By Peter J. Henning
A report filed by the Special Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics accuses former Nevada Senator John Ensign of a number of violations related to the end of an affair he had with the wife of a top aide who was also a long-time friend of his family. The aide, Douglas Hampton, was indicted on charges of violating the federal conflict of interest rules this past March, and there is a good chance Mr. Ensign will also be targeted by federal prosecutors.
Much like his former Senate colleague John Edwards is a target of an investigation based on payments to a former mistress, as I discussed previously, Mr. Ensign’s problem was not so much the affair but how he tried to keep it quiet through a secret pay-off. After ending his intimate relationship with Cindy Hampton, who worked as treasurer of his campaign committee, Mr. Ensign terminated both Hamptons and arranged for them to receive $96,000 from a trust fund controlled by his parents. How that payment should be characterized will be crucial in determining whether the former senator will be indicted by prosecutors from the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice, who have been investigating him for over a year.
The Special Counsel’s report reads almost like a prosecution memorandum, setting out the facts of the relationship between Mr. Ensign and the Hamptons, and offering assessments of whether his conduct constituted a violation of federal criminal laws. The former senator does not appear to have set out to purposely violate federal law, but his efforts to keep the affair quiet by placating the Hamptons with money and work for Mr. Hampton may well have led to Mr. Ensign to commit criminal acts.
The charges against Mr. Hampton involve alleged violations of 18 U.S.C. § 207(e)(2), which makes it a crime when a highly-paid member of a senator’s staff within 1 year of leaving the position “knowingly makes, with the intent to influence, any communication to or appearance before any senator or any officer or employee of the Senate, on behalf of any other person” in which the former staffer seeks action by a senator or staff member. Mr. Hampton had numerous contacts with Mr. Ensign, who assisted him by contacting government officials on behalf of Mr. Hampton’s clients.
While Mr. Ensign might try to plead ignorance of what Mr. Hampton was doing, the Special Counsel’s Report goes into great detail about how the former senator pressured companies to hire his former aide, all part of an effort to keep Mr. Hampton from speaking out about the affair with his wife. There does not appear to be much “plausible deniability” here for Mr. Ensign, so proving his knowledge and intent to provide assistance to Mr. Hampton would not appear to be difficult. In addition, a charge of conspiracy is quite possible, based on the interactions of Mr. Ensign and Mr. Hampton.
A more difficult issue, and one with much greater potential ramifications, is characterizing the $96,000 payment to the Hamptons after being terminated from their jobs with the Senate office and campaign. The money came from an Ensign family trust controlled by t
While walking down the street one day a Corrupt Senator wastragically hit
by a car and died. His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peterat the entrance.
"Welcome to heaven," says St. Peter."Before you settle in, it seems there
is a problem. We seldom see a high official aroundthese parts, you see, so
we're not sure what to do with you."
"No problem, just let me in," says theSenator.
"Well, I'd like to, but I have orders fromthe higher ups. What we'll do is
have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven.Then you can choose where
to spend eternity."
"Really? I've made up my mind. I want to bein heaven," says the Senator.
"I'm sorry, but we have our rules."
And with that, St. Peter escorts him to theelevator and he goes down to hell.
The doors open and he finds himself in the middleof a green golf course. In
the distance is a clubhouse and standing in frontof it are all his friends
and other politicians who had worked with him.
Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. Theyrun to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times theyhad while getting rich at the expense of the people. They played a friendly game of golf and then dineon lobster, caviar and the finest champagne. Also present is the devil, who really is a veryfriendly guy who is having a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are all having such a good time that beforethe Senator realizes it, it is time to go. Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waveswhile the elevator rises.
The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopensin heaven where St. Peter
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, American History
, Current Events
, 17th amendment
, Edward Zelinsky
, Add a tag
Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America. In this article, Professor Zelinsky discusses the recent arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and the public maneuvering in New York for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. He concludes that the Seventeenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution should be amended to eliminate gubernatorial appointments of temporary U.S. Senators. Be sure to check back next month for another installation of EZ Thoughts.
The arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, along with the public maneuvering in New York for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, have focused attention on one of the anomalous features of the U.S. Constitution: the power of state governors to select interim U.S. Senators. While that gubernatorial power made sense two hundred years ago, it is not appropriate today. The Seventeenth Amendment of the Constitution should be amended to eliminate gubernatorial appointments of temporary U.S. Senators.
Originally, the Constitution authorized state legislatures to elect U.S. Senators. In this earlier age, transportation and communication were primitive by modern standards. It was difficult for state legislatures to convene and legislatures met less frequently than they do today. In this environment, if a U.S. Senator died or resigned, it was onerous, sometimes impossible, for the legislature to convene in a timely fashion to fill the resulting senatorial vacancy. It was thus sensible to authorize the governor to fill a Senate vacancy temporarily until the legislature could meet to elect a new senator.
Without that gubernatorial authority, it was possible under these pre-modern conditions for a U.S. Senator to die or resign while his state’s legislature was adjourned and for that state to consequently lack full representation in the Senate for an extended period. A temporary gubernatorial appointment was a sensible way to reduce this gap in senatorial representation until the legislature met to elect a new U.S. Senator.
The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution switched the selection of U.S. Senators from the legislatures to popular election. This Amendment should have ended the tradition of interim gubernatorial appointments in favor of immediate special elections to fill senatorial vacancies. Such special elections have always been the method for filling vacancies in the House of Representatives. Once Senators were also elected popularly, special elections likewise became the logical method of filling vacancies in that chamber.
Instead, the Seventeenth Amendment retained the option of gubernatorial appointments of temporary U.S. Senators, though the justification for such appointments – the difficulty of convening state legislatures in an earlier age – had long disappeared. Recent events in Illinois, as well as the well-publicized efforts to influence New York Governor David Paterson’s appointment of Senator Clinton’s successor, highlight the mistake in retaining the once prudent provision for gubernatorial selection of interim U.S. Senators.
In the modern age, it is anomalous for governors to continue to appoint temporary U.S. Senators, a vestigial power reflecting the primitive communications and transportation of an earlier period when legislatures picked U.S. Senators. When a Senate vacancy occurs today, the voters should immediately replace their U.S. Senator through a special election. The Seventeenth Amendment should be amended to eliminate gubernatorial appointments of temporary U.S. senators.
If that happens, Governor Blagojevich will have inadvertently helped to improve the U.S. Constitution.
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, American History
, Current Events
, Al Gore
, Barack Obama
, George Bush
, Jimmy Carter
, John McCain
, Presidential debate
, Add a tag
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on last Friday’s debate. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
In the first presidential debate on Friday night, Senator McCain tried repeatedly to cast Senator Obama as a naive lightweight who does not understand foreign policy. Seven times, McCain laid the charge that Obama just doesn’t get it.
-”Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.”
-”And, yes, Senator Obama calls for more troops, but what he doesn’t understand, it’s got to be a new strategy…”
-”What Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand is that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone …”
-”I don’t think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power.”
-”If we adopted Senator Obama’s set date for withdrawal, then that will have a calamitous effect in Afghanistan and American national security interests in the region. Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand there is a connection between the two.”
-”Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn’t understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia.”
-”Senator Obama still doesn’t quite understand – or doesn’t get it — that if we fail in Iraq, it encourages al Qaeda.”
In schools, in the boardroom, even around the kitchen table, people tend to prove their knowledge by proving what they think to be true rather than by attacking their interlocutors for their failure to understand. McCain was deploying a peculiar form of persuasion that we see often in our politics: he was trying to make a self-referential claim by an other-referential jab. By calling Obama naive he was trying to imply that he was not. Since it is bad taste in politics (as in real life) to be a self-professed know-it-all, it was, McCain probably thought, a classier act to simply dismiss Obama as naive and allow the conclusion that he understood foreign policy better to follow.
