March 4, 2006

Money in politics and the rotting of democracy

Don Wooten is one of the "good guys", so to speak, and in his recent editorial in the Dispatch/Argus regarding the corrupting influence of money in politics, displays the knowledge and common sense that has marked his career. Wooten should run for office again, but if he's not willing to sell himself to the highest bidder, how could he compete?
Corruption of politics today almost total

When I was first elected to the Illinois Senate, I got a call from an elderly constituent. He had some important advice for me: "Don, I know that politicians have to take money, but don't get too greedy. Just take a little."

In that and subsequent calls, I tried to reassure him that you could survive in politics without taking payoffs, but he remained unconvinced. I thought his conviction bizarre back then, but time has proven his point.

The corruption of politics these days is almost total. Everyone in office spends an unseemly amount of time grubbing for money. With few exceptions, elections are won by the candidate with the biggest war chest. If you want to stay in office, it pays to be greedy.

I'm not talking about outright bribes, but campaign contributions. Yet even here, the line between bribery and financial support is a pretty thin one. In fact, it has almost disappeared.

The recent scandals in Washington involving superlobbyist Jack Abramoff have come to light only because they were so outrageous, so over-the-top, that they could not be ignored.

Yet the trading of money for votes goes on out of public view all the time. It’s not called that, of course, but that’s what it is. It is the rare lobbyist or political action committee that doesn’t expect a quid pro quo. If it isn’t forthcoming, there wll be no money next time around.

(I know this from experience. When some of my closest supporters wanted my vote for something I thought irresponsible, I withheld it -- and had to find contributions from other sources that year. The ill will that generated caught up with me in the next campaign.)

The Abramoff Affair tars both parties. Everyone is in the money chase. It just happened that Republicans were in the driver's seat when things got completely out of hand.

But now that dirty laundry is being aired, isn't it likely that some real reforms will be put in place? Don't be naive. The hard-charging head of the Abramoff prosecuting team has been kicked upstairs, making it fairly certain that the damage will be contained.

The new Senate majority leader is offering token, cosmetic "reforms," which means the same old money-vote circus will continue. It almost has to. Politicians are as much the victims as the offenders in this game. They can't get out unless the process is changed.

It can be done, but I don't expect to see it in my lifetime, however long that chances to be. It would take a political tsunami to break up a process which is understood, familiar, and functional. Even those who deplore the situation are afraid to alter the means by which they hold onto office.

Pessimists argue that it has always been like this and they have history on their side. Early on, members of Congress were openly bribed. In recent decadess ethical standards have risen a bit; only to be submerged once more in a tide of campaign funds given with "understandings."

What will it take to change things? There are three fundamental steps, all of them of roughly equal importance.

-- 1. Public financing of national campaigns and major state offices. The knee-jerk objection here is that it would be too costly, but that's a red herring. The present system costs us far more tax dollars than you could possibly spend in several election cycles.

The second objection is that just about any Jasper could run for office if public money were there to sustain him or her. Please tell me how the present system is any better at producing public servants.

-- 2. End political gerrymandering. Place redistricting in the hands of an objective, non-political body. That would make most districts competitive. Now it’s almost impossible to oust an incumbent of either party. And don’t think such a system is impractical; they do it now in Iowa.

It can be tough. It cost Davenport its favorite son in Congress, Jim Leach, admittedly a sore loss. But he is remains office in another district, where he is obliged to run a tough campaign every two years. That's not a bad discipline for any office-holder.

-- 3. Get television, radio, and cable advertising -- the principal consumer of campaign dollars -- under control. This is a tough one and here I am biting the hand that fed me through most of my career in commercial broadcasting. But the FCC could -- and should -- mandate a portion of free air time for public political use as a condition of holding a license.

Finally, if nothing else, revive the Fairness Doctrine. The overt slanting of news and talk shows today is unworthy of a true democracy. End it.
What do you think of Wooten's suggestions?


At 3/04/2006 10:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know lobbying has gotten out of hand when local communities (Rock Island and Bettendorf) hire paid lobbyists (with taxpayer money) in hopes of getting. . . what else, taxpayer money.

