By Donella Meadows
–September 28, 1995–
Every week, every day, come news items that reveal the sorry state of our democracy. For instance:
– Because of a rider urged by timber companies, passed by Congress, and signed by Bill Clinton, an extra 2 million board feet of timber must now be cut in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest. (The present cutting rate is 4-6 million board feet per year.) Nationwide the mandated extra cut is 4-6 billion board feet. Citizens are prohibited from protesting through any legal avenue.
– We taxpayers owe $31 million in bonuses to executives of the Lockheed and Martin Marietta Corporations to reward them for merging. Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine will receive $8.1 million. Board member Lamar Alexander (now a presidential candidate) will get $236,000. Former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird gets $1.6 million. The new Lockheed Martin company has just fired 19,000 workers.
– Senator Bob Packwood was censured by the Ethics Committee for sexual harassment, but not for the 1992 conversation in which Phil Gramm agreed to give him $100,000 in “soft money.” Packwood wrote in his diary: “What was said in that room would be enough to convict us all of something. I think it’s a felony, I’m not sure. This is an area of the law I don’t want to know.” Packwood will collect from us a pension of $90,000 a year, while Gramm runs for president.
There is good news. Americans are searching everywhere for a way to fix their broken government. More and more people are searching in the right place — campaign reform, getting money out of government.
Every time I write about campaign reform, I get a flood of letters, some from experts who have thought hard about how to do it, and some from furious citizens who have come up with wonderful, radical, mostly impossible ideas.
One of my favorites is the suggestion that we just send our tax payments to the agencies we want to fund. You could choose only education or environmental protection, for example, and give not one penny to the Pentagon or to Bill Clinton’s salary.
That would be democratic, chaotic, unconstitutional, and whenever I mention it, people say YES, with slightly wicked smiles on their faces.
Another reader says we should subject important decisions like the budget to nationwide referenda via the Internet. We should ban all electioneering until one month before the election, says another. Lots of people say we should abolish PACs. I’m also hearing that we should appoint a special prosecutor to investigate corruption in Congress. Citizen watchdogs should get government funds to blow the whistle on government (this actually happens in the Netherlands). We should ban political ads absolutely. We should be able to register to vote right at the polls on election day.
A few folks in Congress actually are working on campaign reform, bless them. Representative Linda Smith (R-Washington) has 21 sponsors so far for a Clean Congress Act (H.R. 2072). It would ban PAC contributions to federal candidates, ban contributions from outside a candidate’s home state, forbid incumbents from sending mass mailings to constituents during election season, ban donations of gifts, trips, or meals from lobbyists to incumbents, and restrict “soft money,” the major loophole through which large donations flow to candidates. Newt Gingrich, in a hurry on every other issue, is not exactly pushing this one.
In the Senate Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin) and John McCain (R-Arizona) are suggesting population-based spending limits for Senate campaigns ($8 million in California, $1.5 million in Wyoming), a requirement that 60 percent of funding come from the home state, and a ban on PACs and soft money.
Marty Jezer of the Working Group on Electoral Democracy is one of my well-informed correspondents. He says that strict spending limits on campaigns could amount to incumbency protection (unless the power of incumbents to garner money and media time is somehow limited). PACs, he says, are the only way that citizen groups can pool money and have clout. He thinks banning PACs would increase the hold of corporations (which can always find ways to bundle money) on politics.
He suggests the best route to an honest government would be democratically financed elections. Candidates who pledge not to accept any private money would get total public funding. To qualify they would have to raise a large number of $5 contributions from individuals (maybe 1000 to run for a House seat). Then they could collect a limited number of $100 contributions for seed money to get organized. At the beginning of the primary campaign all qualifying candidates would receive full and equal public funding.
A party or independent candidate receiving 20 percent of the primary vote would get financing for the general election plus free media time. Public debates would be required. A neutral Voter Information Commission (I nominate the League of Women Voters) would send factual information about candidates to all mailing addresses. If a candidate is faced with an opponent who opts for private financing and spends more than the public limit, that candidate would receive public matching funds, so no one could outspend anyone else. Presumably that would prevent anyone from trying.
The Working Group on Electoral Democracy says this system would cost about $500 million a year — $5 from each taxpayer. It could save hundreds of billions in tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts, and other insider deals that bilk us every day.
What do you think? Would it work? Would you be willing to put up the $5?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995