Meredith McGehee is Executive Director of Issue One in Washington DC. They recently released a report called The Price of Power, which lays out the reality that our elected officials have to pay to be on congressional committees. The more prestigious the committee, the more the member of congress has to pay. Chairmanships cost even more. How much?
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee: $400,000
Ways and Means Committee: $1.2 million
House Majority leader: $10 million
Speaker of the House: $20 million
It’s a problem, because members of congress are spending huge amount of their time raising money at call centers — dialing for dollars — instead of representing their constituents.
This is just one of the issues that Issue One is focused on. Others include transparency, disclosure, participation in elections, corruption, and enforcement of existing laws.
Listen to Meredith McGehee here.
Mary-Charlotte Domandi: You have for many years been looking at issues of corruption, disclosure, transparency, and ethical issues in our country’s political system. I’d like to ask you first of all, what is corruption and how has the legal definition of corruption changed over the years.
Meredith McGehee: Well corruption in some ways depends on the eye of the beholder. But there are some legal standards that have long held here in the United States. And I want to note that when you talk about corruption it’s all, it’s not just real corruption in the sense of a dollar given and a vote bought or action taken. For a democracy it’s also the appearance of corruption because at the heart of a democracy is that you have to have faith in the system and that the public officials that you elect are going to operate in the public good. So corruption has been defined legally as obviously bribery, illegal gratuities, but it’s also been defined in a much broader sense, that when the court, the Supreme Court, has looked at things like campaign contributions, they’ve allowed limits on the amount of money that any individual or any entity can give directly to a candidate based on concerns about corruption and the appearance of corruption. So it covers a fairly broad territory of those kinds of interactions.
MCD: It’s funny that distinction corruption and the appearance of corruption. Is there ever a case where the appearance of corruption doesn’t actually have corruption behind it?
MM: Well you know it’s one of these things where as long as you’re not stupid enough often to write an e-mail that says here I’m going to give you this campaign contribution, vote this way. You know if you have evidence of that you can prove kind of this quid pro quo corruption. The problem with politics is that many times much of what is done is—not only in politics I would say, even in business—with a wink and a nod. But the reason that the appearance of corruption is an important standard in government and government ethics and particularly for democracy is this question of public faith in our elected leaders. And when that begins to erode the basic foundation that people agree to that majority rules, that votes count, that elected officials are supposed to represent their constituents—all of these are traditions that are at the base of a strong and vibrant democracy.
MCD: Everybody talks about Citizens United but there is another decision, McCutcheon vs. SEC and also McDonald versus the United States that actually have affected these definitions of corruption. Can you talk about those.
MM: Well, I would go back actually to another decision back in the 1970s Buckley v. Valeo to start this path. And the reason I talk about that decision is that that was really the first time where the court began to go down the path of equating money with speech. And while there were some shades of difference about the ability to give money or spend money and what degree that was in fact speech, they didn’t say that there was an equality between or in fact the same between the two. But they started going down this path. So the ability to spend money was saying the same as your First Amendment speech rights, which was a troubling kind of equation, I think, in terms of democracy. When you talk about these other cases now, whether it’s McCutcheon, whether it’s Citizens United, we’re now in territory where the majority of the Supreme Court has pretty much taken the position that the ability to spend money is equated to your free speech rights. Now there have been justices that have looked at this and said no, that’s not the way it should be. Justice Stevens for example said, No, money is property and the ability to spend the money is ability to do something with your property. It doesn’t mean the government can’t tell you not to do it, but it has a very different way of looking at your ability to either give or spend money in a political system versus the ability to stand on the street corner at any moment and say whatever you want. So the question here is, and the courts as I say were really split right down the political divide, is money about the size of the megaphone, which is the property question, or is money the absolute exercise of free speech rights. And that is the kind of differential between the 5-4 majority that is in the court as we speak.
MCD: These cases also have some bearing on whether corruption is defined as a wink or a nod, or here I will give you this money if you give me that vote.
MM: Well I think the McDonald case that you raised, this is the one with the former governor of Virginia who took all kinds of gifts from someone who wanted him to take actions as governor. In that case he was convicted in the lower courts of violating the federal statutes on honest services and these bribes. When this got to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court threw out the conviction on the basis that there was never a dollar given with an explicit agreement for a specific action taken by the governor. Most people looked at that and said this is kind of corruption personified. He’s getting a Rolex watch. He’s getting the caterer for the wedding, his daughter’s weddingm paid for by this guy, and this same individual who’s giving them all these gifts is wanting him to bring the Virginia state bureaucracy into his office to listen to him about this product that he had. So we looked at that and said look this is obviously a bribe this is obviously a violation of the law. The Supreme Court majority looked at that and said, Well there is never an explicit promise for a particular action just bringing people into your office and meeting with them is not a violation of the law. And they threw out the conviction. Now that is a very cramped reading I think of what most people would expect about what is corruption and the appearance of corruption. One of the things complicated that case was that the state of Virginia itself and the state laws had no limits on the gifts that a public official, a state official, could take. So there was never an ability to say here you violated the state law about accepting gifts. So in a sense what face the prosecution here was they had to jump all the way up to a federal statute to prove explicit bribery, quid pro quo, and in the end even though a jury convicted the guy, the former governor the Supreme Court threw it out. That really sets a very disturbing precedent.
