Yes, it's dirty money. Yes, it's corruption. Yes, it's foreign nationals influencing our elections. Yes, it's cash donations in excess of the legal limit. Yes, it's donations that exceed the maximum allowed by individuals. Yes, it's what you might expect, or at the very least what you might fear.
Don't we deserve better? Maybe not.
I'm not talking about Congressman Grimm here, we definitely deserve better than him. I'm taking a step back and thinking about our political process in general. This latest scandal is just another symptom of the national disease that is killing our country, money in politics. When you look at the corruption and the money it's easy to get disgusted and throw your hands up in the air and simply walk away. In fact this is what so many Americans have done, and this is why we may be getting exactly what we deserve.
Two Crucial Points About Money In Politics
Here are the two most important facts you may not know about our political process.
94% of all elections are won by the candidate with the most money.
About 16% of campaign contributions actually come from voters. The rest comes in the form of large donations from outside parties and special interests.
Now before we go any further, knowing these two facts, does it surprise you that the government represents special interests, corporations and lobbyists first? If money determines who wins, and we the people generally don't donate to campaigns, then it isn't hard to understand why our issues don't get much time in Washington.
The Two Crucial Ways Money Alters Our Political Process
1. Who Doesn't Run
The first question you get asked if you are thinking of running for office is how much money can you raise. This isn't just a question republicans ask, but democrats too. This isn't a question the establishment asks, but everyone asks. Anyone even remotely involved in politics or the political process asks "how much money can you raise?" The question of what are your views on the issues rarely comes up.
So who doesn't run are the people who may be good candidates, who know a lot about the issues, who care deeply about their communities but who don't have the money or any means of raising the money. In short we are losing good candidates and good people simply because of money.
2. Who Does Run
Money doesn't just affect who doesn't run by pushing good candidates out of the process before they even begin, it also selects who does run. In our current money wins all political process we get candidates who either can raise the money or who are at least willing to try.
Now you may think that this isn't that big a deal. All you have to do is raise a little money right? Well, increasingly it is big money.
Let me give you an example of a real candidate from a state in the midwest, who is running for office in 2012. This candidate is intentionally running a grassroots campaign. This candidate is placing as much focus on voters as possible while keeping the campaign budget as low as possible, about half of what the average Congressional campaign will spend. So what does it take for this well intentioned, grass-roots, reform minded candidate to raise half the money of most candidates? The candidate tells me that every day at least 5 hours a day are spent on the phone raising money. Five hours every day.
Could you spend 5 hours a day begging for money? Do you believe that any candidate no matter how well intentioned, can truly represent your interests if they must spend 5 hours a day or more begging for money for their campaign?
Lawrence Lessig in “Republic Lost” shows us just how big the money has become. He writes:
"Between 1974 and 2008 the average amount it took to run for reelection to the House went from $56,000 to more than $1.3 million . In 1974 the total spent by all candidates for Congress (both House and Senate) was $77 million. By 1982 that number was $343 million--a 450 percent increase in eight years. By 2010 it was $1.8 billion--a 525 percent increase again."
And so with an almost 1,000% percent increase in campaign budgets since the 1970s we are left with candidates who must and who can raise the money, people like our Congressman Michael Grimm.
It wasn't always this way, and it doesn't need to be this way as we move forward. In fact, we won't be able to move forward until we do something about this the mother of all problems facing our nation.
What We Can Do
As infuriating, depressing and demoralizing as it may seem, there are things we can all do to restore our democracy. The single greatest issue facing our generation is the growing money induced corruption that little by little is weakening us all. We must rise to this occasion. Here are some things we can all do:
1. Donate To Good Candidates
It seems to be counter intuitive to suggest the way to get money out of politics is to donate more money, but think about it. If we could increase the amount of money constituents give to campaigns beyond the current 2-5% we can also change the focus of our politicians. What's more, if we donate to good candidates those candidates stand a better chance of winning and they can spend time focused on our issues rather than raising more money. Please don't wait until the general election, by then the decisions have already been made. Get involved early. Donate to good candidates as part of the primary process to achieve the maximum effect.
2. Pass A Constitutional Amendment
With the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling essentially making corporations people and making money speech, the floodgates have opened and more money is pouring into the process than ever before. Some say that we can not legislate this problem away, we must amend our constitution in order to return the government of the people back to the people. Fortunately several Congressman and Senators have started this process by introducing amendments. We should support them.
3. Public Financing of Elections
Our nation needs the best candidates, the best leaders we can get, not the best fundraisers. New York is exploring the idea of public financing for all state elections and that would be a good start, but we should push to make this change nationwide. Wouldn't you rather vote for the candidate who won on the basis of their positions, their ideas and their understanding of the issues?
Our presidential elections are being discussed not in terms of $millions or $hundreds of millions, but rather $billions of dollars. Is this amount of money the best use of our resources as a nation? Is it the best use of our time? Does it ensure that the best candidates get elected? Does it ensure that the best of America gets involved in the process or does this concentrate the power in the hands of the monied few?
The question for our generation is “Are we a nation of ideas or a nation of influence?” It's clear that our Congressman Grimm believes we should be a nation of influence. In his case that influence appears to be coming in large measure from foreign interests.
What do you believe? What will you fight for?