At 3/04/2006 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And then there are those who do not report the donations or in kind they get from businessmen. We have seen that many times locally on the Republican side of the aisle.....

I know how much those billboards and newspaper ads and mailers cost yet the Republican candidates never have much expenses on their State and Federal reporting. How is it this gets overlooked??

How can it be that the PACs have to report so exactly what they dontate and corporations and private businesses and businessmen just give in kind and whatever and no one ever calls them on it?? It is really sick when they do their usual negative campaigning against the other candidate....

At 3/04/2006 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Public fianance is surely the way to go. As well media companies should be forced to give candiates free time air time and print space to publicize their views. However, before a candidate becomes eligilbe for funds, he or she must meet a minnimum threshold of 17% support in a reliable poll. This item will keep fringe candidates from running simnply to get the cash.

At 3/05/2006 12:44 PM, Blogger highxlr8r said...

Right now, public matching funds for the presidential race are distributed only to parties who received a certain percetnage of the vote in the PREVIOUS. This results in a catch-22, because you can't meet the threshold without the funds, and you can't get the funds without meeting the threshold. Further, in general elections, people don't vote for third parties, however much they may agree with them, because they feel its a wasted vote.

I'm sure that this isn't a new idea, but I have been thinking about a plan which awards matching funds to political parties that meet a threshold of voter registrtaion. If the Green party were to have soem percentage of registered voters nationwide, they'd be eligible. This allows people to help their preferred party to gain strength, by registering, but does not require them to "waste" their vote on election day.

A system like this can be implemented at all levels of government.

At 3/05/2006 4:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well from what I see it's a lopsided system today with Republican candidates getting a lot of coroprate in-kind stuff from other companies or their own (Mike Whalen and Jim Oberwiess come to mind) and not reporting it and not getting any fines while the Democrats are held to a higher standard of the law at all times. IF they spend a dime of union PAC or other PAC money, it gets reported on time or fines!!

Public financing is an interesting change especially if the corporate media interests would have to donate to both sides equally which is a huge adjustment for them I am sure!

At 3/08/2006 1:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the worst case of BS I have ever seen. How would Wooten know anything about lobbiests today. He is so far out of it that it isn't even funny. Leave it to the young guys to handle this Mr. Wooten. Not all of them are taking bribes as not all catholic priests are child molesters.

At 3/08/2006 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But are you saying we shouldn't enact measures to prevent politicians being corrupt and priests being pedophiles?

Since all of them aren't corrupt and perverts, it's stupid to discuss?

And Wooten doesn't know about "modern" corruption? Whaa?

Is corruption different now days? Sure, it's more sophisticated, but it's still the same basic thing... taking money in exchange for favors. Not too hard to figure out and that has gotten pretty bad.

Your argument doesn't seem too bright.

At 3/11/2006 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am saying that there are regulations. Enough is enough. Look they got George Ryan. And have gotten Abramoff. The system works. I think that The only Rich guys can run with personal money is a bad way. I think that public funded elections is even worse. For Wooten to say "The corruption of politics these days is almost total" is a slap in the face of all pols. and he has nothing to base it on. He then goes on to say."(I know this from experience. When some of my closest supporters wanted my vote for something I thought irresponsible, I withheld it -- and had to find contributions from other sources that year. The ill will that generated caught up with me in the next campaign.)" First if Wooten had no backbone and couldn't take a contribution and then have the guts to vote against these people he deserved to be beaten his next run. For every lobby there is an anti lobby. If it be pro gun organization or anti gun organization they both have cash. Wooten is doing his best to hide the truth. Peoiple don't come to you as he says they did and say hey if you vote this way we will give you money. Organizations give because you are either like minded or want access to be able to talk about there views and educate to their side. A recent event is the Prochoice group that endorsed and payed for one candidate over another. They liked his views and gave. That is the way it works and for someone that was part of the system to pretend otherwise is only pandering for the attention to his artical. Which is what he is paid to do.


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