Lambert here: I’m skeptical of movements on process, as opposed to benefits or outcomes. For example, the Temperance Movement was non-partisan, but had clear goals a the personal level, and ultimately achieved the Eighteenth Amendment. Nevertheless, this is a clearly thought out proposal; I do think the notion of a “pledge” is important and interesting. What do readers think?
By Chuck, a frequent commenter at Naked Capitalism.
It’s been nearly twelve years since the Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court decision came down. Justice Kennedy’s remark in the majority opinion, “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy,” was out of touch with reality at the time and is now nothing short of fatuous. The problem is not just “the appearance of influence or access,” but the pervasive reality of it. There’s a name for this kind of “influence and access.” Constitutional scholars such as Larry Lesssig and Zephyr Teachout call it “dependence corruption,” or “systemic corruption.” In their writings on the subject these scholars show that the founders regarded this type of corruption as the greatest threat, going forward, to de facto democratic government. If those men (and yes, for better or worse they were all men) were aware of what’s going on now they’d be pounding on the insides of their coffin lids.
The Citizens United organization had sued to challenge regulations the Federal Elections Commission had put in place to constrain contributions business and non-profit corporations could make to political campaign organizations, and the SCOTUS decided in their favor. Some level of dependence corruption has always been with us. and it had been ramping up in the decades leading up to the Citizens United suit. Since the decision it’s gone on steroids. The wealthy donor class and the institutions they control and lobbyists they employ split their largess between the two major parties, incenting the establishments of each to their megadonors’ common agenda instead of the programs they campaigned on to attract voters. Then it’s Charlie Brown, Football, Lucy. What is the megadonors’ agenda? It is to protect and perfect the radical neoliberal framework that enables them to establish rent toll booths throughout the economy that enable them to increase their wealth and power. Whether it’s intentional or not, their success is knocking the ladders down the rest of us have counted on to enable us to lead moderately prosperous lives.
Since Citizens United systemic corruption as a subject of discussion has virtually disappeared from public awareness. For obvious reasons, sitting Congress Critters who are prospering in office don’t mention it of their own volition. Nor do their former colleagues who populate K Street and environs. Even the minority of passionate supporters of overwhelmingly popular programs that are thrown into the legislative ditch by the process are reluctant to bring up. As for the narrow Overton Window through which the mainstream media filters what we’re allowed to see and read, it doesn’t appear there either. Instead they distract us with peripheral issues while the march of neoliberalism is casting ever more of us down the hierarchy of needs. But resignation to the inevitability of systemic corruption isn’t an acceptable path either. The status quo has put governance of, by, and for the people on a trajectory an aircraft pilot would call a CFIT – Controlled Flight Into Terrain – and the very social and geographic cohesion of the country may be going that route as well.
It’s become increasingly clear that if the pervasive dependence corruption of the United States federal government is going to be reined in, the initiative and the continuing push is going to have to come from the great mass of the people whose most basic interests are no longer being served by that government. Under our Constitutional system it is supposed to be the people we elect to the House of Representatives and the Senate who advocate for our interests but they are not doing so. It is not my intent to demonize people who serve in the elective offices of government. They are human beings, and like all the rest of us they have their individual strengths and weaknesses. But if you define success in legislative politics as being able to get elected and exert influence on legislation you perceive as beneficial, and then get reelected several more times or make the jump to higher office, you have to be a realist. That means to be effective you have to work within the framework you find in place. And now, as the first quarter of the 21st century draws to a close, that framework has become a cesspool of systemic corruption just as the founders feared.
What follows below is a suggestion for how We The People might organize to take on systemic corruption. For now we’ll call it “The Movement,” but before getting into it there are a few things to bear in mind. First off, one of the main things something like this is intended to achieve is to start a widespread public conversation going about systemic corruption and ways to push it toward the sidelines. If other people have better ideas, or if this blooms in ways unanticipated below but still gets the job on the way to being done, great! Also this is a broad brush first take, and many aspects of it are well beyond my skill set, including court precedents, campaign law, fund raising, and public relations.
The Movement in a Nutshell
Envision a Movement that is, does, and does not as follows:
- Develops a Statement of non-corruption practices that Congressional candidates can publicly commit to follow during both primary and general electoral campaigns, and also while serving in office.
