By Donella Meadows
–January 2, 1997–
The Democrats took campaign money from an Indonesian trader and the Republicans from an Australian publisher. Tobacco companies made the biggest contributions to both parties. The 1996 election cost more than twice as much as the one in 1992 and treated us to the most misleading campaign ads yet.
We are finally getting it. The politicians don’t serve us, they serve whoever gives them money. Money screens what we learn about candidates. We are losing our democracy. The only way to get it back is campaign reform.
Even the politicians are saying it, which is dangerous. Any “reform” invented by those who gained power in the present system will be a sham. We should know; we’ve been through this before. Our current problems arise directly from Nixon-era “reforms.”
Two years ago I wrote about an idea suggested by Peter G. Brown of the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland. It’s the only campaign reform plan I’ve heard that I think can work. It’s time to repeat it, maybe to keep repeating it once a year, until it happens.
Just imagine, Brown said, millions of citizens going to Washington, joining hands, surrounding the Capitol, and insisting that neither the Congress nor the crowd shall go home until a serious campaign reform law is passed.
I added some details to his idea. We should convene, I think, on the night of the State of the Union address. 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 should write the bill for them. That’s also the only way it will be tough enough.
In his book Restoring the Public Trust Peter Brown lays out the elements of campaign reform: “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.] Third, to mitigate the inequality between wealthy … candidates and all others, a cap should be placed on campaign spending. Fourth, 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 night, I’d like our revolution to be thorough. I’d make the limit on campaign expenses 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 soundbites. We could cap individual contributions at, say, ten dollars per candidate per election. Then everyone could play.
There should be no, zero, nada, zilch purchased campaign ads. (That would reduce costs by millions of dollars, so public funding wouldn’t be a burden.) 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 media revolt, we could pay for this service with public funds.
The candidates alone should be featured, not spouses, kids, dogs, movie stars, flags, fireworks, picket fences, or other irrelevant symbols. In some appearances the candidates should answer direct questions from the public, in depth, with a chance for the questioner to come back with followups, such as “you didn’t answer my question”. All debates should start with a short, factual summary, prepared by the League of Women Voters, of each candidate’s past policy record, if any.
Once elected, politicians should receive no contribution of cash or kind from any individual, corporation, or interest group. If such a contribution is discovered, the politician shall be removed from office and the contributor given a stiff fine, which will go into the public campaign fund.
I realize that, given recent court opinions, there are constitutional problems with some of these stipulations. So maybe we have to ask the assembled leaders within the surrounded Capitol to affirm a constitutional amendment as well. Or maybe we just convince the Supreme Court Justices, who are also in there, that free speech is one thing and fee speech is another, that corporations are in fact not persons, and that nothing undermines the principles of our Constitution as much as money in politics.
So 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?) The crowd cheers and start chanting “Of the People! By the People! For the People!” The wait for passage shouldn’t be long. Just in case, we could bring thermoses and sleeping bags.
(Check: how big is the Capitol Building? How many of us would it take to surround it, say, 10 deep? Should we allow pizza deliveries to go through, or should we ask our elected representatives to clean up their act on empty stomachs?)
However we do it, I want to be there!
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997