On The Daily Show on Thursday former President Bill Clinton made some very good points about the pressures on legislators and how the need to finance increasingly expensive campaigns is reducing the quality of representation which they provide and contributing to the increasingly contentious atmosphere in Washington. This is especially true for members of the House of Representatives who have to face an election every two years and are fighting so hard to stay in office that they don't actually get as much done or pay as much attention to what they are doing as they should.
Clinton provided a typical example: "Suppose you're a Senator from a small state in the inter-mountain west, but you've still got to raise a lot of money and you don't have a lot of people in your state. You may be out four nights a week on fundraisers for four of the six years you've got a Senate term. These poor House members – let's say you've got to fly back and forth from California or Oregon or Washington every weekend to do your job and then when you're back in Washington you're doing this (fundraising)."
Say what you like about Bill Clinton and his pecadillos, even if you disagree with him politically, you have to admit that he's no dummy and he knows American politics and he can cut to the heart of an issue. I recall how different the atmosphere on Capitol Hill was in the 1970s when I had my first jobs on Capitol Hill. The atmosphere was much more relaxed and collegial.
Clinton shared similar recollections with Jon Stewart about his time working in the Senate just out of college, when "the typical Senator would come to Washington for seven months a year and work like crazy and stay in Washington on the weekend, not fly home…and they got to rest and they got to see their friends and they got to sit and meet with members of both parties and talk through issues and read books and think. Then five months a year…they got to go home and they would stay there and they would travel around their states and their districts and they would listen to people."
His description reminded me of an era before either of us was born, harkening back to the early days of the republic, when travel distances made it impossible for legislators to make quick trips back and forth to their home districts and when there was no national mass media, so campaigns were won or lost on the candidate's record, his speeches and the personal effort he put into campaigning. Daniel Webster didn't win elections by buying the most national ad time, he won them by driving his buggy from town to town all over Massachusetts and making a speech in every tavern and every meeting house. He spent his time and he used his wit and eloquence, but he didn't have to spend a disproportionate amount of his time on Beacon Hill raising money.
Clinton sees this situation as a challenge to "find a way for them and their competitors, the challengers, to run for election without making them go out five nights a week in this endless hunt for funds to get on television when someone attacks them."
That's the basic problem. Our legislature is losing its integrity and maybe its collective sanity from too much travel, too much of the wrong kind of work, and a desperate need for campaign funds which seduces them into accepting money from Norman Hsu or Jack Abramoff because it makes their lives a little easier. It's a situation which cries out for some sort of reform, for us to turn the clock back to the days of Daniel Webster, Stephen Douglas and John C. Calhoun, great campaigners who were also great legislators and advocates for their constituents.
Clinton didn't get to his solution to the problem he raised in this appearance, but I've got a fair idea that while I agree with his objective our methods for getting there would be rather different. I imagine Clinton had ideas of publicly funded campaigns in the back of his head, where tax dollars are used to level the playing field and the qualified candidates get identical funding from the government. The two catches being how you determine who is a 'real' candidate and deserves public funding, and the fact that the money to fund campaigns would have to be taken involuntarily from people who might not support any of the candidates receiving it. To me both of those aspects of such a system are unacceptable.
Instead, why don't we consider really turning back the clock? Let's just take away the changes which separate politics as they are today with how they were a hundred years ago and recreate an environment in which campaigns are limited and focused on the candidate's words and ideas rather than his war chest. Two main things have changed since that earlier time, the amount of money spent on political campaigns and the character of modern mass media. So let's take the money out and place some limits on the media.
In an ideal world there would be no controls on who can spend how much money on a political campaign. In an ideal world the media could be free to take any advertising they were offered and provide any coverage to a campaign which they wanted. That's freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But in the real world we do place some limits on what can be done in a political campaign to try to maintain some sort of a level playing field.
The traditional approach to campaign finance limitations has been to go after the contributors, to limit who can contribute to a campaign and how much they can contribute. The rules are set to restrict certain types of organizations from donating too much or spending too much on behalf of a candidate and to specify limits on how much any individual can contribute to any candidate. This system is complex and inconsistent and full of loopholes. It permits bundling of donations, doesn't address certain types of contributions and allows for all sorts of in-kind and indirect spending which ought to be restricted. This system clearly doesn't work and every attempt to reform it makes it more complex and not significantly more effective.
The answer could be to approach it from the opposite direction. Instead of restricting who can contribute money and how much, why not just limit how much money a candidate can spend? Spending the millions of dollars some candidates spend just to get elected to Congress is excessive. Keep the limit appropriate to the significance of the office, but make it low enough so that incumbents and challengers can raise it without any great effort. Then ban all soft money and all spending for advertising by anyone other than the candidates campaigns. Make the candidates and their supporters work instead of just spending money. Get them out pressing the flesh and making speeches and earning their offices instead of going into debt or taking on more shady obligations.
Of course, this would cut back massively on advertising in the media for most campaigns, and that leads into the other problem that has to be addressed, media coverage. With advertising cut down, the coverage which the media voluntarily gives to candidates becomes enormously more important. The media could literally make or break campaigns, and despite their claims of impartiality, even something so small as the choice of which soundbyte to use or the amount of on-air time given to the incumbent over his challenger could create problems. This is the problem which has led to 'equal time' policies like the controversial and often proposed 'fairness doctrine', and they're a problem in and of themselves. They're as hard to apply fairly and evenly as the current campaign finance laws, and amount to a massive violation of press freedom, free trade and free speech.
To be fair, the problem of the media has to be addressed in a way which is comprehensive and resistent to abuse and manipulation. As with financing, this can really only be done through a radical and absolute approach because half-measures just don't work. It would require something on the order of a total media blackout for campaign coverage or any other coverage of the candidates. The problem is that this might interfere pretty severely with the coverage of news that ought to be covered if the incumbent is involved. So the answer is to limit the duration of campaigns to the time candidates are not working. For example, in the case of Congress ban all campaigning while Congress is in session, limit the session to seven months in an election year and have them out of session for the four months leading up to November. Even better, let them work six on and six off. They spend too much time in DC and might get up to less mischief if they had less time to work in. A side benefit of this would be to remind Congress that they write the laws, but don't actually need to be there all the time to run the government. That's the job of the executive branch.
These proposals aren't in the best tradition of the First Amendment, but they also aren't expressly prohibited, and if they restore the accessibility of candidates and make the scope of campaigns reasonable again, they or something like them might be worth pursuing.
We've lost track of the idea of the citizen legislator and developed a class of professional politicians who buy their way into office and have to let their allegiances be bought to raise the money to buy the votes that put them there. This was not what the founding fathers had in mind when they dreamed up our unique Republic.
The importance of returning government to its basic value was foremost in the mind of Andrew Jackson when he took office with the objective of purging and reforming a federal bureaucracy already grown out of control barely a generation after it was created. In his address to Congress Jackson wrote that there are "few men who can for any great length of time enjoy office and power without being more or less under the influence of feelings unfavorable to the faithful discharge of their public duties…they are apt to acquire a habit of looking with indifference upon the public interests and of tolerating conduct from which an unpracticed man would revolt."
Since Jackson's time we have gone through other periods of political reform, but the overall trend has been towards government becoming increasingly institutional and remote, dominated by an aristocracy of career bureaucrats and politicians, who are far too often born into families of politicians and bureaucrats going back generations. For our republic to survive it is essential that we reverse this trend and take our government back to its roots, and the first step in that direction is to end the excess and corruption which have pervaded and perverted the system and which have their roots in how we elect our representatives.