- Recruits candidates during the primary, candidate selection stage to pledge to abide by the Statement, and publicizes lists of all candidates for each Congressional seat that is in play, noting which candidates have and have not pledged
- Monitors candidates and office holders’ compliance with the Statement and publicizes deviations
- Solicits voters to pledge to limit their votes, volunteer efforts, and contributions to only pledged candidates
- Publicizes what the Movement is, does and why
- Promote comity among pledged candidates of all parties
- Funds its start-up and work with modest donations from flesh and blood US citizens
- Does not advocate on any issues except those regarding corruption, qualified voter access and electoral fairness
Each bullet is described in more detail below. When the Movement is initially stood up, the focus will be on the US Congress. However the organizational infrastructure will be designed and built with eventual state-level activity in mind. These will begin once the Movement is a going concern at the federal level, and people who buy into the Movement’s mission come forward to become the founding core of state level affiliate organizations.
Here’s what the Movement seeks to accomplish:
- Educate people about systemic corruption and how it pervades the US government in the 21st century
- Convince the people the founders’ fear of corruption as the lethal threat to democracy has come to pass
- Connect the dots among megadonors, Congress and systemic corruption
- Illuminate the fact megadonations are toxic to democracy
- Make accepting toxic donations the body odor of politics
- Show voters that both major party caucuses pursue the same hidden agenda set by the megadonor class
- Persuade nose-pinching voters a ballot for candidates who accept megadonations is a vote for the status quo
- Convince couch voters and nose-pinchers they can make a difference by pledging to vote only for pledged candidates
- Elect ever more pledged candidates of major and peripheral parties to Congress and the Senate
- Encourage pledged Congress members and Senators to work together to fight corruption
- When a critical mass of pledged members of all parties is reached, encourage all of them to withdraw from their original parties and form an anti-corruption caucus and to play hardball when negotiating with toxic donor parties to organize the body.
We should under no circumstances have any illusions the success of this effort is guaranteed. Far from it. The resignation among many American people must be over come. On the other hand it’s the kind of thing that could unexpectedly strike a nerve causing it to quickly go viral. As it gains traction it can expect push back from the status quo, and the more it gains the nastier will be the opposition. But we owe it to succeeding generations to do what we can to restore a functional American democracy.
Here bullet items from The Movement “nutshell” above, described in greater detail:
Develop The Anti-Systemic Corruption Statement
There are five pieces in the anti-corruption Statement to which candidates must agree:
- They will not accept corruptive donations
- They will place personal and family financial assets in a blind trust or similar vehicle during the campaign and if elected
- When their term of service in Congress ends they will not monetize their legislative experience until at least N years have passed since the day they left office
- While in office they will not “dial for dollars” on behalf of candidates and office holders who have not pledged, nor will they do so for party organizations that have not formally and publicly adopted the pledge
- They will make fighting corruption a central tenet of their campaign, and if elected will work with pledged members of all parties to do so
A key item to be addressed at the outset is what does and does not constitute a corruptive donation. Also, a process will be put in place to periodically review and reassess those parameters. Similarly the terms of the blind trust will take some spelling out. The overall objective of these provisions is to shield candidates and office holders from the temptation to take into consideration her own personal and campaign financial situations when faced with decisions to support or oppose bills that comes before the legislative body. These tasks will require significant support from lawyers deeply experienced in Constitutional and electoral law.
Recruit Candidates to Pledge
Recruiting candidates to the Movement will begin as early in an election cycle as possible in the parties’ primary, candidate selection phase. Initially the Movement will consider candidates who are in good standing in their communities with some exceptions. Exceptions might include candidates who personally, or by party affiliation are:
- Overtly exclusionary (e.g. racist, theocratic, etc.)
- Advocates of or associated with violence
- Possessors of personal or family wealth above a threshold set by the Movement (e.g. high six or very low seven figures)
- Seeking office in a district egregiously gerrymandered by the candidate’s party
- A record of participating in corruptive practices while previously in elective or appointive office (e.g. promoting gerrymandering, improper voter registration, and/or voter suppression while a member of a state legislature or political appointment)
Incumbent members of the House of Representatives or the Senate will not be considered except in the following circumstances: they are on record of speaking out on systemic corruption on several occasions; they contact the movement unsolicited. Any and all candidates for a specific office who pledge to abide by the Movement’s Statement will be on the Movement’s “Approved” list for that office. Because more than one candidate may be listed, acceptance of the candidate’s pledge by the Movement does not constitute an endorsement in the usual sense.
Monitor Candidates and Office Holders’ Compliance
The Movement will use resources such as opensecrets.org, etc. to monitor pledged candidates’ compliance with the Statement and publicize any deviations. Per the fifth bullet in the above section on the anti-corruption Statement pledged legislators will fight attempts by the status quo Congress to enact laws that shield campaign finance data from public view.
