Monday, July 19, 2004


Time to Snap Out of It

When Norman Ornstein - the fairly conservative but scrupulously non-partisan pundit/scholar currently employed by the American Enterprise Institute - sounds an alarm, it's a big serious bell which doesn't toll that often. In short, Norm is both highly intelligent, very knowlageable, and hardly the alarmist sort. So you know he's not kidding around when he writes in his recent op-ed:

Democracy is a fragile web of laws, rules and norms. The norms are just as important to the legitimacy of the system as the rules. Blatant violations of them on a regular basis corrode the system. The ugliness of this one [the hours-long vote in the House on the recent Medicare 'reform' bill] will linger...

Ornstein is one of a vanishing breed - the conservative. But he's hardly alone in his alarm. Indeed, in light of the blatant corruption and abrogation of its oversight responsibilities evident in the last couple Congresses - but particularly the current one - some are wondering whether our whole system of separation of powers, with its checks and balances, needs some sort of fundamental overhaul. The Greens are pushing the idea of run-off elections, which, while attractive, would be very difficult to affect at the Federal level any time soon. A better place to start would be real, sweeping, campaign finance reform - not a variation of McCain-Feingold, but truly taking money out of politics. THAT we could do NOW.

The conventional wisdom is 'oh, it can't be done, there are constitutional problems, bla bla bla'. Bollocks. It most certainly CAN be done. It's a matter of leadership. This is not intended to be an 'Edwards fan-blog', but he is salient for reasons additional to simply being on the Democratic ticket. During his primary campaign, John Edwards - alone among national politicians of note - talked about taking money completely out of elections in every speech for several months (before the 'two-Americas' stump got set into stone toward the end). He talked about standing on the WH lawn periodically (as president, of course) and simply telling the country what the DC money sewer cost them THIS month (or quarter or whatever) - a great idea.

But can it be done constitutionally? Of course it can. Over at the excellent Legal Fiction blog, my mere mention of this potential immediately brought this comment from a reader named Rahul Sinha (whose blog is quite good, too):

Actually there is an elegant solution:

Senate Bill 11, 1997 (or was it '96)

Basically elegant optional public financing of all federal elections.

As a candidate who either personally received 5% in the previous election or is the representative of a party that did, you get the option of opting into the system.

Within the system you agree to echew all sources of money, personal and external, in exchange for $X from the federal government. If any compeditor to you does not opt in, you either get $X or 110% of whatever they spend, whichever is higher.

It is constitutional, as it is optional....

I would go further, insisting on free television time - as Sen. Edwards and others have suggested - and a pot of federal money which the candidate who opted into the system would have to share with his competitor(s) if they opted in, but not if they didn't. Make taking the federal funds optional but very very attractive. If you opt into the federal funding, you get your millions and free tv time; don't opt in and raise your own money and pay for your tv time.

There are lots of other pressing issues this year, obviously, but this one is germane to all of them, in one way or another. Our current campaign finance 'system' is literally legal bribery - well beneath the dignity of a great country. Let's hope that a president Kerry will charge a vice-president Edwards with the task of leading on this - or that he will lead on it himself. Real, radical reform would change everything.

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