Guest Commentary

Guest Commentaries by Lee Hamilton and Douglas Burns


Thanksgiving Day stuffing — on your doorstep, at a price


By Walt Shotwell

It’s time to govern the flow of political money
There was a time when I believed that the best way to curtail the impact of money flowing into our political system was to monitor it. Make sure that campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures were reported quickly and accurately, I reasoned, and journalists and the American public could determine for themselves what they could tolerate.

Transparency is still needed. But the entire political system is now so swamped with cash — and lawmakers so overwhelmed by the need to raise it — that something more is clearly needed. Americans dislike the idea of using taxpayer dollars to fund politicians’ campaigns, but what Congress needs is pretty straightforward: It needs public financing of congressional campaigns.

The simple cost of running for office is ludicrous. These days, the winners of House seats spend an average of $1.3 million on their campaigns (and that includes both competitive and noncompetitive races); on the Senate side, it’s closer to $8 million.

Except for certain well-situated politicians, most of the people running for Congress are not raising this money at home. Instead, they’re turning to wealthy donors in a few major metropolitan areas. In the last election cycle, in fact, contributions from five cities, many of them aligned with one or another special interest jockeying for position on Capitol Hill, outweighed those from 36 states combined.

Although the rise of the Web as a fundraising tool has to some extent democratized political giving, that trend is still puny compared to the concentration of financial power in relatively few hands. In 2008, a few industry sectors — finance and real estate, lawyers and lobbyists, healthcare, communications, and energy and transportation — combined to provide $1.2 billion to federal candidates. Of all the funds raised by federal candidates, including candidates for president, less than 1 percent of Americans provided 80 percent of the money.

The effect of all this is apparent. Far too many Americans are now convinced that they count for very little in the political arena because their voices are drowned out at election time by heavy donors and in the legislative process by well-heeled special interests. In a poll conducted last year by the Center on Congress at Indiana University, over half the people surveyed believed that members of Congress pay closest attention to lobbyists; only 10 percent believed they listen to the folks back home.

This is understandable, especially if you look at giving patterns whenever Congress takes up legislation affecting a given industry. When a banking regulation bill starts moving on Capitol Hill, suddenly donations to key members of the banking committees skyrocket; when a health care bill is on the docket, the flow of money to key committee members is unstinting. These torrents of cash power widespread cynicism about our system.

The impact on Capitol Hill has been no more wholesome. Lawmakers are engulfed by the need to raise money, and by the political calculations they must inevitably make when weighing what big-time donors want. They spend many hours each week going to fundraisers or telephoning potential donors; given the need to raise some $15,000 every week for House seats (and more for the Senate), it’s hardly surprising that they find themselves listening especially closely to those who can promise access to the financial spigot.

We often criticize Congress for its inefficiency, but its members certainly are efficient at vacuuming up contributions. Yet this fundraising treadmill makes it much more difficult for our elected representatives to do what we hired them to do. It has wrenched the political process completely off track. For both candidate and contributor, the money-hunting process is demeaning.

So it’s time for us to consider some alternatives. In my view, this means moving toward the public funding of congressional campaigns, just as we do for presidential campaigns — perhaps requiring a mix of public and private funds.

When I propose this in public forums, I often feel lucky there aren’t any pitchforks handy, because my irate listeners would certainly use them on me. But as a political scientist I know puts it: We already pay for congressional campaigns, we just label it “the national debt.” Interests that donate to campaigns often get what they want from legislation, and we all pay for that; by comparison, public financing seems like a bargain. Until we get it, moneyed interests will command the playing field, and our political process — and our representative democracy — will be twisted beyond all sense. CV

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.



By Douglas Burns


When Big Brother is you

Back in 1984 when I was reading “1984,” the image of Big Brother that emerged in my teen-age mind was that of a Nazi-esque bureaucrat, balding, middle-aged and without expression.

As it turns out, Big Brother looks a lot more like the teenager down the street than a Washington, D.C. agency drone.

The reason?

Big Brother is the teen-ager down the street.

Author George Orwell’s eerie foreshadowing of a life in which we are always watched, with the cameras ubiquitous, trained 24/7 in schools and bars and the workplace, envisioned a centralized, adult “thought police” who would steal the freedom from even our most intimate moments.

What we have now is a decentralized anarchy with millions of people unwittingly and collectively acting as a Big Brother through seemingly friendly and essential tools such as Facebook and Twitter and blogs and cell phone cameras and instant uploads of everything from birthday photos (kinda nice) to more explicit images and e-mails (for which we now have the word “sexting.”)

Instead of banning cigarettes from bars and other private businesses the government should have prohibited cameras.

Our world is becoming one boiling, steaming reality TV show. The credits never stop rolling because we’re all in the cast.

Back in the 1970s, the only people who seemed to run tape on conversations were Richard Nixon and James Garner’s TV detective on “The Rockford Files.” (The catchy theme song started with Rockford’s answering machine message).

For those of us in Generation X — in our 30s and early 40s — and older demographic groups, the act of taking a picture is not so casual. You ask if it’s OK, check to make sure the nose hair is under control and then wait for a week until someone gets the pictures developed.

The photos then go in scrapbooks. And some make it online.

Today, when young people snap a shot it can be on Facebook or jumping around from “friend” to “friend” on Internet social networks in seconds.

Kids seem awfully cavalier about the whole business as if they expect the cameras to be rolling.

And parents don’t get it. I don’t fully get it.

It’s as if most of us are still driving in a 65 mph world wondering what those blurs in the passing lane going 300 mph are. That would be our kids on the Net who hit the warp-drive buttons on their lives a long time ago.

What will this mean for the next generation of politicians, those who went to college with Facebook, and Flip video cameras popping up in bars or dorm rooms?

The world this week had access to a voice message that sounded an awful lot like Tiger Woods pleading with an alleged paramour to help him cover up what may or may not have happened under the covers.

We recently saw Michael Phelps caught on camera, experimenting, if you will.

It may not be drinking or drug use or sex that gets taped and posted. Perhaps it’s something embarrassing.

With so much archived on so many, it will be interesting to see if our politics enters a nuclear standoff phase. Or if younger people are so accustomed to seeing revealing videos and material that such matters are underwhelming.

Or it could go the other way. For the worse. There could be so much out there that political contests turn into YouTube one-upsmanship, a modern “Gong Show.”

Ahh Chucks …


Some people have been critical of U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley’s use of just-folks, rural language on C-SPAN the other day when he was asked about his personal finances (drawing a government check and taking farm subsidies).

I think it is refreshing to hear a pol cut to the chase, and find it amusing that effete, citified types get uncomfortable and start lighting up the blogs when Grassley goes straight country.

“If you’re trying to make a case that I’ve lived off the public tit all these years, I think you’re saying correctly in the years I’ve been in the Congress but not the years before I came to Congress,” Grassley said.

The “public tit” part of that is drawing all the attention. Choice of words aside, it is a legitimate issue to question the fact that Grassley has been an elected official since Dwight Eisenhower was president — which would mean Grassley’s been getting whole-hog sustenance, not just the tit. CV


Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.


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