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Public Servant, Private Slave

by Stacey Roberts about a year ago in congress
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Owning A Senator Would Be Fun

I’m sold.

A sitting member of Congress would be a good thing to own. I could get them to sponsor bills I wanted, vote on ones I agree with, and give me tours of the Capitol so that I might be awed by Federal splendor. They could get one of my children into West Point or Annapolis, but those are just the minor perks. The big deal is the lawmaking.

The best news ever is that they are for sale. At some point in the last fifty years it became agreed-upon fact that money wins elections. There are always exceptions to the rule, but those impoverished winners get brushed aside as anomalies where the voters believed in a candidate so much that they went and voted for them without expensive multimedia ads and tons of glossy paper mailed to their homes.

An average race for the House of Representatives costs about two million dollars. The Senate can go anywhere from five to a hundred million. If you’re an elected Federal officeholder and you want to keep your seat, fundraising is a big part of your every day. It is the lifeblood of your office, more than the needs of your constituents, more than the specifics of legislation you don’t have time to read, more than the oath you swore on your first day that is now a bright and distant memory. You’ve got a photo of yourself somewhere, hand risen to God, promising to serve, but today you need to raise a few thousand bucks in order to stay in the never-ending race.

The major political parties spend most of their time planning electoral strategy, devising legislative platforms, and struggling to get their diverse members to come together for the sake of the whole. Not really. They spend most of their time raising money too. It makes all that other stuff easier, under the maxim that you can’t govern if you don’t win. The parties take this money and do what donors do—bribe elected members of Congress to get them to do what they want.

As it turns out, current office holders and those running for office—really anyone with a campaign war chest—can donate money to other candidates or office holders. Here’s one way that could work:

Senator Smith: “Hey, Senator Jones. I see you’re planning to vote against my bill that would deprive the people in your state of effective healthcare.”

Senator Jones: “Yep. The people in my state would prefer to have effective healthcare. My hands are tied.”

Senator Smith: “How about I drop half a million bucks into your re-election campaign? You’re in a tight race.”

Senator Jones: “Deal. See you on the floor.”

The bill passes. The intent of the voters in Senator Jones’s state was just overruled by one person. Actually two, and a big bucket of money.

Another way to buy votes and influence is the party fundraiser. If you and a large group of your well-heeled friends get together and throw a party where the result is half a million dollars or so donated to the party, you’ll always be able to get your Senator on the phone when you want something.

Good thing the United States isn’t a democracy.

America is a republic, in which we elect representatives to make our laws. Once sworn in, they are under no obligation to accede to our wishes. This was noticed with great excitement by the richest in the land. They could use their money to change votes and get what they wanted and every bit of it is legal. In this way a multimillionaire in California can have more influence over the elected representatives of Montana, Idaho, Nebraska, and Wyoming than the PEOPLE of Montana, Idaho, Nebraska, and Wyoming.

Inside the halls of Congress is another risk and reward system: seniority. Committee assignments and chairmanships (which is where the laws get made and passed) are mostly based on time served, which means the longer you’re in Congress the more power you have. This translates into your ability to send Federal money back to your state or district and give your re-election prospects a boost at taxpayer expense. A senator in a tight re-election campaign will start funding schools and hospitals and highways in his state and talk about all the jobs he has created and how much money everyone is making off of him.

The final turn of the screw is the party. They have campaign money to spread around at will. They decide who gets to run for your seat. Cross the party and you may just find yourself facing an astoundingly well-funded opponent in your next primary race. Good soldiers keep their seats; mavericks get sent home. And not necessarily by the voters. If you’re a big donor with your own Super PAC, your money may be better spent donating to the party—it’s a long-term investment that gives you control over even more representatives. You might even get to be the ambassador to France. Money and power have formed an unholy union in our government—the rich largely determine who gets elected, who gets re-elected, and how they vote once they’re in office.

What’s all this power for? One prime consideration has to be rewarding the donors who keep you in office—passing favorable legislation, making sure they get government contracts, and bringing money back to your district so that you can get re-elected. One way or the other, far too much of elective service is about money. Our elected representatives are money-changers in the temple of the Lord. If you only have a two-year term, how much actual legislation can you sponsor and pass in between donor calls, fundraisers, and running for re-election?

Presidents Truman and Eisenhower each lamented in their terms that Americans, after victory in the second World War, became all about money—getting it and spending it--the new American dream. Elected officials followed their lead. If our elections and our elected representatives are all about money, how long before our policy—foreign and domestic--is all about money? How much foreign policy is wielded so that American companies can have higher profits? How many domestic laws are written so that corporations can keep more of their money? How much of Congress’s time is spent on money – raising it for campaigns, raising it for the party, and writing laws or influencing government agencies to send it back to the donors who gave it to them? On the list of things that motivate our elected representatives, what’s the priority?

