Respond to this Article March 2006

Not One Dime

A radical plan to Abramoff-proof politics.

By James Carville and Paul Begala

Republicans are trying to run away from the growing Abramoff scandal like the devil runs from holy water. And who can blame them? While the GOP tries lamely to pretend that the lobbying scandal is bipartisan, the truth is that the pay-for-play politics that Abramoff exemplifies has become central to the GOP's governing model, in a way it has not been for either party in decades. That's why the officials so far snared are all Republican. The House GOP Leader, Tom DeLay, is indicted and disgraced. The White House's chief procurement officer, an Abramoff ally, has also been indicted. Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham has already pleaded guilty to corruption, and the feds are said to be hot on the heels of several of his colleagues.

This is shaping up to be the biggest political scandal in a decade, and the GOP knows it. And so Republicans have been jumping on the same "lobbying reform" bandwagon that many (though alas not all) Democrats have been driving for months. Each party has its laundry list of worthy procedural changes, from making retiring politicians wait an extra year before becoming lobbyists to ending the free lunches, dinners, and football tickets politicians accept from K Street. 

Many of these ideas are fine, as far as they go. But we think they don't go anywhere near far enough. Indeed, they are likely to meet the same fate as the bipartisan McCain-Feingold bill. McCain-Feingold, which was reluctantly signed into law by President Bush in 2002, was an honest effort to limit the influence of big money in politics. But it has not succeeded. Politicians are spending more time than ever scrambling for money, and the influence of lobbyists and corporations has hardly declined.

There's a vast need for bolder reform, and the Abramoff scandals provide the opportunity of a lifetime. Voters aren't going to be fooled by procedural tinkering. What's needed is total root-to-branch reform. As any average person will tell you, the heart of the problem is that elected officials take money from interested parties. Whether it's technically legal or not, accepting money as a public servant is a form of bribery, and it serves to fundamentally corrupt democracy. We don't let cops, customs agents, or federal judges take money from the people they're serving. We should hold elected officials to the same standards. They should be out of the fundraising business altogether.

Cut off the incumbents

The biggest problem with the status quo of campaign fundraising is that it puts good people in a bad system. Nearly every member of the House and Senate, whether sinner or saint, spends a spectacular amount of time raising money. The very process of raising money distorts the politician's perspective. You try spending six hours a day, six days a week in a cramped room calling people and sucking up to them for money. If the only people you ever talk to are people with the wherewithal to contribute thousands of dollars to your campaign, that is bound to affect the way you see the world. You don't hear much about the minimum wage from folks who can write a check for $2,000. Nor do you spend a lot of time calling people who don't have health insurance or who can't afford their prescription drugs.

We propose fundamentally and radically reforming the way that campaigns are financed. Our proposal combines the fondest dream of liberal reformers--public financing of campaigns--with the fondest dream of conservative and libertarian reformers--no restrictions at all on donations from American citizens. The goal is to put a little distance between power and money. Federal office holders have power but need money. Special interests have money but need power. When the two come together, trading money for power, bad things happen.

Here's how our plan would work:

First, we raise congressional pay big time. Pay 'em what we pay the president: $400,000. That's a huge increase from the $162,000 congressmen and senators currently make. Paul, especially, has been a critic of congressional pay increases. But he is willing to more than double politicians' pay in order to get some of the corrupt campaign money out of the system. You see, the pay raise comes with a catch. In return, we get a simple piece of legislation that says members of Congress cannot take anything of value from anyone other than a family member. No lunches, no taxi rides. No charter flights. No golf games. No ski trips. No nothing.

And when it is campaign time, incumbents would be under a complete ban on raising money. You read that right. No president or member of Congress could accept a single red cent from individuals, corporations, or special interests. Period.

Challengers, on the other hand, would be allowed to raise money in any amount from any individual American citizen or political action committee. No limits, just as the free-market conservatives have always wanted. But here is the catch: Within 24 hours of receiving a contribution, the challenger would have to report it electronically to the Federal Election Commission, which would post it for the public to see. That way, if you want to accept a million dollars from, say, Paris Hilton, go for it. But be prepared for voters and reporters to ask what you promised her in exchange.

