[Here's a provocative op ed from the Roanoke (VA) Times, about getting the money out of politics. The writer, Cabell Brand, references Maine's Clean Election Act.]
Let's get the money out of politics
by, Cabell Brand
The tragic collapse of the bridge on Interstate 35 in Minneapolis points out what I consider the basic problem in our American political system. The mayor of Minneapolis said, "Funds had not been available to keep the infrastructure of the United States in shape. We seem to have money for everything else."
Why is this? In Virginia, we recently saw the bitter arguments in our legislature about Virginia roads. A very simple solution was increasing the gasoline tax, but it was a tax increase. We worry about tax increases and lobbyists. The basic problem in each issue is money and politics. Let me explain.
The ineptitude of the federal government with disasters like Hurricane Katrina resulted partially from political cronies appointed to pay off campaign contributions. The problems with our health care system, and specifically the Medicare prescription drug legislation, are the influence of lobbyists from the insurance and pharmaceutical industry.
But the problem goes much deeper than this. Our politicians and our elected officials spend a major portion of their time raising money. The headlines about Republican and Democratic candidates for president emphasize how much money they have raised rather than what their policies are.
The weaknesses in our infrastructure go to every segment of our economy and society; 46 million people are without health insurance, including about 40 percent of all children.
America's society is now divided into two classes: the very rich and everyone else. What we always called the middle class is struggling today to make ends meet. The gap between rich and very poor is wider than ever.
The increasing problems of the middle class, with the loss of much of our manufacturing industry, may be inevitable with globalization. It has certainly been accelerated through NAFTA and fast-track foreign trade agreements, because of corporate pressure on our politicians -- Democrats and Republicans. Low-income people generally cannot make significant campaign contributions. It's the rich people, corporations and organizations that lobbyists represent that put undue pressure on politicians on every issue.
Select your favorite issue, any issue that requires government funding. Consider how the politicians would represent you, how they would vote differently, how they would think differently and how our policies could be more objective and realistic if they did not have to worry about raising campaign contributions.
If I could change one thing in our democratic political system it would be public financing of federal political campaigns for Congress and the president.
It's not just our road infrastructure that is deteriorating, but the funds for environmental issues, education, job training, student loans, national parks, investment in scientific research and so on. It's not immediately obvious how these problems directly relate to campaign contributions. But they do.
Getting the money out of politics would not get rid of the lobbyists, but it would reduce their effect on our legislation. Not making the politicians dependent on campaign contributions would let our elected representatives think more about the problems of the middle class, health care, low-income people and our country's infrastructure.
It's too bad that tragedies like Minneapolis have to happen before we give serious thought to infrastructure weaknesses and other problems in our society. Our society is crisis-oriented and not prevention-oriented. For example, very few health care programs, including Medicaid and Medicare, make provisions for physical examinations and basic health prevention issues.
This is the time to try to prevent bridge collapses and almost every other issue that depends on government revenue. Let's take the money out of politics and start a new movement toward public financing of federal political campaigns. Let's give our legislators an opportunity to develop realistic public policies.
The single biggest reason for public financing of federal political campaigns is that it would attract more qualified people into our political system. They would not be concerned with raising money. They could concentrate on getting support from our voting constituents.
Fortunately, some states have shown us the answer to this problem. Arizona and Maine have both passed public funding bills that are working very well. Both laws are voluntary, but more than 80 percent of Maine legislators now serve without having accepted any political contributions.
There is a bill in the U.S. Senate fashioned after the Maine law introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and a similar bill in the House. Current presidential candidates should be questioned as to whether or not they will make this basic change in the operation of our federal government a priority if elected president.
Cabell Brand is a Salem businessman and founder of Total Action Against Poverty.