“Republic, Lost” discussion sheds light on what citizens can do about campaign finance distortions

Grappling with Reform

After the 2006 mid-term election, a friend emailed me an internet link to a presentation about how money was corrupting Congress. I knew that this presentation, by a professor named Lawrence Lessig, was onto something, but what could I do about it? I’ve come to believe that the task at hand is getting the word out. Fixing our crippled public policy requires US voters to have a deeper understanding of HOW the US campaign finance system is corrupting our political system. Next, we need a robust debate about WHAT citizens can do about it. Lawrence Lessig moved that understanding significantly forward with his new book, “Republic, Lost”.

On December 3rd, a couple dozen Coffee Party Austin supporters got together to discuss this treasure chest of information, concepts, and proposals. We briefly tried to grapple with the first three topics in Lessig’s book: institutional trust; the disturbing correlations between “public policy bias” and “lobbying and campaign cash”; and the mechanics of the Congressional influence economy. How do these factors affect US citizen trust in Congress?

Objectives & Reforms

In a CNN Opinion Research poll conducted June 3-7, 2011, 86% of those polled agreed with the statement “Elected officials in Washington are mostly influenced by the pressure they receive on issues from major campaign contributors”; 67% agreed with “Elections are generally for sale to the candidate who can raise the most money.”

Our discussion quickly moved to what would fix the problem. We began by considering our objectives for campaign finance reform:

  1. Broaden the base of campaign donors
  2. Free up time for Congressman to talk with constituents and do the work of governance like reading and researching legislation and understanding its consequences
  3. Encourage campaign contributions from local constituents
  4. Broaden the base of candidates
  5. Break the dependence on bundlers
  6. Make candidates accountable
  7. Have a plan of Action to overcome voter apathy

Next, what legislative reforms might achieve these objectives?

  1. Easier access to TV time for candidates to explain their positions, reminiscent of Ross Perot’s info-mercials, so voters are better informed – increase substance and decrease sound bites (12)
  2. Break up media owner conglomerates – consolidation of media ownership has been detrimental to hearing from a broad range of voices (10)
  3. Institute some form of public financing of elections: Grant Franklin democracy vouchers, Fair Elections Now Act, etc. (9)
  4. Institute shorter election cycles to increase people’s interest (8)
  5. More Transparency (7)
  6. Restrictions on campaign contributions under current system (6)
  7. Increase congressional salaries (Senators, Representatives, and key staff) to: diminish distraction of future highly paid lobbying career considerations; attract more moderate-income candidates & staff(4)
  8. Tax incentives to people who donate minimum amounts to candidates; negative corporate tax consequences for lobbying & election spending

Finally, what political strategies might lead to enacting reforms?

We ran out of time before we could tackle this one, but we have a couple of actions already in motion and will continue to discuss others (we hope with your involvement) early this year.

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