Solicit Citizens to Pledge to Vote and Work for Only Pledged Candidates
With the exception of 2020, in which the presidential race featured an incumbent who was the most polarizing person to hold that office in living memory, voter turnouts in Congressional elections in recent decades have been disappointingly low. The elections themselves have generally been indecisive, frequently flipping control of the Houses from one party to the other and back by narrow margins. Terrabytes of text have been written analyzing and theorizing about why this is the case. But for people who are not enamored with either major party, and who have flipped back and forth from red to blue and back for decades, and who personally are experiencing the acceleration instead of the turnaround of the society’s ride on the road to perdition, it’s hard not to conclude they say to themselves, “Why bother voting?” These are the people the Movement most needs to energize to disrupt business as usual of the two major parties. The Movement also needs to attract people who lean toward one of the two legacy parties. Because of the Bernie Bro phenomenon I suspect it will be quite successful doing so among those tilting toward the Democrats. As for the Republicans, it’s harder to predict because Trump. The most success, at least initially, will likely be achieved among peripheral party candidates. It’s much easier to eschew megadonor money when you don’t expect to get much if any of it in the first place.
People will be encouraged to sign up for the Movement’s email list before they decide whether or not to pledge. This will require only a user name, password and email address. However to make pledges they will have to provide their real names and physical addresses, as well as their Congressional districts. Some states have websites where a person can plug in a physical address and receive back the Congressional and state legislative districts, candidate lists and where to vote. Where feasible links to these will be available in the Movement’s website.
No personal data or other information collected from vote pledgers, and email list subscribers will not be sold. The data will be used only for internal purposes and for aggregating and publishing the total numbers of people who have pledged for each Congressional and Senate seat in play in an election cycle.
Publicize What the Movement Is, Does, and Why
It goes without saying that a Movement that seeks to arouse the public to take action opposing a lethal threat needs people with public relations skills. It’s also safe to say a Movement that takes on the status quo in the 21st century USA, which has almost infinitely deep pockets, will receive precious little coverage by and access to establishment media. Once the Movement gains some traction this will almost certainly include shadow-banning by the dominant social media platforms. Therefore various modes of guerrilla marketing will have to be employed. This is another area where experienced expertise is needed.
A crucial element of the PR messaging must be to educate the public on what systemic corruption is and how it is preventing the governing process from delivering hugely popular programs. In doing so it’s also crucially important not to demonize individual members of the House and the Senate. At most long serving Congress Critters should be depicted as people who had the realism to succeed in the system as they encountered it on a day-to-day basis, and to decide, either explicitly or tacitly, that the system couldn’t or shouldn’t be changed.
There is a chicken-egg issue that will be faced as the Movement is being stood up. Considering resources will be very limited at the outset, is it more important to begin by focusing on informing and getting pledges from voters or candidate? I lean toward the voters on the grounds major party candidates won’t take the Movement seriously until a significant number of voters have pledged. Perhaps while the initial primary focus is on voters, a secondary effort should be directed to the candidates of peripheral parties. They will be an easier sell and having some candidates on board early will help build credibility among voters.
Promotes Comity Among Pledged Candidates of All Parties
Unlike in days gone by, it is reported there has been very little good will and cooperation in recent Congresses except when it comes to enacting megadonors’ agenda items. When a critical mass of pledged members of both major parties are in Congress it’s likely the Movement will have an office in Washington. That office should provide a space where pledged members can meet to discuss anti-corruption strategy and other issues, as well as to just get to know each other socially and begin to rebuild the cross-party comity that was once common in Congress.
Fund Its Start-up and Work with Modest Donations from US Citizens
Recent examples such as Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns and the PanQuake social medium project have shown that crowd-funding can raise considerable amounts of money. The Movement should be able to do the same, and be able to accept both one-time and sustaining donations. Once it is up and running it may be appropriate to establish an annual limit on donations from one person in order to becoming dependent on one or a small group of contributors. If it is necessary to rely on some large donations to get the Movement off the ground, the founding directors should make sure the donors are fully onboard with the Movement’s mission as stated in its founding documents.
Remain Non-partisan and Advocate Only on Issues Regarding Corruption and Electoral Fairness
In order to be effective in its mission the Movement must be rigorously non-partisan. At first it’s likely it will have more more success recruiting both candidates and voters from one major party vis a vis the other. If early results show this is the case it is essential the Movement be prepared redouble recruiting efforts on the voters and prospective candidates of the other party. Once a critical mass of swing voters perceives the Movement is biased its effective in their eyes will be greatly diminished and difficult to recover from.
Well, there you have it folks. A proposal for a movement to turn around the systemic corruption of the United State Congress – systemic corruption of the kind our founders feared might eventually destroy democracy. Left unaddressed, it probably will.