MCD: And it also does exactly what you’re saying a moment ago which is undermines faith in our elected officials because, I mean, any person with any basic sense looking at that and the Rolex, the caterer, and so on is going to say, come on.
MM: It’s a “reasonable person” standard, and that’s really I think where the majority of the court at this point, is very concerned with, as I called it, this cramped reading of the law, because they were looking for this… what was the official act, and was a meeting in the governor’s office an official act. And they got very kind of caught up in those distinctions and lost the big picture of a reasonable person looking at this. And I would note that why this is so important is that what makes a democracy is not just the rule of law. Obviously that’s a critical component, but if you look at the difference between the United States and the vast majority of countries around the world you can go look at their constitutions in those other countries, you can go look at their laws, and actually they’re going to look very pretty. I know, I’ve had a lot of colleagues and friends over the years who have gone to places like, oh, Belarus or other places and help them draft either their constitution or these laws. But you look at many of these countries and see that they’re no where near a democracy or certainly not one that is considered a vibrant, healthy democracy. And that’s because the people don’t have faith in their leaders. It’s because the traditions that make a democracy actually work are really the key element of making the difference between a banana republic, that may have good laws on the books that don’t work, and a democracy that is healthy and functioning. It is one of the reasons why any time politicians go out and start throwing out the traditions… you want to find that balance between, when do we really want some change—change is good—and when do we worry that the traditions of democratic norms are being significantly disrupted. So that’s a very hard balance, and I think it’s what many people forget which is democracy is very fragile. And I think certainly anybody post-World War II seems to have forgotten that. I would note that the World War II generation because they fought in World War II because they felt that the democratic norms were being challenged—they got that I think a lot more than than the subsequent generations.
MCD: So in terms of these questions of corruption, can we trust our elected officials and so on, I mean we’re not in a good period right now, I think many citizens of the United States would agree. Do we need more and better laws or do we need to enforce the existing laws?
MM: Well, the biggest challenge I think we face right now is convincing most Americans that in fact there are solutions. You know there are many years where we could talk about what the problems were, particularly in the role the role that money is playing in elections, or the role of ethics in government, and we would spend a lot of time trying to describe the problem. Let me tell you, we don’t need to do that anymore. The American people know it. They know it in their gut they know it. And it’s reflected in the polls. When congressional approval levels fall to single digits or in very low teens. When the Supreme Court falls way below traditional polling levels of favorability. We know that we’re in a very different situation than we were maybe even 10 years ago. Even with Watergate, there was faith in some of the institutions like the courts et cetera. But I think the main thing for people to realize is there are solutions, and that as much as the system feels and is dysfunctional, there are a number of things that can be done. Yes, it would help to change some of the laws. There’s no doubt about that. We need better enforcement for example of election laws. We have an agency that is totally gridlocked and dysfunctional, the Federal Election Commission. So we certainly need to change the structure of that. But more than anything I think the American people need to feel like solutions are possible. And it’s going to take bipartisan efforts on a range of issues. There’s no one magic bullet. There are people I know that think oh if we could just pass public financing everything would be solved. Well I think that would be a great thing to do. But I will assure you, not everything would be solved. There’s other issues here that arise. The transparency issues are key. The ability for people who are watching these ads on TV that are run by these outside groups like Americans who love America—who the heck are they? We need to have much more transparency about the donors behind those ads. We need to have a Congress that functions better. We just put out at Issue One this new report, The Price of Power. And this is showing how to be a committee chairperson, you basically have to spend most of your time dialing for dollars. There are basically a committee tax on whether or not you want to be the chair of a committee. These decisions about who are going to be the most powerful people in our government are not being decided on merit. They’re being decided on who is willing to go. And as Zach Wamp would say, the former representative from Chattanooga, a very conservative Republican, who are those people that are willing to prostitute themselves to go out and raise money from from all these interests that Congress actually regulates? There are ways to fix this. It’s going to take the American people demanding it; it’s going to take bipartisan support; and it’s going to take some really good efforts to try and figure out how we get this thing moving. Right now we’re at a standstill.