Yet this was exactly the failed strategy that Al Gore used against George Bush in their presidential debates in 2000. Although some pundits thought that Al Gore was scoring debate points, many viewers came away thinking that he was a condescending know-it-all.
Even the most artful rhetorician of our time, President Ronald Reagan, had to strike the right balance of tone and humor to successfully get away with his “there you go again” rejoinder. This well executed line in his debate with President Carter in 1980 was one of the defining moments of that campaign. But it gained traction only because there was a growing consensus in the electorate that the decades-long liberal formula for solving the country’s economic woes was obsolete and in need of overhaul. “Do you still not get it” only works when the audience has already gotten it and moved on to newer solutions, leaving one’s interlocutor alone in the dustheap of history.
The problem is that in 2008, Obama is not alone in his views. There are significantly more voters tired of George Bush’s unilateralism, his hard-headed focus on the war on terrorism in Iraq, and his refusal to negotiate with rogue nations than there are voters who would prefer to stay his course. Unlike in 1980 when the country was moving to the political right, this year, many Independents will be apt to wonder if it is McCain who still doesn’t get it.
Senator McCain would do well to remember that the primary season is over and he needs to stop speaking only to his base if he wants to narrow Obama’s lead in the polls. The strategy of calling one’s debate partner naive (a euphemism for a fool) does not often get one extra points from neutral bystanders, independent voters. If Republicans were, like McCain, exasperated on Friday night with their perception that Obama just wouldn’t see the obvious, McCain probably appeared condescending to Independents with the forced grins by which he greeted Obama’s alleged displays of naivete. McCain needs to stop harping on the charge that Obama doesn’t get it but start proving that HE gets it - that many Independents and Democrats are looking to restore the country’s relationship with the rest of the world, that there are many Americans who see the war in Iraq as a foreign policy tangent to the brewing problems in Afghanistan. Maybe Senator Obama doesn’t get it. But do you, Senator McCain?
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, ammon shea
, Add a tag
Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at the word “uppity”.
Last week a member of the House of Representatives, Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, created a stir when he used the word uppity in conjunction with Michelle and Barack Obama. As reported in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, Westmoreland said “Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they’re a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks they’re uppity.”
The remark has drawn wide-spread coverage, and no small amount of condemnation from people who are of the opinion that uppity is what has been delicately termed ‘a racially-tinged’ word. Westmoreland himself has staked out the rather bold position that it is possible to have lived in the South for some five decades and not be aware of the potentially offensive meaning of this word, and offers his own ostensible ignorance as proof of this.
The question of whether the Representative from Georgia is or is not lying has been written about in many other places, as has the question of what would be the appropriate response from the Senator from Illinois or his wife; so have all the other questions of propriety of social discourse, and I’ll not mention them further. What I find interesting is just how difficult it is to really capture the nuance and breadth of a word such as uppity in the dictionary.
It appears to be widely acknowledged that the word has connotations of racism, at least as it was applied to the Obamas. Indeed, much of the commentary has focused on the fact that it would be surprising (or hard to believe) that Westmoreland did not know that he was using a racist turn of phrase. And yet a brief check of several contemporary general dictionaries (the OED, Merriam-Webster, the Encarta) and we find that none of them include this information in their definitions, or in a usage note.
So how should a dictionary address such an issue? It seems like an unwieldy solution to suggest that it could specify that such a word should be used with caution under some narrowly defined set of circumstances (such as ‘may be perceived as insensitive or racist when used in a disparaging sense by a Caucasian speaker referring to a non-Caucasian person or group’). And yet it also seems undeniable that it is in fact used this way, if not by Westmoreland than definitely by others.
One way to address this would be to show the connotations of the word through its use in citations, as the OED does with so much of our vocabulary. But although the OED provides nine examples of uppity being used, from 1880 through 1982, only one of them shows the word being used in an obviously racist sense. And some other dictionaries do not provide such examples at all (such as the American Heritage online dictionary, which has a citation taken from a New York Times article from 1981, which says that some members of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet thought that Alexander Haig “was getting a little uppity and needed to be slapped down” – no one will read that as being racially tinged).
