Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Campaign Finance I

I'm not sold on the concept of publicly financing campaigns.  It should not be easy for any crackpot to get hold off taxpayers' money to launch a loony, joy ride of a political campaign.

Still, articles like this from the excellent Ruth Marcus make me willing to re-consider:

Washington operates on the tacit understanding that campaign contributions grease the way for access and influence. Both sides in this transaction, lawmaker and donor, perceive, or at least present, themselves as the victim: elected officials as captives of a system that demands incessant fundraising; donors as the target of a none-too-subtle shakedown scheme.
As the legislative director for Teledyne Controls, a California defense contractor, told OCE investigators, "It does go through your mind whether you are buying influence." Yah think? 

Having spent 10 years on the Hill, I wouldn't say money buys results (except in a few highly publicized cases where people went to jail), but it can get you a hearing, without which you have little or no chance of getting what you're looking for.  Even the late Paul Simon (D-IL) acknowledged that his time was limited, and when handed his list of phone calls gave preference to big donors.

Most so-called campaign finance reforms have, in my view, made the system even worse.  Limit how much individuals can give?  OK - you simply empower "bundlers" who can bring many individuals together.  Even worse, because only small amounts can come from any one source, it takes MUCH more time for Members to fund raise.  Every lunch hour and free evening becomes a fund raising session whereby a Members Chief of Staff will her take over to the Republican or Democratic Committee to start placing phone calls to lobbyists and constituents.

This is time not working on the nation's problems or even time socializing and getting to know one another personally.  Don't underestimate the importance of this latter activity - its one of the reasons Washington has become so nasty.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Some proposals from Brookings

This came across my desk this morning.

Titled "Econonic Growth and Institutional Innvotation: Outlines of a Reform Agenda," the policy monograph by William Galston discusses how our institutional design can affect our economy.

Galston starts from the premise that our economy is hampered by three deficits: fiscal (also known as the US budget deficit), savings (the lack thereof by US citizens) and investments.  He proposes that these be attacked by such things as Commissions that are insulated from the political process, yet still answerable to Congress.  Mandatory individual accounts added to Social Security.  And the creation of a "National Infrastructure Bank" funded with US tax dollars.  Such reforms would be impossible in our current climate, so institutional reforms that will empower centrists must be enacted.

To me, these are the more interesting suggestions: (1) replace the current system of having state legislatures draw political districts for themselves and the US House and (2) mandate voting.  I'll take a closer look at these ideas in some of my next posts.