MCD: Let’s talk about the report. The price of power. I read the whole thing from beginning to end including the appendices and everything. I mean, it is shocking. Basically the gist of it is that in order for members of Congress to obtain leadership positions like chairman of committee they have to pay their party. And the more prestigious the committee the more they pay. Tell us about this.
MM: One of my best anecdotes of how this works is, and we start the report with this anecdote, is the story of Virginia Foxx. She represents parts of Virginia, and there was for many months a suite set up at the Republican headquarters and it had her name on it. She had been the Republican secretary of the Republican conference there in the house and was recently rewarded with one of the chairmanships of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The reason she had her name on that suite was because she was known for putting in the most call time. And this call time was rewarded with a position in the party leadership and with a powerful committee position. Whether or not she was the right person for the job, whether or not she deserved it on merit—those were really not much of a consideration. Does it mean if you raise the most money that you’ll automatically get the job? But if you don’t raise the money for the party and pay this tax there’s absolutely no way that you will get to be a committee chairman, and the committee chairmen in Congress are incredibly important. They determine what bills move forward. They determine how the votes her are really kind of taken. And so this is the way Congress works, through these committees. The notion that the smartest, best, most knowledgeable members are not being given a chance to be the chairman of these committees should upset every American. This committee tax is not being imposed by the public; it’s being imposed by a private entity to say you, have to pay the party before you’ll even be considered. Most people would think that was a shakedown. And it is a shakedown. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to write the report. The members of Congress themselves need the freedom to lead, and they’re trapped as much in this system as I think the American people are affected by this system, so that’s one of the reasons we wanted to shine the light on this selling of the committee chairmanships. It is not the way that Congress should work.
MCD: Well and when you think about what a Congress person’s day is like, they have to spend so much of their time fundraising, and they can’t do that in their offices because that’s not legal. So they go to these essentially telemarketing centers. They call donors hours and hours every single day and that’s to raise money for their re-election campaigns ,which are extremely expensive. I have this number four billion dollars was spent for the House and Senate races combined. That’s, if you do the math, an average of eighty five million dollars per candidate per election cycle. And that’s—I mean you could break it down to the hour or to the week. It’s crazy. That’s just for reelection. That doesn’t count paying the party money for these chairmanships.
MM: And I think what happened here is, if you go up on the Hill and talk to the leadership—not that they really want to talk about this—what you’ll often hear is, well we just want people to be loyal to the party. This is about party loyalty. This isn’t committee tax. It’s just showing that you’re part of the team. And you know that’s the way they justify it in their own minds that we have an opponent who’s raising this money. So we have to raise this money. So if you’re a good team player you’re going to go out and many times of course hit up the interests that have matters pending before your committee. I mean that’s really where it goes. But let’s, as you say, let’s go back and think about this. The best estimate right now of the amount of time the average member of Congress spends dialing for dollars in this little pretty awful tacky little suite over at the committee headquarters is about 30 hours a week. That means usually in the afternoons they go, they do their committees, they do their fundraiser at lunch, they do one in the breakfast meeting, they have one at night, they go for a chunk of the afternoon, and they start making these calls. And the lists they’re given often are from the interests of the committee they serve on. So if you’re on the financial services committee, for example, they oversee banking. So of course the list that you’re given is a bunch of banking interests.
Now if you talk to the rank and file members they hate this system. They are complaining all the time, Republicans and Democrats. And let’s be very clear. This happens on the Republican side. It happens on the Democratic side. And it really is this notion of nuclear money race. That’s what’s going on. Nobody is willing to step up and stop it. Now we do have rank and file members that say this is not what I came here for. Some of our former members on the reformers caucus that has more than 180 former members of Congress that have joined Issue One’s reformers caucus are speaking out on this because in some cases they left Congress because of this system. I talked to a former representative, Mr. Hanna, who was from New York, a very successful businessman, as a capstone to his career he decided to run for Congress and was elected. He was there six years. And he said this was supposed to be my capstone of my career. I wanted to give back to my community. I got to Congress, and all my time there, I never had a chance to serve on a conference committee. I never even saw a conference committee. This is where you’re supposed to resolve differences between bills. I never got to offer a substantive amendment. And in fact most of the times I was told how to vote on a substantive amendment.
MCD: By whom?
MM: By the leadership. He said, after six years I thought all they really wanted me to do, because I was a successful business person, is dial for dollars.
MCD: And so that whole system, I mean, it’s a setup for corruption. Even if people go in there with the greatest earnest public service mentality in the world.