I wonder if there is a limit on how well a dictionary can really capture the nuance of a language in such circumstances. Especially when one bears in mind that Senator Obama’s running mate, Senator Biden, was similarly taken to task for his use of the words clean and articulate some months ago. I don’t know whether they were intended as implicit slights (what reason is there to think that a well-respected senator would be anything but clean or articulate?), but I can see how it would be possible – and yet I’ve not found a dictionary that documents that these specific words are sometimes used thusly.
It is interesting to me that, Westmoreland’s protestations aside, uppity falls into the category of words of which we can say that we “just know” what they mean, without their being defined in a reference work. It exists with an unwritten social definition, and I cannot help but imagine what other words have come and gone through the last few hundred years, unremarked upon by dictionaries past, yet implicitly understood by the speakers of the language.
I love the murals in Santiago. The city is covered with the same kind of tagging as any urban place in America, but the level of creativity seems to be higher here. Amid what looks like gang graffiti there are message like this. Respect is to love. The magic is in your soul. I like the vampirish like creatures looking on, as though the forces of darkness were taking heed of the message. There are occasional messages on walls proclaiming: Capitalismo es muerte. Other pictures that are intricate and fanciful lace the streets. In the Bellas Artes area, near San Cristobal, the highest part of the city, and where one of Neruda's three homes is located, the mural art is taken to the highest levels, street after street, in a neighborhood full of houses where color and whimsy cry out.
Bill and I went to the immigration office today. The nicest people work there. I was told that St. Margaret's is the "most prestigious school in Chile." Yikes! Definitely not like the Title One schools I've always taught at. We panicked when the forms and procedures were explained to even get a work permit under a tourist visa. Send my teaching credentials to the consulate in San Francisco just to get a stamp and from where they have to be mailed back to Chile?) But then I finally connected with the Sra. Avril Cooper, the director of the school, who said,"Relax, relax. Our people are working on it." Okay, sounded like good advice to us. So I'm sitting in a courytard writing now at La Casa Roja instead of dealing with bureaucracy. Que beuno! (I need to find how to transform my keyboard in a Spanish one but that's a learning curve I just can't take on right now.)
We went to lunch yesterday and today at two sidewalk cafes. A cute little dog, kind of a cocker spaniel/dachshund cross showed up at our feet yesterday. Small and sad. We thought she was a puppy until we noticed she'd recently had babies. We named her "Cute Little F . . ." Amazingly, there she was again today, at least two miles away. She had to have crossed the freeway, going up the steps and across the bridge along with people traffic. She came immediately to our table, lay down, and fell asleep again. We chose not to think of it as a sign, as we're weak where in the cute little doggy area of life. And we need to get Wiley down here. He'd probably be p.o.ed to see a strange dog in what he'd rightfully think of as his place. After today, I'm not sure how much blogging I'll do. after today My job starts Monday (trying not to panic-- I left a lot of my standby teaching material at home because of weight limitations on the airplane). Our house in Vina is cute, but not the place we want to stay forever. We don't want to connect Internet up, only for the two months we'll be there. I may spend a lot of time on the weekend at the Internet place around the corner, but I could also be correcting papers. Oh yeah, i've got another novel to finish.
One last thing! Great news. Nicole, the publicity person at HarperCollins told me that a review posted by Emily Robbins, a thirteen year old reviewers from Readers Views, was picked up by Reuters and usatoday.com. I can't stop smiling!
When I started to write Hungry and Alicia let me know she wanted to be in the novel, I didn’t want to give her that name as it’s so close to mine. She insisted that was her name, though, so I thought, “Okay.” As I wrote, I pronounced the name the English way, A-lee-sha. I have a new identity now at St. Margaret’s. You guessed it. I am now A- lee-see-a because the “th” sound is difficult for many native Spanish speakers to say. Actually, I’m “Miss Alicia.” Or I’m “Miss Ali,” because that seems to be the other nickname that I’ve been given.