1. Re-election

a. Paying back donors through laws, government access, or favors so they will donate to your campaigns.

b.Keeping the party happy so you get their support (money) and endorsement.

c. Staying in long enough to get some real political power, like a prime spot on a good committee.

2. The interest of the voters.

3. The short-term interests of the nation.

4. The long-term interests of the nation.

It is essential that money and politics be separated. Here’s an idea:

A Constitutional amendment that eliminates all campaign contributions for Federal office except the individual one, which is capped to a formula indexed to the minimum wage. Candidates themselves could no longer lend money to their own campaigns. Rich Americans, big corporations, and even political parties would have to persuade members of Congress the old-fashioned way—by making their case through the use of facts and sweet reason.

A Constitutional amendment that sets term limits on both chambers of Congress – twelve years in the House or Senate. Then you’re out. If the only statesmen we ever get are those who aren’t running for office, this will give us a lot more of them.

A Constitutional amendment increasing the term of a member of the House from two years to four. This would give them more time to spend on their service and less on their re-election campaigns.

This will unshackle Congress, freeing them up to do what we sent them to Washington for. How effective and reasonable would Congress be if they no longer had to worry about donations or seniority? They would be immune to special interests—even those of their own party. We need federal officeholders and candidates who work to unite the people, not pit one American against another and gleefully watch them fight it out from their lofty perch, waiting like a gilded Roman emperor to see who gets the thumbs down.

Here’s another idea:

Let’s start a crowdfunding campaign to buy back Congress. I think we could do it for two billion dollars or so. $2 million for each Representative ($870 million) and $10 million per Senator ($1 billion). Add in money for the legal work to form a super PAC and administrative overhead, and we’re set.

Every member of Congress gets the same deal. When the campaign finance, term limit, and term increase Constitutional amendments pass, they get the money. Of all the transactions Congress engages in, this would be the simplest. Like the deals that get made every day at the Capitol, this is no different: do what we want and you can have your money.

The one thing that is different is that, if successful, Congressional bribery will end. Career politicians will be a thing of the past. Congress will be constantly refreshed with new blood and new ideas instead of the ongoing political soap opera of the last fifty years.

Maybe your Congressmen have been at this too long.

Maybe all the years spent in the post-Watergate trenches, winning majorities and then losing them, being alternately ridiculed and lionized by the public has ruined them. They battle the other party like the last two mortals on the final charred patch of earth they have yet to destroy, beating each other over the head with the long bones of the dead. Winning means more seats and pork projects and committee chairmanships and the thin comfort of their party holding the levers of government in slippery hands for one election cycle, which is the only measure of time that matters.

Maybe the goals of elected office have dwindled down to re-election and campaign contributions and talking points handed over in a dim back room, until they are just another Sisyphus on a crowded mountainside, rolling the rock uphill by day, knowing for sure it rolls down at night.

Maybe they have taken the will of voters and the tax money of Americans who couldn’t afford to send it out and used it for their own narrow aims, giving each other wet willies with the weary sweat of workers and towel-snapping their naked asses in the Senate locker room with rolled up American flags steeped in the blood of our soldiers.

Maybe they should be sent home to tell war stories of that time they stuck it to the other side. That time they won a tough campaign by smearing their opponent. That time they played golf with the President after ramrodding a piece of legislation down American throats. That time when the D or R next to their name was all they ever needed to know about the bill they were voting on.

Maybe they should sit somewhere on a porch and gaze off into the distance, not the long stare into the future like statesmen who planted trees whose shade they’ll never sit in, but with wistful remembrance of a time when they were young and strong, and bent the transplanted power of their constituencies to smashing the opposition and fulfilling the single-minded demands of their biggest donors.

Maybe they are grizzled veterans of the unjust wars our country should no longer fight, and should never have started in the first place. Leave them to their dignified retirement, and let them believe they were right all along.

Maybe it’s time to send them home.

It will take time and will to pass constitutional amendments, but we don’t have to wait. Take a look at your Congressman and Senator’s seniority. If they’ve been in office more than twelve years, consider voting for someone else. I’d take my chances on someone who wants the seat rather than someone who believes they are entitled to it. As Herbert Hoover once said, we don’t need to sink the ship to drown the rats. The institutions as designed by the Founding Fathers work. They don’t need to be removed—they need to be reclaimed and reinvigorated with the principles upon which they were created.

That’s how a republic works.


About the author

Stacey Roberts

Stacey Roberts is an author and history nerd who delights in the stories we never learned about in school. He is the author of the Trailer Trash With a Girl's Name series of books and the creator of the History's Trainwrecks podcast.

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