For linked files go to the end of this document.
Open Letter to Senator John McCain:
Your recent TV conversation with Larry King was inspiring and confirms my impressions of you as a brave and honest man whose determination to reform our corrupting campaign finance system is most praiseworthy. Not long ago 60 Minutes did a segment on the power exercised by lobbyists in Washington as, virtually, a fourth branch of government. In the shadows, their support for politicians who favor the special interests they represent leads our elected officials to champion their privileged causes at the expense of many broad public concerns. It makes a sham of our pretensions to be a real democracy.
I have visited your Home Page and read various speeches, press releases and other documents of yours -- they are most impressive. I am especially interested in your continuing struggle for responsibility in campaign finance, something I see as a CONSTITUTIONAL MONSTROSITY. Your recent statement on the Defense Appropriations bill is stunning in its honest revelations about the extent of pork -- "earmarks and set-asides for powerful defense contractors, influential local groups and officials, and other parochial interests..." I share the "distrust with which the average citizen views the federal government," for reasons you correctly identity. To pass a "$268 billion defense spending bill" that includes a lot of "obfuscation and waste," as you recognize, is truly shocking and demoralizing -- especially when accompanied by a failure to do better by the "12,000 men and women..." in our services who must subsist on food stamps!
Your initiative in proposing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation correctly says what needs to be done to limit the parasitical impact of special interests in our system of government-- your release of 9 September explaining this bill is very moving. You recognize that failure to act will "contribute to the alienation of the American people from the people who have sworn an oath to defend their interest." Absolutely correct! However, neither your analysis nor that offered by 60 Minutes, goes to the heart of the problem which is inherent in our constitutional system. I fear that all members of Congress who benefit from the present system will give lip-service to reform but find excuses not to support your bill or any other that is equally strong. The PORK BARRELING banner on your Home Page is precious -- it puts the point in a pig sty.
Undoubtedly, many of your colleagues fear that, without the contributions they are now able to get, they cannot be re-elected -- moreover, they owe debts to their supporters they feel obliged to pay. I believe the supporters of genuine campaign finance reform in America are doomed to failure so long as they do not take into account the underlying constitutional dynamics of our system of government. Political funding in America is a blight due to our constitutional system -- until we understand its deep reasons, we will not be able to overcome this symptom. It's like a malarial fever -- fighting it with ice packs was no cure. Only when we learned about how mosquitoes give humans the parasite that causes the fever were we able to devise effective treatments for the disease. Until we understand its constitutional foundations, we will not be able to conquer this problem.
I believe the campaign funding problem stems from the separation of powers. In our system, decisions about who gets what from the political process are partitioned among a large number of specialized niches, especially in Congress. The subcommittees make important decisions in which senior members, colluding with the special interests and their favored executive agencies, usually have the last word. The Defense Appropriations Bill is a monstrous example, as you have so rightly charged.
Because Congress could not possibly debate, in plenary sessions, all the issues raised by such legislation, most committee reports are enacted by unanimous consent which means that the special interests win out without a whimper from the floor. Understandably, those with the money to spend for the causes they value have every reason to keep up the pressure and recipients who are compelled to pay for costly campaigns, especially to finance advertisements in the mass media, rightly feel they cannot possibly win without seeking and getting the subventions they need. Can anyone buck the system and survive? Only those who "play ball" are electable.
Because men and women of principle who reject flagrant campaign financing are defeated, it seems clear that the system will continue to reproduce itself. Until the system is changed, I see no possibility of making genuine campaign finance reforms. We will tinker with it, making cosmetic changes, but the basic dynamics remain. Like the fabled Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, we will scream our outrage but, ultimately, we must fail because the tidal forces are too vast. The ice pack treatments cannot work. If there were no other way to manage a democracy, our situation would be hopeless indeed, but the fact is that there is another way to organize a democracy. No other industrialized democracy faces the campaign financing pressures we experience. They all use a system that assures political accountability to the electorate and links its competing interests in a coherent manner. That system is called "parliamentary" a term we have learned to reject.
However, paradoxically, we actually use the same organizational principle in the private sector and in local government. We call it EXECUTIVE ACCOUNTABILITY. Our corporations and non-profit associations rely on an elected board to hold management accountable. We do not partition the decision making authority among committees of the board. Our council-manager cities use the same principle. Long ago we abandoned the weak mayor system in which council committees make uncoordinated decisions -- nor does a strong mayor work in which the chief executive runs the city without real accountability. City managers are authorized to manage subject, always, to the power of the council to revoke their mandate. In fact, therefore, this is not a strange foreign system. Rather, it's the way we normally make important decisions in large enterprises, both public and private. Why should we not learn from our own American experience how to apply executive accountability to the management of our most important organization, the national government?
The fragmentation of decision-making power in an elected assembly can be overcome by the principle of accountability. The chief executive, in consultation with senior officers -- cabinet members and experienced career officials -- weighs the interactive costs and benefits of important decisions and presents recommendations to the elected assembly in coherent packages. Members may not be able to evaluate every item in each package, but if they see anything that seriously troubles them, they can call for a debate to clarify the issues. When a majority defeats a proposal but the government stands firm, a show-down vote of no confidence based on substantive issues may be used to discharge the executive and cabinet. This is a far cry from our personalized impeachment process which completely frustrates executive accountability.