There are about a hundred teachers at the school. I’ve put about a dozen or so names with faces so far. There are three teachers from England (I think, I’ve got a solid grounding on who two of them are), and the rest are from Chile. Though the school is a “British school,” all meetings are conducted in Spanish except for the ones conducted in the English department. I’m sometimes getting the “gist” of things, but it is only a rough approximation. We had an in-service about bullying today, and because the main ideas were projected with an LCD player I was at least able to follow along with my electronic dictionary. What I’m excited about is that at times I’m finally catching whole phrases (not often, but at least it’s a beginning) and I’m getting the object pronouns in the right places. Sort of.
I’m also learning a lot of new jargon for the British structure. Forms are used instead of grades, or the word is used interchangeably. Once the girls pass eighth grade, they have IB levels. I’m teaching 3rd level A2, the highest group of what would be juniors in high school for us. Infant school is kindergarten. The juniors are grades one through four. The middles are grades five through eight.
Some things seem to be universal. As I mentioned, the talk today was about bullying, which the teachers perceive as a problem. The girls seem to have the same issues as the kids did at the two schools I’ve taught at in California: neglect, emotional issues, tardiness, not being respectful. Avril, the wonderful headmistress of the school, says she insists the girls stand up when a teacher enters the classroom—something I might get used to J.
I’ll teach the English IB curriculum. The idea is to connect social and cultural issues to a text that is explored slowly and in depth. The girls will do most of the research. There will be a lot of writing, creative work, debates, etc. I will only grade a few papers per report card period! I’m sure I’ll look most of them over though and ask for revisions when it’s appropriate. I’ve decided to start with The Crucible. I want them to begin by researching how women in Europe were persecuted as witches. If I remember my history correctly at this point, there were a few men who were executed in Salem as well, but I want to discuss how the values and beliefs influenced what happened. I hope another group will be interested in exploring what happened during the McCarthy era. I wish I could show Good Night and Good Luck, but finding a copy seems a bit overwhelming at this point. Then we’ll launch into the play. I read the introduction to Act 1 last night and wondered when I read the play. I assume college. The vocabulary is intensive, but these girls supposedly like to be challenged.
The other books we’ll read are The Handmaid’s Tale, To Kill a Mockingbird and I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings. With the last of these, I hope to have the girls explore issues about the Mapuche, the indigenous people of Chile who mainly live in the southern part of the country. There are other groups, but the Mapuche fought back against the Incas (their empire stopped at the Mapuche borders), the Spanish, and are still fighting against assimilation and to take back control of land they believe still belongs to them.
The rest of my time I’ll spend doing “literacy” with the juniors. I wish, wish, wish that I brought more teaching material with me. I decided to go for survival stuff like a few more clothes, and thought I’d bring the extra things back with me next time I go to the U.S., as I wasn’t sure what my school day was going to consist of. Tomorrow I’ll meet with the head teacher of junior school and know more specifically what they would like from me. Their reading program in English seem to consist of copies of books a la the Wright Group and Rigby back in the whole language days. I’m told all most all of the girls don’t have problems decoding. I think doing Lindamood LIPS (without mouth pictures?) to help pronunciation will happen. I keep thinking of the Houghton Mifflin frontloading materials I copied over that have sentence frames for different levels of English language learners . . . they’ll be here in time.
I need to find out if there are more books. I’d love to do some novel reading and exploration with the third and fourth graders. I don’t think they’re there. The school is very beautiful and new and not paid for all the way, and from what I’m picking up, there isn’t money to buy this sort of thing.
