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Clean Sweep

by Editor on March 26th, 2011

Since September 11, 2001, three things in particular have been abused in the United States: our civil liberties, our finances, and our Congress.

You’re probably thinking: Congress? They’re not exactly a target for pity. And it’s true—to a degree. Previous incarnations of Congress were complicit in the first two issues, having abrogated so much responsibility to President Bush’s “muscular” executive branch, and permitting or encouraging everything from the Patriot Act to warrantless-wiretapping to unaffordable and unsustainable tax cuts and expenditures. The current 2008 Congress was not much better and the 2010 Congress is not exactly off to a great start.

Yet Congress—the Congress in office at the time of the terrorist attacks and every Congress since then—has not really been itself. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are composed primarily of people who may be elected by the people, but who serve primarily other masters: the people who pay their bills. Yes, in theory that’s us, we the people; but we don’t pay their bills, we just pay Congressional salaries and amazing healthcare and retirement benefits. Their broader bills are paid by the wide range of outside special interests, arrayed across the entire political spectrum. This is not a left or right issue, it’s not a Republican or Democrat issue: it affects every member of Congress on each side of the aisle. I know of no exceptions, including those who are technically “Independent.”

So here’s my modest proposal for 2012: a Clean Sweep Campaign. A nation-wide movement to effect a total cleaning of house in Congress in 2012, in order to elect people whose interests are exclusively in public service and who understand that their election to Congress means they are there to serve us, the people, and no one else. The Clean Sweep Campaign would function like a seal of approval, a verification that the candidate (and elected member) followed these principles:

  • Candidates must not accept any special interest funding during the campaign period. This means no money or in-kind support (like campaign staff) from unions, PACs, dedicated special interests such as the NRA or Emily’s List, and no money from businesses or lobbyists of any kind. Period, no exceptions.
  • Candidates may take donations from individual constituents—but only from individuals who are able to vote for them, i.e., citizens within their constituency areas. Candidates may take donations from people with affiliations to specific interests—e.g., a voter who also supports Planned Parenthood or the Family Research Council—but no money may come directly from any outside organizations.
  • Candidates may not accept bundled donations.
  • Candidates may have party affiliations, as a means of describing political perspectives (to the extent that “Democrat” and “Republican” mean anything other than “self-interested”) but also cannot accept any money from them. Again, only donations from constituents may be accepted. (Political parties may provide in-kind support, such as human resource support for office management, campaign positioning counsel, or door-to-door canvassing.)
  • Candidates may not have served as a lobbyist within the immediately preceding election cycle, i.e., within the last two years.
  • Candidates may fund themselves, but only equal to the maximum donation received from every constituent in their district (or, for Senators, their state). Candidates may fund themselves even if they are able to raise the maximum donation from every constituent but, again, it cannot be more than a 1:1 match.
  • Once elected, candidates must subscribe to the same code, including its broader implications: no junkets or trips, no paid-for dinners with lobbyists or other outside interests, and no in-kind support from outside supporters.

Is money the most problematic and pernicious influence in politics is money? Yes and no. No to the extent that “influence” covers a much wider terrain than just financing, and no because not every member of Congress is out for direct personal gain.

But yes because, more than anything else, money is the thing that influences the direction of politics. Sure, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina were defeated in California, despite the investments they made in their own campaigns; but those candidates and those campaigns were anomalies. Most of the time, the better funded candidate wins—and stays in office, well-funded, until some more significant demographic trend forcibly knocks them out.

Money is also the most easily identifiable mechanism of control, the thing that voters can use to evaluate influence. And while the Supreme Court has ruled on a few occasions that spending money is a form of expression, and therefore cannot be legally eliminated, this poses no problem for the Clean Sweep Campaign: this approach is not about passing laws regarding spending—it’s a campaign about principles of representative independence, about inviting candidates to adhere to those principles, and about providing a stamp of approval when they do so. No one would force their hand—but every effort could be made by opponents to make clear that a given candidate is not, in fact, an independent representative of their potential constituents.

My motivation isn’t partisan: I’m not looking to elect more Democrats or Republicans, or to bolster the likes of the (equally corrupt and secretly funded) Tea Partiers. Political balance is important, as long as it is functional and effective in representing it’s constituency. But our Congress is not that. They don’t hear—can’t hear—the voices of their own people through all of the outside influences, factors that have little to do with the political realities of their states or districts, or about the long-term future of the country. And when they wave their well-funded flags in our faces, and proclaim their allegiance to our own interests, well … just take a look at the budget deficit, or the failed healthcare reform, or the not-even-failed-because-it-never-got-started effort to address long-term funding challenges for Social Security and Medicare, or shockingly absent prosecutions of bankers and investors who helped cause the financial crises, or … well, I could go on. Just take a look and ask yourself whether you think the people you elected to represent you in Congress are even close to fulfilling their responsibilities to you and your neighbors. I know mine aren’t.

It’s time to clean House (and Senate), and what better way than with a Clean Sweep.

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