With authentic accountability, the special interests will find they cannot shape legislation by making large contributions and the pork will be stymied. Members of the assembly will no longer have power niches in which their decisions shape policy and hence there will be no incentive for special interests to buy political support. Democratic accountability also produces disciplined political parties that can nominate and support candidates, undermining the motives that compel our candidates for public office to raise fortunes. It is feasible, in an accountable system of governance, to entrust party leaders with responsibility for selecting candidates, but in our system, partisanship produced so many abuses that we turned to primaries which, unfortunately, have produced even greater abuses -- the cure is worse than the disease!
The primaries have multiplied the power of campaign funders. Because fund-raising is so necessary now, and so time-consuming, longer and longer lead-times are necessary, even running "straw polls" before primary time. In fact, political winners are distracted from their responsibilities by the continual need to raise more money, to pay debts and prepare for the next encounter. This puts us into a perpetual electioneering mode that is unsettling for everyone involved. And really unnecessary: campaign costs can be trivial with accountable government because free time on television and other mass media vastly reduces the cost of campaigning. Tragically, one of the sacred cows protected by special interests involves the privatization of public space by TV and radio stations, something that is rare in other democracies. Our system, therefore, not only pressures Congress to approve pork barrel , set-asides and earmarks, but escalates the costs of getting elected and lengthens the campaigning seasons. Dealing with just one element in this complex interactive system cannot succeed so long as the other reinforcing elements remain.
The pressure exercised by lobbyists and contributors dwindles
or vanishes when the interested parties find that their "gifts" won't
work. However, so long as the system makes fund raising a necessary price
of electoral success and gives fund recipients the power to reward those
who support them, I believe legislation designed to curtail large campaign
contributions cannot succeed, even if it could be enacted. The pressures
on all sides will motivate both givers and receivers to find loop-holes
that enable them to by-pass these laws. If "soft-money" no longer works,
they will find some other mechanism.
Our system defies accountability by permitting the chief executive to veto legislative decisions and denying Congress the right to discharge the chief executive because of fundamental policy differences. It is easy enough to understand why this archaic structural principle was created, but it has outlived its usefulness and needs to be re-vamped. No industrialized democracy uses it and they are able to protect civil liberties and human rights just as well as we do. American civil society is permeated by the principle of executive accountability -- why can we not adopt the same principle in our national government?
Reformers have been stumped because they thought fundamental change could only be secured by amending the Constitution. I believe this is a myth that blocks action. There are ways to re-shape our national system of government without making formal amendments to the Constitution -- we cherish the document so much, and projects to amend it are so time-consuming because of the complex procedure that it prescribes, that we need to think seriously about the possibility of reforming our system without amending the Constitution. Actually, we have often done so and need to recognize this fact. One example is the use of primaries, something never contemplated by the Founders. I believe Congress has the power -- it just needs to be used intelligently.
However, Congress will not act appropriately and we will never address these issues seriously nor make the needed reforms until we learn how causes and effects are linked in our existing constitutional system. This includes many questions, but among them, a key item is the way our very expensive and prolonged political campaigns are financed, and why our antiquated system continues to reproduce itself. You could render a spectacular service to our country if you could add to your appeals for campaign spending reform a serious discussion of the reasons why America is cursed with this corrupting system, including the deep deep causes that keep it alive.
You don't need to spell out the possible solutions, but you
could call for a profound and sustained effort to hunt for them. Our
government spends vast sums for many worthy causes but neglects to look
seriously into the basic dynamics of our own political system -- even a
small endowment for this purpose could produce monumentally important and
democratizing results. Every time you call for campaign finance reform,
why don't you add an appeal for support to study the reasons why our
system works the way it does? We should hunt for realistic solutions
based on causes, not just symptoms. Perhaps you could propose an
amendment to your own McCain-Feingold bill to stipulate that some funds,
perhaps a levy on all contributions, should be set aside to study the
causes and consequences of this blight on our political system and find
remedies to cure it. Admittedly this is only a step, but it could be a
profoundly important step.
Fred W. Riggs
P.S. In case you wonder about my own qualifications for writing you this way, let me say that I am a professor emeritus of Political Science with a long term interest in comparative government and the viability of constitutional democracy. My home page provides some background data -- take a look at Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism or COVICO Committee on Viable Constitutionalism
Return to top of this page or click here for Home Page links:
|Personal Autobio||PubAd GRD||Globalization Concepts||Ethnicity ETHNIC-L||COCTA Onoma||COVICO Choices||Impeach
Click here for links on the Social Science Web Sites page:
|ASSOCIATIONS || U.S.INSTITUTIONS || INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS|
|LIBRARIES AND THE INTERNET || DATA BASES|
|ETHNICITY and ETHNIC-L
GLOBALIZATION and GLOCALIZATION
GOVERNANCE || PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION || POLITICAL SCIENCE
|CONCEPTS AND TERMINOLOGY || FUNDING|
|SITE MAP || SEARCH ENGINES || HOME PAGE || TOP OF FILE|