One of the biggest challenges for me is that I’m used to coming into work at least a half hour early. More often, though, I work until four, four thirty, and sometimes later, getting things prepped. I’ll be taking the bus with the students and other teachers, which is fabulous, but the bus will arrive just in time for school to begin. There are few computers, so if I want to do research I’m not sure how this will work, as I don’t have Internet at home right now. The Internet place around the block has its challenges, as there’s the Spanish keyboard. I don’t know how to do the @ sign for writing in email addresses. Often there is fairly slow download time, and then the web pages disappear and I have to get back on. The teachers have left this week right at two o’clock, the end of the workday until students arrive next Tuesday.
Another change: the school provides a lunch! Salad bar, main course, dessert . . . but 2:00 is considered lunch hour. I probably will be able to eat with the juniors (at noon . . . closer to our 11:10 lunch at Minnie Cannon) or the middles (1:00 ish) four days a week. BUT Thursdays, I don’t get it until two! There has been a snack period this week about 10:15 where the NesCafe, tea, and some cookies come out. I’ve brought cereal bars and fruit to keep me going, but I’m starving when I get home.
I think I may have made a faux pas on my first day. There were some supplies being passed out to the junior teachers, and I asked if I could have some. I was told yes, so I picked up a box of pencils. It turned out I could only have one. I have one dry erase pen, and a red, blue, and green marker, and some tape, correcting fluid. I really need to find chart paper somewhere as I use a lot of it. At Minnie Cannon, I taught so many different levels, I didn’t have board space, so I often prepared what I needed the day before (or a few days before if I was lucky) and didn’t have to spend time writing stuff on my board or the ones in the classrooms I worked in.
Now for the wonderful part! Chileans (woman to woman, often woman to man and visa versa) greet and say goodbye with a cheek-to-cheek “kiss.” You touch cheeks and make a kissing sound. It’s lovely. I hope when my Puritan work ethic kicks in and I’m feeling stressed for not having the space I usually need to think about my day and look over my lessons, I’ll remember that starting one’s day like this is probably much healthier. My teaching will get done anyway.
On the second day of work, we got on these great cushy buses and toured Valparaiso, a town that Chileanos think of as their San Francisco (I had compared Concon to Santa Barbara before I knew better. It’s more like Sausalito. The weather has been cool, foggy and misty like summer around the SF bay.) Valpo is hilly like San Francisco and has a historical, yet Bohemian air. If you read Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, the book started here. We went to an “ascensor,” first walking through a very long tunnel and then riding up an elevator to an observatory platform where we could see the whole city and far out into the ocean. The set up also allows for the local people who live on the hill a way to get up and down with more ease.
We went to a monument to Bernardo O’Higgens, who is roughly equivalent to George Washington, and is a father, if not THE father, of Chile. He led the revolution against Spain. We then went to what might have been the home of the British Lord Cochran who helped in the fight. We walked through the oldest part of the town where many of the buildings are being torn down for infrastructure and lack of resources to preserve them. Natural gas is coming to Chile.
The next stop was at a monument for los heroes, the men who went down in a ship in a fight against Peru (1850ish? Can’t remember exactly.) Vente-uno de Mayo is a national holiday (and my birthday!) that honors their loss of life. Chile lost the battle, but won the war, by the way, thanks to the British.
Finally, we were treated to a lovely lunch at the restaurante Bernardo O’Higgens, starting with our choice of soft drinks or alcohol, either a pisco sour, the national drink, or a vai’in— which I probably am spelling wrong. I went with the vai’in, a vanilla flavored liquor. I had to. I never had a drink on teacher time before! All I can say is, “Yum.”
So, to sum things up, estoy nerviosa. But I always am at the beginning of a school year, and somehow I survive. At home, by the mid of October I felt I had my life back. April is the new October for me, and I hope I feel more settled and secure by then.
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, Current Events
, campaign finance reform
, Add a tag
Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America. In this article, Zelinsky argues that Senators Obama and McCain have confirmed the malfunction of campaign finance reform, that this is a healthy development for American democracy, and that the current system of campaign finance reform should be replaced by a simplified disclosure regime.