The day after you disclose Paris's million bucks, the U.S. Treasury would credit the incumbent's campaign account with a comparable sum--say 80 percent of the contribution to the challenger to take into account the cost of all the canapés and Chardonnay the challenger had to buy to raise his funds as well as the incumbent's advantage. So if Paris gave the challenger a mill, the Treasury would wire $800,000 to the incumbent. It couldn't be much simpler. You might even call it the flat tax of campaign laws.

The penalties for violation would be swift. If an incumbent accepts so much as a postage stamp, he loses his seat. If a challenger doesn't report contributions, he loses his shot. If you cheat, you are out on your ass.

What if the incumbent wants to spend her own money? After all, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the Constitution does not allow restrictions on how much money a candidate--challenger or incumbent--can spend. No problem. Uncle Sam would write the challenger a check for an equivalent amount. Unlike today, no one would have the upper hand simply because they were loaded.

What if a sitting congressman wants to run for senator, or a senator wants to run for president? Would he be allowed to raise funds? Sure. He'd just have to do what Bob Dole eventually did--resign his Senate seat and hit the campaign trail like a regular citizen. If you want to run for higher office, you have to get off your current pedestal first.

The idea is to fundamentally change the role and responsibilities of incumbency. Under our plan, incumbents have to live by Thomas Jefferson's maxim: "When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property." (We know, we know, the language is archaically sexist, but we are not going to edit Mr. Jefferson.) Once you assume an elected office, you achieve a new status. You are no longer a campaigner. You are a public servant. As such you should not be in the fundraising business. You should be in the exclusive business of making policy.

Today more than 90 percent of all senators and representatives are re-elected. Under current law, incumbents almost always have a huge money advantage. Our wager is that a majority of incumbents would be willing to give up that advantage in exchange for higher pay and no time spent fundraising. Think about it. Not only would they be bringing in a much larger salary, they'd also never have to kiss up to another rich donor. You should never underestimate how much these folks hate spending half their time--or more--sniveling for money. Nor should you underestimate how damaging and distorting it is to require federal office holders to spend that time raising money. No wonder they vote on so much legislation without ever reading it.

And what about the public? We haven't seen the final data for 2004, but in all the federal races in 2000--congressional, senatorial, and presidential--candidates spent a total of $1.6 billion. Half of that, which is what taxpayers would have had to shell out under our plan, would be a lot of money: $800 million. But that is nothing compared to what the current system costs us. Those special interests who pour money into politicians' campaigns get something in return. Actually, they get a lot in return. Special tax breaks, special loopholes, special funding of pork-barrel projects, maybe even a no-bid contract or two. The energy bill passed in 2005 handed $2 billion in subsidies to the ethanol industry--you know, the fine folks at Archer Daniels Midland. It gave the makers of the controversial fuel additive MTBE another $2 billion. And another $8.1 billion in tax breaks for oil, coal, and electric utilities. In all, that one bill cost you $80.8 billion.

All of a sudden $800 million--one percent of the cost of one bill--doesn't seem like very much money, does it?

We know our plan is not perfect. Some will argue over whether the plan favors incumbents or challengers. Some will argue whether it favors Democrats or Republicans. Some will argue whether salary increases for politicians are justified.

We have our doubts as well, but if more money from the taxpayers makes it easier for politicians to agree to no money from special interests, it's a good deal.

At its core, this plan does something no one will argue with: It forever divorces the corrosive--and sometimes corrupting--effect of campaign cash from members of Congress and presidents. When American citizens look at their Congress and White House, they will say what Alexander Hamilton said to a visitor to the newly-constructed U.S. Capitol: "Here, Sir, the people govern."

This article is adapted from Take It Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future by James Carville and Paul Begala. Copyright © 2006 by James Carville and Paul Begala. Printed by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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