You Get the Politicians You Pay For

Right Angles

By Noam Neusner

Published April 10, 2008, issue of April 18, 2008.
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It’s often said that the problem with Washington is that it isn’t run like a business. It actually is — the problem is that it’s run like Bear Stearns.

Just consider the business of running elections. We’re a democracy, so this is supposed to be our core competency. If only we could make that claim.

The two dominant political parties select their candidates according to rules that only a handful of lawyers understand. Some states hold caucuses, some hold straight-up elections, and some hold both. In some states, members of the party are the only ones who get to vote; in other states, non-members, or independents, join in the fun.

Some states are given prominent roles in the process by voting early. Other states jockey to get closer to the front of the line, but if they go too early, their votes don’t count — but only if they actually need to be counted. Meanwhile, some of voters are a lot more important than the others, and they can change their minds as much as they want, right up until the bitter end.

Now, consider as well that over the course of several election cycles, we have had rampant examples of voter fraud, voter confusion and a bitter presidential election decided ultimately by nine justices.

No two-bit business would handle such a core function this incompetently. So why do we put up with it?

Frankly, we have only ourselves — and the naive arguments of good-government types — to blame.

With stories about lobbyists lining the pockets of our elected leaders, both legally and illegally, you’d think that politics was the greatest feeding trough in America. Here’s the truth: Politics is a business for cheapskates. Our elections are run on threadbare budgets and our politics is strictly a penny-ante game.

Few of the advertising, polling, marketing, speechwriting and other consultants who latch onto candidates every two years make a profitable business doing so. In fact, most of that business is in the loss-leader category: It allows these same consultants to brag about their famous clients when they pitch to corporations for more discrete — and much more profitable — work.

The New Yorker magazine once wrote a story about the fundraising prowess of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerhouse pro-Israel lobbying group. Citing its ability to raise $20 million in short order, the article was practically breathless in its admiration.

But in the corporate world, $20 million in raised capital is, as the Aipac guys would call it, bubkes. It might buy you a piece of a small biotechnology start-up, and that’s about it.

Elected leaders themselves complain rightly that their wages for public service, combined with strict rules governing outside sources of income, make politics a rich man’s sport. How would you like to maintain two homes, travel frequently between them, and maintain an outwardly semi-prosperous existence, all on the congressional salary of $170,000 a year?

Forget the goal of the citizen representative. If you want to get elected, get rich first. That way, you can self-finance your campaign. Besides, it’s a lot easier than spending years trying to build a Rolodex of donors and friends by passing laws in rinky-dink state capitals.

Here’s some perspective: In 2004, the two presidential candidates spent about $700 million between them. That might sound like a lot, but it’s not. Last year, Disney paid $700 million for Club Penguin, a Web site for the pre-teen set.

That tightly-fought 2004 election cost $6.25 for each of the 112 million citizens who cast votes. If you think the margin of victory in Ohio — about 118,000 votes — was the difference between President Bush and President Kerry, you’re saying both sides valued those voters at $737,500.

In the corporate world, $737,500 won’t even buy you a regional brand-building campaign for dish soap. In America, it buys you four years in the White House.

And, as it turns out, that is a very leverageable asset, as the consultants like to say. The bipartisan-supported 2005 highway bill, when passed, was supposed to cost taxpayers roughly $287 billion. Assuming just 10% of it, $29 billion, is pork designed purely for local appetites, the bill comes to a staggering $241.67 per 2004 presidential election voter. If you break it out over three election cycles (after all, it’s a 6-year bill), it’s still more than $80 a voter.

And that’s just one piece of legislation. Throw in military bases, farm subsidies and small business set-asides, and suddenly you realize why someone would spend $10 million to get elected to the Senate — the average spent for a winning campaign in 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — it’s a very modest cost to gain control over massive sums of money.

So, here’s a suggestion: Let’s put more money into the business of getting elected and take some money out of the business of spending.

Let’s lift all limits on campaign donations, provided that 10% of every campaign dollar goes to improve election infrastructure and another 10% goes to pay for a big raise for elected leaders at all levels.

How big? Think about the quality of candidates we’d get if the job of senator paid $1 million.

Sure, that’s a lot of coin — but here’s the catch: We will deduct 10% of the cost of all earmarks from the pay of those elected leaders who sponsor the pork. If a congressman wants to run a campaign on “what I’ve done for this district,” let’s take him at his word — and his wallet.

Noam Neusner served as President Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter from 2002 to 2004.


Editor’s Note
Starting with this week’s issue, Noam Neusner will join the Forward as a regular monthly columnist. Formerly President Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter, Neusner takes an often provocative right-of-center look at public affairs and public life — hence, to turn a phrase, the name of his column: “Right Angles.”


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