Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Four Hours and the Two Hours

Now that the Super PAC threat has failed to materialize, Congress seems to have lost interest in doing anything about campaign finance reform. Yet the problem hasn't gone away. A 2012 poll finds that three-quarters of Americans think there is too much money in politics, and a similar number think that this has given the rich more influence than other Americans.

Think this might contribute much to Americans' sense of alienation from their government? You'd be right.

But that's not all. The Huffington Post recently published what it said was a slide from a Power Point presentation given to new Democratic representatives, showing a reasonable allocation of time in a representative's day. The slide calls for four hours per day to be spent on the phone raising money. This is much as they should spend on all official duties. Of the time spent on official duties, two hours is spent on the floor or in committee meetings, that is, doing what we  ordinarily think of as legislating.

This is truly shocking. Our legislators spend only two hours a day legislating (and often less than five days a week), not because they're lazy but because they feel they have no choice. No  wonder they often seem to be talking past each other-- they barely see each other. It's no secret that the floor is often empty, but I always assumed it was because legislators were at committee meetings or otherwise working behind the scenes. Turns out they're on the phones, trying to make sure they have enough money to spend another two years on the phone.

That's the paradox. Apparently, members of Congress don't even like it. Imagine how you would feel spending four hours per day begging for money over the phone; now imagine how it must feel to someone who is way above average in ego and self-centeredness. If you're a Congressman, almost half your day is spent doing stuff you hate--in order to be able to continue doing the same thing.

Why don't politicians do something about it, by enacting public financing of campaigns? I can only offer guesses. One would be that the existing system probably does favor incumbents. Another is that it favors Republicans, who have been the staunchest opponents of public financing.

But another problem has also been the Constitutional difficulties, since recent Supreme Court decisions, of keeping big money out. Nancy Pelosi has even been reduced to calling for a Constitutional amendment to permit regulation of corporate speech, which is both inadequate and unachievable.

Fortunately, I have already proposed a solution to this problem: instead of trying to keep big money out, we should be trying to get small money in. It turns out that small contributions by enough people completely swamp $100 million donations by a few billionaires. Instead of leveling the playing field with a bulldozer, you might say, we level it with a dump truck. I go through the arithmetic here.  I suggest one possible way of doing this: a $100 refundable tax credit for political contributions. Lawrence Lessig and Bruce Ackerman have both made another, nearly equivalent, suggestion: give all citizens a $50 voucher that they can spend on political contributions.

If the facts were known about the four hours and the two hours, I think there would be outrage. Two hours a day? But this outrage would just curdle into more cynicism unless people were presented with a viable alternative. Increasing small contributions would only not only liberate members of Congress to do their jobs and virtually eliminate the influence of big money on politics. It would make ordinary voters feel, rightly, that they had an influence on government.

I don't know who will pick up this ball. But some entrepreneurial politician could really run with it.

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