Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pay-to-Play Politics: It's Not Just Republicans

Two quick examples from recent news about how our political system encourages money-for-power, power-for-money exchanges. Both involve Democrats.

First, we have Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich allegedly trying to sell Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat. The only thing surprising about this story is how completely unsubtle Blago appears to have been about the whole thing and how utterly red-handed he appears. Normally these kinds of scandals are harder for the public to follow, but this story broke big and broke fast.

Another observation: People initially bandied about Jesse Jackson Jr.'s name as one of the alleged "bidders" for the seat, mentioned in the Justice Department's affidavit. (Everybody knows he is interested in the seat.) People absolutely love to smear Jesse's father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. After all, whenever a well-known civil rights leader connects racism, extreme economic inequality, and war as three parts of the same evil, there are just too many powerful people who have an interest in silencing or discrediting him.

Well, it now looks like Jesse Jr. is the good guy in this story. He is apparently the one who first tipped off the Justice Department to the whole Blagojevich Corruption Machine.

Second, Caroline Kennedy appears to be the front-runner to be appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's vacant Senate seat in New York. I have nothing against Caroline. But the only reason there is even a possibility she will be the next senator from New York is that her last name is Kennedy and she is wealthy and famous. According to this AP story, Kennedy "told New York's governor on Monday that she's interested in the U.S. Senate seat." In other words, she just called up the governor and talked to him and that's why she is now the front-runner. Wow, why didn't any of the millions of other Democrats in New York think of that? Just call the governor, duh.

Both of these stories arise from an obvious flaw in the system: governors can appoint people to fill vacant Senate seats. I have not heard any major discussion of this as a systemic problem. Instead, Blajojevich is treated as just a bad apple. The best we can come up with is that he should be removed from office and charged with a crime. No real changes necessary. In Kennedy's case, we call it another example of shallow, personality-based politics and America's dynastic tendencies (which it is). But no one calls for any lasting change to fix anything.

How about this: A new constitutional amendment saying that governors can no longer fill vacant senate seats. Instead, a special election is held 120 days after the seat's vacancy.


X said...

Maybe the departing senator could select their successor who would complete the remainder of the term. Then at the end of the term there would be an election as usual. I guess that's a less democratic way of solving the problem. And it also plays more into the dynastic, pay-to-play you're talking about. You know what. Forget my idea!

But how do you rise to the political level of being a senator, governor, etc. anyway? From what I see and know from history, you almost always have to either be born into political royalty, be famous, rich, attractive, conniving... There is clearly a caste system where about the top %5 of the population exists in that upper echelon of society. These are the rulers of the world; the elite human. And tragically everyone else buys into it. We the commoners watch their Hollywood movies, sign up for their military, slave away for their corporations…I don’t want to go communist manifesto on your ass but shouldn’t there be a limit to how much wealth an individual can have? The government should cut it off at a certain number of dollars and then “distribute the wealth”. It’s like in Sim City or any video game with money: when you get $ 999,999,999 you can’t gain any more. There’s a ceiling. Or how about this, we employ the roll-over. Once you get $999,999,999.99 and then earn one more penny, your odometer rolls over and you lose all your money and it goes to the Distribute the Wealth Campaign. You’re obviously good at making money so it shouldn’t be too hard to make it all back. The government would be sowing and reaping from its fields of capitalism. Seeing as anyone would never go over the ceiling on purpose, the government could issue surprise stimulus package checks to push those hovering at the ceiling over the roll-over mark.

The reality is I’m a bumbling idiot.

Money is the root of most evil. There’s an 80/20 ratio.

I’m sick to death of labor. Is it really necessary? Can we one day get to the point where we’re not slaves to money? I think we were at that point before civilization started but I guess then we were slaves to something else.

There is a pyramid of power. Slavery lives.

As far as my preference of government styles, I’m half and half. Either we have no central government where people rule themselves on a micro/local level; or we have a total control government which controls and knows about every minute detail of our lives.

Sorry for the digression, I’m typing to kill time. It’s probably all rather embarrassing to read.

But yes, I agree the laws should be changed to fill vacant senate seats.

Becky said...

The Blago thing kills me. How did he POSSIBLY think that would work? Also, great post.

Camp Papa said...

As evidence that I don't automatically agree with posts on this blog (although that's usually a safe bet), I don't think I'd want to see that kind of amendment. It probably depends on whose ox is being gored, but the existing system usually works as much as our quid pro quo system works. Besides, it would be awfully expensive to hold those elections. Then again (I have a tendency to argue with myself...I usually win.), probably not more expensive than an appointee who doesn't truly serve the people.

Mark said...

It warrants mentioning that the appointees only serve a maximum two years before they would have to run again, in this case 2010.

Sara said...

I was looking forward to a post from you on this.
What do you think about 1.term limitations for everybody in a public office 2. compulsory service with minimal compensation , kind of like jury duty, for public offices.

That Blagojevich is completely mental.

Better Than Machines said...

Sara, I generally support term limits for public offices. And I do think there should be term limits for Congress. I can't find the specific numbers right now, but the percentage of the time incumbents win elections is ridiculously high. And the percentage of the time they win their primary races is even worse. There are just too many unfair advantages for an entrenched incumbent.

Compulsory service for public offices is an idea I haven't heard much about. I'll have to ponder this. I think it might be a good thing, especially for some local offices. The sort of randomness in selection would probably be more democratic than our current system.

Amy said...

can i just ask...why is it necessarily bad for incumbents to get reelected? maybe sometimes they're reelected cause they're good at their jobs?

or maybe i'm just naive. that's entirely possible. :)

Mark said...

Amy, in my heart I would be inclined to agree with you. Unfortunately, there is an enormous lack of accountability with elected officials. Name recognition is too great a force in these times for a challenger to make up the disadvantage in most cases. I think most of us would agree FDR did a great job, but it was his FOUR terms that created the limit in presidential terms. By that token, you have senators like Robert Byrd of West Virginia who first took office in 1958. I won't go into Ted Stevens(corruption) or Ted Kennedy(health).
I think the issue of gubernatorial appoinents to the senate could be reconciled if the appointee were disallowed from running from reelection. This would address issues or cost, Wayne, and would be less consequential in the grand scheme or politics. Also, even though much more than half of incumbants win reelection, much less than half (~35%) of govenor appointed senators win their reelection bid.