By Donella Meadows
–March 23, 1995–
This idea was put into my head by Peter G. Brown of the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland, and it won’t go away. Just imagine, he said, millions of citizens going to Washington some day, joining hands, surrounding the Capitol Building, and suggesting, ever so politely, that neither the Congress nor the crowd should go home until a serious campaign reform law is passed.
My immediate thought was, it will never happen — but if it ever does, I want to be there. I suspect most of us, of all political persuasions, would want to be there. It would be a revolution as exciting as the one in 1776. In fact it would reclaim and strengthen that revolution, by removing the ever-increasing power of the rich over the government.
I’ve been mulling Peter Brown’s idea over. trying to figure out how to make it work. We should convene, I think, on the night of the State of the Union address in January. Cold, dark, not a great time for a rally, but we’d catch the House, the Senate, and the President all together. They could pass a bill and sign it into law within half an hour.
But only if they don’t have to fight about the language. So we have to write the bill for them. We should do that anyway; otherwise they’d interpret “campaign reform” in their usual toothless way, like putting a $20 million cap on expenses for a single House campaign.
That’s not what we, holding hands around the Capitol, would mean. We would mean: money shall not dominate our democracy. The Congress shall not be a millionaires’ club, nor a club of people obligated to millionaires. The ability to spend money shall not swing elections. Democratic decisions shall not favor special contributors over the public good.
In his new book Restoring the Public Trust Peter Brown has laid out the elements of a campaign reform law: “First, campaign contributions should be eliminated altogether or capped at a very low level…. Second, it should be illegal to use funds given to a state political party … to influence a federal election. [That loophole is one way big donors get around current limits on contributions.] Third, to mitigate the inequality between wealthy … candidates for office and all others, a cap should be placed on campaign spending. Fourth, in order to reduce the private cost of running for public office, public funding should be provided for all candidates who secure votes or signatures at some significant level, a policy implemented now only for presidential elections.”
I like those ideas, but I wouldn’t mind strengthening them. If we’re going to stand around the Capitol on a cold January night, I’d like our revolution to be thorough. I’d make the cap on campaign expenses very, very low — enough for bands, buttons, and balloons, but not for high-production ads that don’t say anything, or focus groups to find out how to manipulate us, or public relations folks to write weasly slogans and speeches.
With a low spending cap, we could limit individual contributions to one dollar per candidate per election. Then everyone can play. People who want to give more can volunteer their time — we don’t all have equal money, but we each have 24 hours in a day.
Newspapers and broadcasters should give candidates time or space in which to present their unvarnished selves and their actual ideas, if any. To prevent a revolt of the media, we could pay them for this service with public funds, as Peter Brown suggests — or we could simply regard it as their democratic duty. The candidates alone should appear, not spouses, kids, dogs, movie stars, flags, fireworks, picket fences, or other heartwarming symbols. (We are choosing people to make vital decisions for us, not brands of soap.) In some of their appearances the candidates should answer direct questions from the audience. In all of them there should be a short, factual summary, prepared by the League of Women Voters, of each candidate’s past voting record, if any.
Once elected, politicians should receive no contribution of cash or kind from any individual, corporation, or interest group during their term of office. If such a contribution is discovered, the politician shall be removed from office and the contributor given a stiff fine.
We might have to work a bit on the language and have some lawyers check it over for constitutionality. Then the buses converge on Washington. The crowd, shivering a little, surrounds the Capitol quietly, maybe holding lighted candles. Jesse Jackson, Ross Perot, and Pat Buchanan solemnly stride up the steps and nail the reform bill to the door. (Check: does the Capitol have a wooden door? Or do we need masking tape?) We cheer and start chanting “Of the People! By the People! For the People!” The wait for passage shouldn’t be long. Just in case, however, we could bring sleeping bags.
(Check: how big is the Capitol Building? How many people would it take to surround it, say, 10 deep? Should we allow pizza deliveries to go through, or should we ask our politicians to clean up their act on empty stomachs?)
However we do it, I want to be there!
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995