Well. it’s Thursday, and I need to blog about an ethics question, because that’s what I do. I was reading So Damn Much Money (Robert Kaiser, 2009, Knopf) last night. It’s an interesting book about a Washington Lobbyist that hit the really big time. It’s also about a lot of things that were mostly unethical but not technically against the rules, and about some things that went way past that. It’s about some who got caught, and a lot who didn’t. It’s about the age-old question of when support for a cause or a candidate crosses the line and becomes criminal bribery.
As I began reading the book, I figured that was a pretty easy question to answer. If a university puts me on a $20,000/month retainer because I assure them I can get the government to appropriate them a new building, that seems a little seedy to me. If I contribute $200,000 to a congressman’s campaign and he suddenly pushes through a new freeway branch to service my remote little village in the middle of nowhere that has 50 people, that seems a little shady.
The fact is, we all want to blame all the problems in Washington on those nasty lobbyists. But what is a lobbyist? Is it only someone who works on retainer for certain moneyed interests? Is it the Political Action Committees (PAC) that get around contribution laws and contribute millions to campaigns? If it is the PACs, just what is and who is responsible for a PAC. Is it those evil people with the agenda to change our government into something we don’t recognize? Is it rich people? Is it poor people? Is it you and me?
The frustrating thing about influence peddling is that we are all doing it. Maybe you and I don’t contribute large sums to politicians and wine and dine them at fancy restaurants. But if we sit down to write an email to our congressman, we are seeking to influence him, are we not? Fact is, we have a right under the Constitution to do anything short of harassment (and even that is a muddy line) to influence our legislators. And so does everyone else. You can’t blame the Hollywood star or the sports celebrity if he has more influence that you do. It’s a free country, and they worked their way to their place of prominence. You maybe can’t go there. But, as Obi wan would say, “there are alternatives”. You could do like me, for instance, and start a blog. You could get 100,000 followers and become one of the most influential people in your county. Or you could work really hard and get a million followers, and be a national influential force, or even run for governor in a small state. Heck, with ten million followers, you could start a pretty important PAC of your own. With 100 million followers, we’d probably be calling you President.
But enough about fairness. The real question is ethics. At what point does wielding influence become buying a candidate or an elective office? Here, we have to look at some hard realities. The first is that advertising works. And the cost of advertising to run for office, even for the House, has grown in the last 25 years from thousands to millions. I don’t really understand why, myself (perhaps because I don’t own a television), but people seem to put a lot of stock in TV ads. The thought is that no one can know you until you get ads on TV. Also, all those tacky yard signs are expensive, too. (This is where the tea party people save a lot of money with their creative home-made signs.)
OK, so you have to advertize, but how much? More than the other guy. Because it’s not good enough to put your message, values, and agenda out there. You also have to reply to all your opponent’s attack ads. Then, since he made you look bad, you have to answer, “Oh yeah, at least I never did SO-and-so.” Then you have to pay a lot of people to write speeches for you and do you hair and nails, buff your shoes, drive the motor-home, take polls…….Wait a second! Just who is running this show anyway?
We don’t want buffed and polished congressmen and women. We want real and genuine ones. We want people who are in Washington to run the country, not run campaigns. We want legislators who are chasing after the welfare of this country instead of chasing the pot loads of cash that are being offered up to them. We want to return to a simpler time when influence peddling didn’t exist. Well, good luck with returning to that time, because there has never been such a time since the started elections. You even find the sons of King David trying to lobby for his throne 1000 years BC. (They say BCE, now, but I’m not running for office and don’t need the PC vote.)
If you want real people, then you are going to have to go out and find them. You are going to have to meet candidates and find out who they really are. You are going to have to turn off the TV and radio and READ and RESEARCH (Sorry if I ruined your lunch with those disgusting words.) You might even have to be the candidate yourself. And you are going to have to have the commitment to tell others about your candidate. In any case, we will not get candidates from the people until we stop accepting candidates from the parties.
There have been some encouraging signs lately. Real people ARE getting elected. But we’re not going to get over the top until the real people outnumber the party hacks. That means that the tea party movement must never become a national party in itself. It must always be about helping local people learn to work with other local people on local issues and local candidates. That’s how it’s supposed to be anyway. Why should I have to listen to a bunch of pundits tell me about key races across the land? In which of those am I going to be able to cast a ballot? Why do I have to be bullied to vote for a certain person in my local key race so that the vote doesn’t go to the wrong party? If I had a decent candidate for which I could vote, I wouldn’t have to worry about whether he or she has the stamp of approval.
I hate to say it, but I can almost certainly know that anyone who gets on the ballot has had to spend a lot of money to get there. And there will have been a lot of people lining up to throw the money at the candidate in exchange for that person toeing the party line. Money doesn’t always corrupt good people, but usually. Maybe the changes are subtle, but little compromises (and sometimes big ones) will be made. But, if you look hard enough, you will always find a candidate who is under the radar, who hasn’t caved to pressure, who is just a regular guy or gal that has a good head and the right motivation. If we are going to ever get this country back on the right track, we have to find these people and elect them. Because the money will always be around. The only way to break the money connections is to refuse to send the connected people back to Washington.