected officials representing all Americans in our federal government. So, disregarding the inequalities that result from congressional district sizing and the 2-per-state allocation of Senate seats, this means that each elected official represents, on average, around 575,000 Americans. This number alone should raise an eyebrow or two, in that it begs the question of adequate representation, but while the ratio does further dilute the voice of the average person, its impact pales when compared to the effects of a government sold to the highest bidder.
Washington, long ago, lost any semblance of legitimate representation of The People. Being one voice in a half-million may seem weak, but the reality is that the average person’s voice is far smaller than that. Both the Presidency and the Congress of 21st Century America have been purchased, and unless you have tens of thousands of dollars to contribute to election campaigns, you really have no voice at all.
Elections are costly. Contributions for the 2008 federal campaign totaled $5.3 billion. The average winner of a House seat spent $1.4 million while the average Senate seat went for $8.5 million. Sure, there are many small donors; in fact, about half of the 2008 money came from donations of under $200. Unfortunately, that means the other half came from larger donations, with $1.9 billion coming from donations over $2,300, and $974 million in large donations — over $10,000.
It’s these large donations that do more than merely help support a candidate; they are the currency of government. The average Joe, who donates $10 or $25 to their favorite candidate, expects nothing specific in return, but such is not the case for the Goldman Sachs of the world. As expected, in the shadow of the housing/banking crash, the 2008 election was largely financed by big banks, insurance companies and real estate. The largest contributor to the 2008 election, this sector donated $477 million. And companies like Goldman, who topped bank spenders at more then $7 million, and JPMorgan and Citigroup, who each coughed up over $5 million, don’t spend money unless it improves profits.
The fact that no financial reform legislation was passed, for more than two years after Bear Stearns crashed and started the collapse of the economy, is prima facie evidence of the power of campaign capital. It’s no coincidence that the top donor for Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), the chair of the Senate’s committee for banking and housing, is the securities and banking sector — the very people he’s charged to oversee. The nearly $5 million investment the sector made in contributions, over the 2008 and 2010 cycles, to Dodd and the ranking committee Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), not only helped stall legislation for years, but it paid for the diluted excuse for “reform” that was finally passed.
This is but one example of business-as-usual in Washington. Healthcare legislation wrangled its way through Congress for most of 2009, while the Health industry was busy greasing the skids with $84 million in campaign donations. Their investment was not in vain. It actually produced excellent returns, netting 32 million new government sponsored patients and nothing in the way of real reform. Energy, Communication/Electronics, Trial Lawyers, they’re all present, and they’re all spending millions to make sure that any legislation that’s passed is favorable to their business profits. With government so clearly under the control of big-business, is it any wonder why the 61.7% voter turnout for the 2008 election was the high-water mark since 1968?
American voters feel increasingly frustrated with Washington politics, and there’s good reason for it. Regardless of which party people support, it’s becoming more evident with every passing year that the will of The People is being ignored, their voices unheard beneath the din of the corporate campaign hijacking.
Angry conservatives are already gathering under banners proclaiming, “Take our country back!” But the loss of voice in Washington politics isn’t a partisan issue. Campaign funding for the 2010 election, and the control that goes with it, is nearly split down the middle between Democrats and Republicans. There may be legitimate political differences being liberal and conservative voters, but neither is served when special interests have bought and paid for the federal government.
If indeed the country is ever to be taken back, Americans from left and right must join forces on this critical issue. Together, they can put an end to big-money control of Congress. It’s time voters stop falling for the blatant misdirection of party talking points and start demanding results. The American people can take back control of the nation, and the surest path to that end is through real campaign finance reform.
The sad truth is that while votes are the mechanism by which politicians are elected, it’s money that makes campaigns — and campaigns are the means through which votes are secured. Today’s system ensures that elected officials are beholding to the big-money donors who finance their election. The People are but pawns in this game of quid pro quo, and they will remain so until and unless they unite and change the system that allows this corruption to exist.
Like students left with the huge loan balances, the present system ensures that our elected officials are left with huge favor balances on their books. To think that politicians will bite the hand that feeds them and vote against the interests of their big-money benefactors is delusional at best. To take back the country, The People must take back the Congress, and to take back the Congress, the politicians must once again be beholding, not to influence peddling special interests, but to the people who elect them. One person, one vote must again reflect the control of the nation.
There’s only one way to make this happen, and that’s through public financing of elections. It’s already working in several states in the form of Clean Elections. And there’s a bipartisan bill in the House and also the Senate to bring similar reform to Washington. Public financing will require that candidates secure significant funding in small donations from their constituents before qualifying for public money. But once established as a viable candidate, public funding would be allocated in amounts sufficient to finance a competitive campaign.
The power of such a system is obvious. For a relatively small investment, American voters could actually ensure that elected officials would owe their loyalty to no one but the people who elected them. It would in essence break the favor bank.
But the benefits of public campaign financing don’t end with properly placed loyalties. The investment would also pay dividends in productivity, as it would mitigate the demand for fund raising by incumbents. In the present system, officials start focusing on the next election cycle as soon as they’re elected. Estimates place fund raising efforts for members of Congress at 20% to 40% of their time. With so much misuse of time, is it any wonder they get so little done? It’s like a business that pays its employees to look for another job two days out of every week.
Public campaign finance is not a silver bullet; it won’t by itself bring the federal government back under the control of The People, but without it — there is no hope of that happening. The removal of special interest influence on election campaigns is a critical first step for Americans to take back the country. Couple public financing with preferential voting, which would allow a significant increase in votes for third party candidates, add congressional term limits and weld shut the revolving lobbyist door, and America may once again return to a government of the people, by the people, for the people.