MM: It is and you know I know a lot of people focus on legalized bribery. That’s what they call the current system. I actually think a more accurate depiction of what’s going on is legalized extortion. Meaning that the members feel extorted in the sense of, I have to give to the party committee I have to go raise money because if I don’t I’m not going to move up in the leadership. The business people, particularly the donor class ,definitely feel extorted. They feel like, if if I don’t give in this system then they’re going to come and pass something that’s going to hurt my business. And if you talk to businessmen, they hate the system probably worse than anybody because they are seen as … you know it’s the old line about why do you rob banks. Well that’s where the money is. The business folks are really the ones that are most caught in this trap because they are being constantly pounded to fork over money, and they have a real sense that if they do not then Congress is going to come back and do something that’s going to hurt their business. There’s no innocent player in this because members of Congress have the power to stop this system. But they look at it and say, OK well if I stop on the Republican side the Democrats are going to raise all the money, and the Democrats, well if we stop the Republicans are going to raise all the money. But you know you elect people to be your representative in Congress because you expect they have some degree of courage, some notion of public service. And part of what voters need to be demanding now of their elected representatives is to show that courage, to be the one that stands up and says, this system is so broken. We have so much dysfunction. I expect you as my member of Congress to be a leader and fixing it. I understand the cost it could be. I understand your leadership won’t like it, but we’re willing to stand with you if you stand up against the system. And I will tell you, Issue One is finding some members like that on both sides of the aisle.
MCD: And as you said, this problem is both Democratic and Republican, and even the whole issue of selling chairmanships and basically making members of Congress pay for chairmanships of the committees—that’s both sides of the aisle.
MM: That’s both sides of the aisle. Right.
MCD: And what I was thinking about this, I mean people, wealthy people, business leaders, are always talking about not wanting to pay taxes. But this is kind of, it’s a funny kind of a tax, you could you could think of it that way. I mean instead of paying taxes through proper channels to fund government, they’re paying to these telemarketer Congress people in order to have influence among legislatures.
MM: Absolutely it is a big it is a donor tax. There are obviously many donors who give for ideological reasons. That’s one question. But the majority of the money sloshing around in our system right now particularly at the federal level is really a tax on donors and the people that feel like if they don’t fork over, their interests are going to be ignored. You know this notion is never that there’s a dollar given in a vote bought. I know there’s often people that want to characterize it that way. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way both politics works and the system works. What a dollar given does is get you the face time. It gets your issue up on the radar screen and it gets you that time and attention from a powerful public official to hear your concerns. For most Americans they feel vastly unheard. And they are. It is an absolute truth that it’s almost impossible to get the concerns of most Americans heard, and so they feel that way. The problem is they turn off from system. They go from cynical or skeptical to totally apathetic. This notion that you can have freedom from politics is a very dangerous notion for a democracy. There are many people all over the world who wish they could have freedom from politics and they cannot. They live in war infested, corruption infested countries. And the challenge here for Americans is to be able to say if you want the system to change you have to be a part of demanding that change and demanding that courage from your members. But right now there are very few rewards for a member of Congress for example to buck the system. Why should they do that? They go home, they’re not rewarded because it’s you know either the wingnuts on the right or the left that are making the most noise. This notion that you are going to be rewarded if you step up against the system, against all this money that is in the system—it really is a very tough sell for many members of Congress.
MCD: And yet you hear the citizenry on the right and the left decrying money in politics, crony capitalism, and all that kind of thing. I mean one would think that if there were laws introduced and a campaign, a kind of citizen campaign to pass laws that would get rid of or mitigate the system that you just talked about, everybody would be calling their congressperson and say Please pass that bill.
