A Flaw in American Politics is Growing

(Posted 3/5/2006) - Our congressional and presidential campaign processes are eating up capital, rewarding bad behaviors, and in general putting men and women in office that are the least fit for public service.

Read my case for focusing on the real problem with American politics today - campaign financing rules and institutions that reward treasure chest mentalities.

It seems everyone is currently bemoaning the state of American politics at the federal level. Many pundits would have you believe that there is a fundamental advantage (morally or intellectually) to being a Republican or a Democrat.

I would argue that it is the personal qualities of each individual elected to federal office that most affects our lives. For most public figures this information is readily available to anyone with access to a library or the internet. Does party affiliation correlate with morality, selflessness, cooperative spirit, and downright effectiveness in dealing with human affairs? I'd answer strongly that there is no correlation (any more than being Christian, Jewish, Muslem, Hindu, etc, determines the quality of an individual's reasoning ability and morality). Individual's are always just that, individuals.

If you accept my premise, then you must ask yourself why, given 435 individual congressional representatives and 100 congressional senators is their such an apparent lack of general intellectual awareness, cooperative spirit, and selfless public service in our congress (and executive branch).

I believe this is a simple case of looking into the process that vett's presidential and congressional candidates. It effectively filters out (most) individuals with the desired qualities of intellect, knowledge, morality, compassion, and a desire to serve the public. It instead promotes individuals having an inordinate sense of entitlement, self-willed pride, combativeness and vindictivness. These folk are often crafty 'infighters' but are rarely willing to serve the public unless it benefits their personal objectives.

You may ask, what is the process that, much like evolution, actively selects for such dismal personalities? It is the American Political Campaign Process! Compared to every other country that elects officials by public ballot the USA spends by far the most dollars per candidate. We also have the most extended campaign periods. At the congressional representative level campaigning never stops. Once elected, one begins gathering funds to run again two years down the road.

I'm not talking about rules on transparency of campaign funding. I'm observing the process itself, which virtually guarantees that the worst kind of pompous, self-serving, crafty, and always wealthy individuals can surf right into the public arena.

Did you know that the average congressional representative race is documented as costing $1 million today? In contested districts that number may double (reference this Washington Post article.) Add to that a primary race campaign cost that is often even greater in dollars!

The average Senate seat costs $3.7 million (ref: this University of Utah study). A contested primary may cost another $5 million.

You might ask, hasn't it always been this way? The answer is we are in a period of grand campaign finance inflation. Just 10 years ago the average congressional seat cost $500 thousand total. If campaigning were a business, equity would be pouring into this growth market: But wait, that is exactly what is happening! More people make money directly and indirectly from the political campaign process than ever before. The PACs, the huge (paid) campaign staffs, the corporate elite that sponsor candidates who promise to advance their objectives, the professional lobbyists, all have jumped into the political campaign process with both feet. They grab the big bucks up front for services rendered or at the back end in quid pro quo arrangements.

At this point you may be asking yourself, OK, I'd like to see a different kind of campaign process, with less of a money rules agenda, but how? This is not a simple problem, and there is no single magic bullet to move the clock back on this juggernaught. However, here are some thoughts:

  • Reduce the campaign interval to 6 weeks! Campaigning in the UK for example follows this approach. It is much more difficult to spend mega-bucks in the media if you compress the campaign window.
  • Restrict the incumbent's expenditure ceiling while placing no restriction on the challenger. This defeats the incumbent's war-chest strategy and limits the quid pro quo arrangements that can be implemented by incumbents.
  • Place a ceiling on single market buys by either candidate. They can make as many buys as they want, they just can't spend multi-megabucks on the superbowl to slam their opponent.
  • Create a real non-partisan ethics committee with the power to censure house and senate behaviors that are considered outside the pale (including campaigning behavior).

These are just a few thoughts, I'm sure you could generate your own list. It is time for American Political Campaigns to be reined in -- we are going down a path that will increasingly alienate our representatives, senators, and president from the American public. The main cause is the campaign process that lets the wrong kind of people into the political process easily, while prohibiting the kind of folks who would be most beneficial to our society.

'Nuff said for now.