The most important event of the 2008 presidential campaign may already have occurred: The major party nominees have publicly confirmed the malfunction of campaign finance reform. Such reform has imposed increasingly complex and stringent limitations on the contributions of political donors and on the expenditures of political campaigns.
Senator Obama had been an outspoken apostle of campaign finance reform. At the outset of his presidential effort, Senator Obama had proclaimed his commitment to accept public financing and its accompanying expenditure restrictions for his general election campaign. He has now turned 180 degrees. Senator Obama will now eschew public financing and its attendant limits and will instead fund his general election effort with private donations to escape those limits.
Senator McCain’s change of heart is more complex but even more dramatic. Senator McCain was the prime Republican sponsor of the most recent tightening of federal restrictions on campaigns and donors, the eponymous McCain-Feingold Act. While he will accept public financing in the fall, Senator McCain’s supporters are actively and openly exploiting every legal loophole they can find to permit private contributors to assist his candidacy beyond the restrictions imposed by that Act. The irony is palpable. Senator McCain’s supporters are now assiduously seeking to erode the very constraints on donors and campaigns which Senator McCain had championed.
It is easy to criticize Senators Obama and McCain for their inconsistency. I suggest, however, that there is a broader significance to these events. Senators Obama and McCain have confirmed the malfunction of campaign finance reform. We should now kill this complex and unfair regulatory scheme. American democracy will be healthier without the myriad restrictions which limit Americans’ ability to contribute to the candidates of their choice.
The fundamental premises upon which campaign finance reform rests are false: Money in politics is a bad thing which can and ought to be limited legislatively. On the contrary, for many Americans, a financial contribution is today the only meaningful way, besides voting, they can assist the candidates they support. In any event, campaign contributions cannot be controlled fairly and effectively. Another form of Prohibition has failed.
Consider the simpler era in which I grew up. Working on political campaigns along with other volunteers, my friends and I would meet at local party headquarters and fan out to distribute bumper stickers and campaign buttons to our neighbors. It seems quaint because, in retrospect, it was.
Contrast this low budget, Ozzie-and-Harriet world with the consultant-driven, TV-saturated campaigns which constituted primary season 2008. In these campaigns, the citizen-volunteers have largely been subordinated to the full-time, paid, professional operatives who ran these campaigns. In this environment, a financial contribution is, besides voting, the most meaningful form of support many, probably most, Americans can make to the candidate they support.
Moreover, the attempt to limit the influence of money by law, propounded as a means of leveling the political playing field, has instead reinforced the political power of the celebrities in our celebrity-based culture. During the 2008 primary campaign, both Oprah Winfrey and Chuck Norris provided enormously valuable assistance to the Obama and Huckabee campaigns, generating publicity worth hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars for the candidates they supported. None of this celebrity assistance is capped by McCain-Feingold, despite the obvious value of that assistance.
In contrast, if a non-celebrity citizen favoring a competing candidate sought to counteract celebrity-generated publicity by donating equivalent funds to purchase offsetting advertising, that citizen would have violated the law. If, for example, a supporter of Governor Romney sought to counteract Mr. Norris’s efforts via a campaign donation of $2,500 (a tiny fraction of Mr. Norris’s effective but unregulated contribution to Governor Huckabee), that Romney supporter broke the law which limited him to a $2,300 contribution. Campaign finance reform, it turns out, is just for the little people.
It is unsurprising that this system is now in disarray. The current system, with its complex contribution limits, is overly-complicated and unfair. These complex and inequitable rules should be replaced by a simplified regime which permits all campaign contributions without limit but which requires contributions to be immediately and accurately disclosed.
Whether one believes that campaign finance reform like McCain-Feingold was a noble idea which failed or was an unwise approach from the beginning, Senators Obama and McCain have confirmed the malfunction of that approach. We should now move from the currently dysfunctional system to a simplified regime which permits contributions without limit, which requires complete and accurate disclosure of those contributions, and which no longer puts our political life in the hands of Oprah and Chuck.