MM: Well I would note there are some people have been speaking about out on this issue. For example there’s a congressperson from eastern Colorado, very conservative Republican, named Ken Buck. He just wrote a book in his sophomore year called Drain the Swamp. And he says, I’ve just been here a very short time and I’m appalled at the way the system is working, and so appalled that he’s willing to go out and write a book about how bad the system is. Now, is he going to get rewarded by his leadership for having blown the whistle on this? No he’s not. But I will tell you there are other people that are willing to step up. I’ve been having conversations with both Republicans and Democrats. For example there’s a Republican and Democrat, Mr. Kilmer from Washington, Democrat, and a Republican from Ohio, Mr. Renacci. They’ve put together a bipartisan bill to fix the Federal Election Commission, to say there should be a cop on the beat. They’ve been able to go out and find five other Republicans and five other Democrats. And I will note on that bill you have someone that is very liberal, for example Jared Polis who represents Boulder, one of the more liberal Democrats, and Congressman Ken Buck, one of the most conservative Freedom Caucus member—all on the same bill. Because they say whether you like the laws or not, the law should be enforced. We have people like Mr. Gallagher, a very young Republican, the youngest member of Congress, from Greenbay. He got to Congress and said, wait a minute this is not what I have in mind about my service. He’s a former Marine and he is joining with Kathleen Rice, a Democratic former prosecutor from Long Island. And they are beginning to talk about what are some of the solutions that we join together to start building out in Congress
So the good news here is that there are members that are willing to step up and take some of the heat that’s going to come from their leadership. I would note that when Mr. Renacci went on the bill in the last Congress when it was just a small, just he and Mr. Kilmer, he got a call from then Speaker Boehner saying, what the heck are you doing going on a bill on the Federal Election Commission with a Democrat. And he got heat for doing that. And you know good on him that he turned around and said, You know I believe in law enforcement what can I tell you. I’m staying on the bill. The other co-sponsor I would note at that point was Mr. Barletta, a Republican from Pennsylvania, who’s a Trump supporter. So part of what Issue One is trying to focus on and part of what we would want your listeners to know is that there are things that can be done. I’m not going to tell you we’re here in New Mexico that we can pass the whole enchilada. That’s not going to happen. And that’s really not the way that legislation works. What we need to start focusing on is where are the areas of common ground where reasonable people, where members of Congress who don’t like the system, can come together and say we’re going to start making these kinds of changes. One of the reasons, in The Price of Power we focused on is what is the solution to this committee tax that’s being imposed on members. Well you can pass a rule in the House to say that contributions to an outside entity like the parties cannot be a factor in deciding these committee chairmanships because the committees are organized and the rules for them are within House rules. So there are things that can be done and that’s what I want your listeners to think about more, and rather than just get mad, focus on the solutions.
MCD: Let’s talk for a moment about the FEC, the Federal Election Commission. That is a body that your colleague Trevor Potter served on in the 1990s. Three Democrats, three Republicans. It used to work. It doesn’t work now. What happened and what kind of solutions are you looking at?
MM: Well I actually often call the FEC the “failure to enforce commission.” But it’s in some ways the most successful agency in Washington because it does exactly what it was designed to do, which is nothing. The first proposal to establish an agency that would enforce election laws came from former Senator Scott, a Republican from Pennsylvania, minority leader, and he proposed a five member commission, which is just like every other commission and the executive branch. The Securities and Exchange Commission. The Federal Communications Commission. Federal Trade Commission. All these very powerful agencies on the executive branch have five members. When that idea went over to the House side, that was back in the days when the Democrats had very tight control of the house, Mr. Hayes of Ohio said I don’t want this agency to be looking over my shoulder, and insisted that it be neutered to be a three and three agency because he knew it would have no power. And so it was set up from the get go to be as weak as possible. What’s happened since that time is that the ideological divide within the commission in many ways reflects the ideological divide in Congress. If you wanted to enforce the law, it should be treated the same as almost every other agency. And I’m serious about that—if you look at all the agencies in the executive branch, of which there are hundreds, there are only four minor agencies that are not set up with a five member majority. And those agencies, if you look in the Congress, there’s one place where you can go to see a three three split between Republicans and Democrats. That is another committee that’s designed to do nothing, that’s the House Ethics Committee, which is one of the most ineffectual, weak committees that exists in Congress. The FEC should enforce the law. If you don’t like the law, change the law. That is a notion we’re able to talk to both Republicans and Democrats about.
MCD: And so when you have five members it’s weighted to party?
MM: Well the way this is set up is that you would have the ability to have, as you now, have two Republicans, two Democrats, and then you would have a longer term chair, as the Constitution provides, appointed by the president. And that way you would have, just like now the president appoints the head of the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the president is empowered to appoint the chair of those agencies. This bill would go into effect in 2020. You want an agency that is in fact reflective of the elections. At the same time you want to ensure that one of the checks on these agencies is the understanding that if the other party comes into power, they get to put in their majority, and then that majority also then can make policy. So it does need to be responsive to the election. I think one of the mistakes here is this notion that elections should not have impact. We want in our system for policies to change and reflect which party came out on top. If you don’t like what they’re doing you change it. That’s accountability. That’s the way the system should work.
MCD: Twenty nine, I think, states have restrictions on giving and receiving campaign contributions during the legislative session for their federal elected officials. Does that mean that these people aren’t dialing for dollars?
