Contributions, Conflicts of Interest, and Confidence

By on October 10, 2009 in Campaign Contributions, DOMESTIC SOCIAL POLICY, Health Care Policy, Special Interests

Why is it that senators and representatives vote on legislation when they have a conflict of interest?  It is not an alien concept – Judges recuse themselves from cases when conflicted – lawyers don’t take cases when conflicted – therapists and brokers are concerned with the issue – and on and on and on.  But our Congressmen cavalierly accept millions of dollars every year from interest groups who are trying to buy legislation.  Is it a surprise, then,  that there is little public confidence in Congress?  The Roper Poll conducted between October 1-5 (2009) finds that only 33% of those polled approve of the way Congress is doing its job – 64% disapproved.  The Gallop Poll of October 1 – 4 finds the public even more disatisfied – 21% approve, 72% disapprove.  The outbusts and threats that occurred during this summer’s town hall meetings supports the notion that confidence in our political institutions is lacking (at least, among a sizable minority). 

This is a serious problem.  Democratic government (in particular) can only operate with the confidence and acquiescence of those governed.  This does not mean that everyone must agree with what government is doing – an effective democracy depends on informed debate and honest dissent.  But citizens must respect the principles by which the policies are derived – e.g. majority rule and representative democracy…  Make no mistake, the more violent and threatening behavior exhibited this summer may have been directed at individuals, but it demonstrates a growing lack of confidence in our institutions.  Shamefully for all of us, many elected officlals encouraged this behavior either openly, by their silence, or through tongue-in-cheek disapproval.  Democracy is not a lazy man’s game, it’s not for the sqeamish, and not a spectator sport, but it does have rules, and mob rule is not one of them.  

However, there is good reason for the citizenry’s declining confidence; there is growing doubt that government puts their welfare before that of special interests.  Consider the insurance industry’s effort to influence health care reform.  Since the 1990 election cycle (1989-90), the industry has pumped one-third of a billion dollars in the campaign coffers of those running for Congress (and this only one interest group with a stake in health care).  As almost every Congressman, no matter which party, receives some of it, it is difficult to explain how this huge outlay of money is directly transformed into favorable votes.  And yet, these contributions must have some affect.  Why would there be such contributions be made if it were otherwise?  And the amount of money involved suggests that the return is large.  Thus, the motives behind the those voting for or against any legislation must be questioned.  What is most influential, the needs and desires of the citizenry or that of an interest group of one kind or another. 

There is something legislators can easily do to rehabilitate their standing in the eyes of the public; they can exclude themselves from votes on legislation if they’ve received contributions from organizations (corporate or otherwise) having an interest in that legislation.  This seems a simple remedy, but it would have a profound effect on the way the political process works.  Congressmen, legislative aids, party or campaign officials, and interest groups would oppose it vehemently.  They would argue:  “Special interests insist on giving us money – don’t they have a right to be heard?”  Of course they do – their members can vote like the rest of us, can’t they?  Besides, this is not about special interests; it’s about you, Congressman!  “Absurd, special interests wouldn’t make contributions – there’d be no incentive.  How would we run our campaigns?  They’re long and expensive, you know.”  Yes, they’re too long and too expensive.  Make them shorter and cheaper, maybe then you could spend time legislating rather than raising money on a continuous basis.  “But everyone takes the money.  There’d be no one to vote if we restricted voting, the legislative process would grind to a halt.”  Yes, that’s true – as long as you continue taking money.  “Why…why, there’d be a complete change the legislative process!”  Right, that’s the point.

So the ball is in your court, you guardians of the public trust.  But remember, democracies have many ways to remedy runaway, improper behavior – if you can’t police yourselves, maybe the citizenry will have to do it for you.  

From the Abyss,

Jim

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