Dear Mr. President,
I agree with pretty much everything you said last night in the State of the Union address. But I want to talk about something you didn’t talk about very much, so rather than responding to the state of the Union, I want to address the state of our democracy.
According to the latest Public Policy poll, the United States Congress currently has a 9% approval rating. And while Congressional approval historically hovers around 30%, Congress as a whole has never been less popular. In fact, the poll got a little creative this time and found Congress currently to be less popular than things such as cockroaches, head lice, and root canals.
Part of the reason for this unpopularity is undoubtedly that getting anything passed through Congress these days is quite similar to performing a root canal. Since 2006, the number of filibusters in the Senate has skyrocketed, creating a situation where the most routine legislation and executive and judicial appointments now require a 60 vote majority. In many cases, this is not done out of any legitimate policy concerns, but is instead used as a tool to score political points. The result is that important and popular legislation gets held up, watered down, or filled with less popular policies and special earmarks, and important positions in our judicial and executive branches go unfilled for long periods of time, making it that much more difficult for our government to go ahead with the business of the people.
I know you have addressed this issue in the past, and alluded to it during your speech by repeating the phrase, “They deserve a vote.” But it’s not just the advocates for sensible measures to prevent gun violence that deserve a vote. Those of us who believe we need to invest in education and infrastructure and green energy deserve a vote. Those of us who believe we need immigration reform, prison reform, banking reform, tax reform, and many other common sense reforms aimed at increasing social mobility, ensuring equality, and creating a better world for citizens everywhere deserve a vote. And the more than 200 executive and judicial nominees currently languishing in the Senate? They definitely deserve a vote.
Of course it remains to be seen whether or not the recent changes to the Senate filibuster rule truly make a difference, or whether stronger reforms are necessary, such as ending the silent filibuster and forcing those who would oppose a particular piece of legislation or nominee to take to the floor to defend their position, but the abuse of the Senate filibuster is only a small part of what is hindering our government from acting in the best interest of the people. So what I really want to talk about is how money is undermining our democracy.
According to FEC reports, more than $7.3 billion dollars was spent during the 2012 campaign season by candidates, parties, and outside groups running for federal office. This represents a 37% increase from the $5.3 billion spent in 2008, and a 74% increase from the $4.2 billion spent in 2004.
Not only could much of this money be put to more productive use, but the ever increasing amount of money it takes to win an election—and more than 90% of the winning candidates outspend their opponents—has created a situation where Congressional incumbents now need to raise an average of $10,000 per week starting the day they get elected in order finance their next campaign. This means they generally spend at least 8 hours per week on fundraising efforts, and much more during campaign season, which seems to grow ever longer, taking time away from the job we elected them to do. And if you are not an incumbent, especially if you don’t have the backing of one of the two major parties, raising funds is all the more difficult, and winning even less likely, discouraging many who would make exceptional public officials from running for office.
The high cost of running a competitive political campaign has made politics largely the province of the wealthy and well-connected; nearly half the members on Congress are millionaires, as opposed to a mere one percent of the general population. As renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, “What professions do all these Senators and Congressmen have? Law, law, law, businessman, law, law, law…. Where are the scientists? Where are the engineers? Where is the rest of…life?” Indeed, don’t we want teachers guiding our education policies, doctors guiding our healthcare policies, environmental scientists guiding our environmental policies, economists guiding our economic policies, etc. etc.?
Transparency too is a key issue, as is the blurry line between advocating for a candidate, and issue based advocacy. Issue based groups can spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections without having to disclose their donors, doing so to the tune of more than $1.1 billion this election cycle, more than three times what they spent in 2008. Attack ads to target specific candidates are certainly fair game for these groups, and dishonest portrayals are easy to come by, but so long as they steer clear of a certain few key phrases, it is all perfectly acceptable, and the voters never get to know who paid for the ad because the real donors hide behind innocuous sounding names—like say Americans for America, or the Concerned Citizens Coalition.
We now live in a world where the mere threat that an outside group would spend millions on negative advertising can affect a politician’s willingness to vote for a particular piece of legislation, regardless of whether they think it is the right thing to do or not. And this gets to the root of the dysfunction in our campaign finance system—it often creates a fundamental conflict of interest for our elected officials between doing what is right by the people, and doing what is going to help remain in office, whether it be appeasing their major donors, or attempting to prevent some shadowy special interest group from deciding to spend millions in an effort to unseat them. It creates a situation where the political calculus, and particularly the money involved, outweigh the importance of policy; and whenever politics become more important than policy, the result tends to be bad policy (or in some cases no policy, which can be even worse).
Certainly, things such as reducing unemployment and encouraging sustainable economic growth are more pressing concerns, but the influence of money in politics cuts to the very core of our democratic principles, and makes it exceedingly difficult to properly address any of the complex challenges we face as a society in a manner than truly represents the best interests of the people.
You want create jobs? We need campaign finance reform. You want to improve our infrastructure? We need campaign finance reform. You want to make bold moves toward clean energy? To invest in education? To make college more affordable? A living wage? Immigration reform? More sensible gun control laws? Better ballot access? Better cost control in our healthcare system? We need campaign finance reform, campaign finance reform, campaign finance reform. We need our elections to be about who has the best ideas, and who best represents the people, not who can most effectively fundraise, and who is willing to conform to their party ideology in order to remain in office.
So what now are we going to do about it?
Thank you for your concern, and may God Bless America.
Frank Lee Speaking