MM: No, those those restrictions that exist in the states are for state legislators. They do not apply to their federal legislators. Now one of the ideas that we’ve been talking with members about, again Republicans and Democrats, is to say that when your house is in session, meaning the House of Representatives or if you’re a senator the Senate, is it when your house is in session you should not be able to go solicit campaign contributions. Now of course that would mean basically from let’s say eight or nine o’clock in the morning to 6 o’clock members of Congress would not be able to solicit contributions. After six o’clock they could go to their fundraisers, they could do the fund raising solicitations that they want to do. But as I describe it when I go up there and talk to members, it’s this notion of saying to your constituents, while you’re working, I’m working for you. The problem right now is that members of Congress don’t yet feel that their constituents care enough to be able to take a step to do something like that. So we’re talking to a number of members about what are some of the ways that you can at least begin. It’s a huge battleship and you don’t change that battleship overnight but you have to start making these changes so that the turn can happen. And this is one way they could do that, to get them out of this business at 4 o’clock in the afternoon—which used to be, by the way, the time when there was the basketball game, and what you knew up on the hill was at four o’clock if you couldn’t find a senator or a House member, they were probably in the gym playing basketball. But that was a good thing in that it was both Republicans and Democrats playing basketball. Now you go there and there’s nobody in the gym at four o’clock because they’re all over at call time.
MCD: Right. Which means not only that they’re not associating with one anothe—which is good because the formation of relationships is healthy—it also means that they’re not getting their exercise—
MM: And they’re not talking to each other and—you know part of politics is that politics can turn tribal very easily. And we see that all over the world. When politics turns too tribal, violence erupts. And that is, as I say, this is a very delicate balance. And what we’ve seen over the last several years, and I would think from my perspective having been in Washington since 1980s, that this kind of trend toward tribalism really got worse with Newt Gingrich and the response of him on the Democratic side. But the tribalism is dangerous because it starts to have politicians not see each other as fellow human beings but as the other side. And I think when we all sit down and realize that while we may have political differences, when you really sit down and talk to people there are many areas as Americans we actually agree upon if you can take out some of the what I call the Three Gs: Gays, Guns, and God. And those are used repeatedly by politicians to polarize the electorate. It is a very sure propaganda tool to make sure that the moment people start to come together and find common ground you find these issues where there are deep divisions and a lack of consensus within the society. I like to focus a lot more on where we have agreement as Americans. And on this Memorial Day where we are celebrating the many people who have given their lives for their country, nobody asked them at that moment, Were you a Republican or a Democrat They asked, Are you an American. And that’s what we losing with the tribalism, the political tribalism, and that’s one of the things we have to get back to.
MCD: I often wonder about if you took the extreme amount of money that’s in politics right now out and changed the rules in ways that you’re saying so that Congress people for example are working instead of fundraising during their workday day and so on—what would we be arguing about?
MM: Oh I don’t think the arguments stop. I think what you would find—
MCD: No, I’m not saying they’d stop—
MM: Right, they don’t they will stop and I don’t want them to stop. This is part of a healthy democracy. You want the debate, you want the discussion. I think two things would be very clear that would happen. Part of this dysfunction would drop away where you could say we actually will get something done. You know we’re now in a stage where it’s almost impossible for Congress particularly to actually pass anything meaningful. And if they do particularly on a partisan basis you can’t hold it. I’ll take Obamacare as a perfect example, passed with Democratic votes. Well here we are, there’s an effort to undo it. It’s not that you want bipartisanship because you believe bipartisanship is necessarily good or that you want to hold hands and sing Kumbaya. You do it because that’s where you find the consensus of the American people. And without more ability to talk about the issues and not have that thumb on the scale that the money comes in—that’s what happens in the system is that the money in politics right now is putting a thumb on the scale. The other is and you really go back… I’m not saying I feel sorry for members of Congress but they need the freedom to lead. And right now there is caught up in the system as the American people are. So they need a system where it is rewarded when you decide, I’m going to do what’s best for what I think is best for my constituency versus a consideration of, wow if I do this all the money’s going to come in from the outside, it’s going to overwhelm me and I’m going to lose my job because I’ve angered some special interests that has tons and tons of money.
MCD: In order to build that movement that you’re talking about and get the buy-in both from members of Congress—so that bills can be written and and they’ll get the votes—and then the people out here making their calls to Congress all the time as they do and as they’re doing more often than ever now… how do you do that…that’s what Issue One is working on, is building these kinds of campaigns?
MM: What we’re working on is really trying to build out this area where solutions live, to show that there are areas, as much as there’s this polarization, that when you start and talk to both Republicans and Democrats whether on the Hill or around the country, that there has to be a lot more discussion and concentration on this common ground, these areas where there is actually some agreement. And so that’s what we’re focusing on. And part of what I’m trying to do and Issue One is trying to do is go back to the American people who I think are so disaffected, right or left right. People are very disaffected and the polls show this. It is within our power to try and make these changes. Democracy is not about a destination as you say it is about the process. But if people, average people, don’t feel like there are any solutions and they turn off then there will not be solutions. It will only get worse and yes it can get worse. But it can get better. And that’s part of what Issue One is trying to really focus on is, there are many organizations out there that want to rile you up and get you mad, and that’s fine. If you want to get mad, getting mad is better than being apathetic. But if you aren’t focused on saying what do we do to solve the problems what are the things that we can agree upon. Let’s focus on those areas then you’re really not going to start to address these problems. And that’s where Issue One is really the sweet spot. Well talk to Republicans, we’ll talk to Democrats. We’ll talk to whomever wants to be a part of the solution. And to say we’re going to help you work and find those solutions and that’s what we’re doing with The Price of Power. Here’s a problem, we can help you with a solution. We’re doing that whether the issue is transparency, whether the issue is trying to resurrect meaningful political parties and not just have these laundromats that pass around big dollar money from very wealthy people. How do you change the incentives so candidates will actually go talk to average Americans and not spend all their time kissing the ring of some powerful millionaire billionaire. But those things are not going to happen unless we start really focusing on this common ground.
MCD: So many groups are talking about getting money out of politics. You guys aren’t talking about getting money out of politics, exactly … how do you see it?
MM: Right. This is not about getting money out of politics. The issue here is how do you get more Americans involved and how do you make sure that our leaders have the ability to make good decisions. Let me give you the stat that I think is astounding. One half of one percent of all Americans give $200 or more to a federal candidate. So just think about that one half of one percent of all Americans give even $200 or more. That means not just ninety nine percent but far more than 99 percent of all Americans don’t even play in the system, and then they wonder, I wonder why my elected representative doesn’t listen to me. Well part of what has to happen here is you’ve got to change all those incentives. You’ve got to change incentives for candidates to pursue that individual money. You’ve got to change the incentives for individuals to feel like if I give my hard-earned money to some politician it’s for a good reason, what is the incentive for me to give. If you don’t look at the system in terms of a political economy and a marketplace, then you’re going to have solutions that don’t work because the reality is you got to change incentives for the candidates, for the parties, and for the donors. That’s part of what we’re working on. Look, if we could say instead of one half of 1 percent, 10 percent, 20 percent and that meant more money and politics, I’m all for it.
MCD: But you’re talking about smaller donations from more people.
MM: Yes the problem here is the source of the money in our political system. It’s from a very small number of people and a very small number of special interests. You know there’s an old saying, he who pays the piper calls the tune. That is probably the best description of the system we have at the moment. The people that are paying for politics, this one half of one percent, are calling the tune. And the only way that’s going to change is if you start changing the system so that individual Americans have some incentive to give, I think one of the best ways to do that is through a tax rebate or a tax credit. And I think we can get bipartisan support for that. We need to have parties that are no longer just about giving huge amounts to the leadership and help them dole it out. What about having an account where the parties can say if you give, let’s say, $100 to this account we’ll be able to spin unlimited coordinated expenditures with our candidates but only from the small dollar money. That’s going to give parties an incentive to go ask for that small dollar money, and that’s going to give individuals like people out here in New Mexico a sense that being part of a party is not just about these few men, mostly men, in Washington who pull the strings, but political parties should be about individuals getting together who have like-minded views, share ideology, want to support candidates. And that’s what a party is. It’s not about some structure in Washington. Unfortunately the parties have shriveled up because they have forgotten that’s what parties are supposed to be about.
MCD: How do you see voter participation besides voting and being a donor, even if it’s a small donor. I mean it seems like it’s not just about money.
MM: Well unfortunately right now it is just mostly about money, because getting the message out, getting on TV, being able to buy all the social media want—this is what resonates in people’s ears. Obviously we have a very large slice of Americans who did not vote in the last election. That’s a great problem. And then my view of course is if you don’t vote you have no right to complain. So all of your people out there that may be complaining about what’s going on and they didn’t vote, my view is shut up because you didn’t participate. But the power of organizing … yes you should vote, yes you should find candidates that you want to donate to, yes the party should find candidates that actually have interesting, good ideas. And the power of organizing is to be able to say in addition to all those things, we want to have a robust debate about what will work. That’s how you start to get people engaged. And as I say every time this kind of power structure is threatened one of the things they want to do is distract people with the issues that are well-known to divide the American electorate. And it’s almost like they hold up the little shiny object and say, Look over here!
They they try and focus on these issues that are on which we all know there’s no consensus. Part of the sophistication if you will of the American people is to be able to say wait a minute we know there’s no consensus on some of these issues but rather than trying get too focused on that, let’s talk about all these other issues where we think there are solutions and things that can be done. But the power structure that is currently doing very well, thank you very much, is not going to give up this power lightly. They’re not going to just sit on the sidelines while people organize or people go and say to their members of Congress what are you doing to be a part of it. They’re going to fight back. And this is why having the American people be much more engaged and much less apathetic is absolutely the right antidote here.
MCD: So hang on a second. Help me think this through. The current system which is, some people call it legalized bribery or legalized extortion, the citizens hate it. The members hate. Donors don’t really like it. Who likes it? How does it stay in place if almost everybody hates it? Who’s winning?
MM: Well I think you can see pretty clearly who’s winning by just looking at what’s happening in the numbers. You know, what’s that old saying, Follow the money. Those who who are succeeding in the system, and the ones who are succeeding in the system are those who play this donor game because they know they are going to get in the door, they’re going to get their concerns heard. If you look in The Price of Power report, you begin to see who’s playing that successfully. So if you’re in the financial services industry you’re giving millions of dollars to the people that are on the committees and the people that are on the committees, the representatives, are getting to stay in power. So the moneyed interests that have the ability to play the game, play the game very well. And if you look at everything from our policies and banking, you look at our policies and health care, this is not about progressive versus conservative. This is not about that kind of ideological divide. This is saying the interests that are willing to participate in the system and play it successfully are the ones who are able to keep their foothold in the system. This is not a Republican problem or a Democratic problem or a conservative problem or a liberal problem. This is an American problem. And it’s our own concept of how we think our system should work. People right now that play in the system are the winners all the rest of us who are sitting on the outside are the losers. And that doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.
MCD: And the biggest losers are the ones I guess who have the least money. And when you think about not only middle class and poor people but also wildlife and rivers and things like that.
MM: Well yes as I say I think one of the reasons that you find a lot of frustration even on the Republican conservative side is it they feel… I remember talking to a Republican member of Congress, very conservative, who was very concerned about the size of the federal government. Big government. This was the concern. And yet he was very supportive of these efforts because he said you know one of the things that drives big government is the money in politics system. Everybody has their hooks in the government. Every time there’s an effort to cut back where the federal government is playing a role, they jump to the fore. And so he was looking at me, wanting to change the system from a very conservative viewpoin—that the federal government had grown way too big, and whether it’s talking about the defense industry and all the the defense procurement of weapons that the Pentagon says it doesn’t need and yet still is being told they have to buy, programs where they felt like it’s a very efficient use of public dollars. So if you look at this problem from more of that perspective what you begin to see is that no one is feeling well served by the current system, either from the right or the left. And the more people want to polarize this discussion into an ideological, Oh if you are concerned about this you must be a progressive, or you must do if you’re not concerned you must be a conservative…that is a key way of going back again to the third rail of politics that don’t get people focused on solutions. They get them focused on polarization. So the minute that happens you know you’re getting close right. The hope here is that we can get through this noise and have people kind of have some awareness if you will that they’re being played, that the minute we start to kind of make some progress, the bigger the fight the more you know you’re closer to the to the real core of the issue.
MCD: So let’s say somebody is listening right now and says, OK I get it. I’m on board. I want to help change the system, not necessarily get money out of politics because it’s never going out of politics but make it a fairer system, make it a more transparent system, and by transparency we mean the citizens get to see what people are doing, where the money is going, how decisions are being made. What can this listener do right now?
MM: Well there are actually a number of things. Obviously I would encourage any of your listeners to go to the Issue One website, look at all the stuff that is going on in terms of policy proposals. The reformers caucus. I would urge every listener when there’s an election you obviously vote. But I would also urge listeners to get very involved in their local political parties whichever party it is Republican or Democrat. The only way you have power and any kind of system in any society is if you organize. You know there’s the old Margaret Mead quote about don’t ever doubt the power of one small group of people to affect what happens, in fact it’s the only thing that ever has changed the world. It’s a little bit of a paraphrase there, but the way you begin to make change is first you organize with like-minded people. You hold your elected representatives accountable. If there is a town hall meeting and your representative is showing up, people need to be there because accountability is really the beginning. And if your representative doesn’t show up you should be making noise because this is what a representative does. This is supposed to be representing you. You should find organizations on the right or the left that you support that are putting forth an agenda. But the main thing here is this notion that just voting is enough. Unfortunately in this day and age it is not enough. If you’re not organizing, if you’re not joining with like-minded people to force your elected representatives to be accountable to you, then you are not going to be heard.
MCD: Meredith McGee is Executive Director of Issue One in Washington D.C. They’re on the web at issueone.org. Thank you so much for being with us.
MM: Thank you for the discussion.