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Fixing Our Broken Political System

John Plumb
Oct 18, 2016 · 6 min read

Our political system is broken — and Congress is a major part of the problem.

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To start, there is too much money in politics. Money has become so essential to running for office that it is access to money from PACs and special interests, rather than responsiveness to constituents, that makes elected members more likely to remain in office year after year. The amount of money a sitting member of Congress can receive from PACs and lobbyists is deeply unsettling. This culture causes many members of Congress to put the interests of their big donors first and damages what little trust Americans still have in their Congress — all at the expense of our working families.

As a result, the worst members of Congress spend their time in Washington rigging the system against us. They get away with deals, schemes, and dishonest behavior that would never be accepted in the military, the private sector, or rural communities across the Southern Tier and Western New York. This broken system is damaging our democracy and our country. We need to hold members of Congress accountable for writing rules that enable this unethical behavior to continue. Just because they have written the rules so that can get away with this behavior doesn’t make it right.

It is time we enact strong reforms that constrain the excessive money in politics and help ensure that our political system more closely reflects our values — like integrity and service. I propose four key policy priorities to serve as guiding principles to fix our broken system and get Congress back to working on behalf of the country like our founding fathers intended.

Key Priorities:

Corporations are not People: Enact a Constitutional Amendment that undoes the disastrous Citizens United v. F.E.C ruling and give Congress and the States the power to regulate campaign finance.

Increase Transparency: Require members of Congress to publicly disclose bulk mailings paid for at taxpayer expense, and publicly report the amount of hours they spend fundraising while Congress is in session.

Crackdown on the Revolving Door: Extend the lobbying ban on former members of Congress after they leave office from one year to five years, and close loopholes that have facilitated underground and unreported lobbying.

Strengthen Independent Congressional Ethics Oversight: Stop allowing members of Congress to write their own ethics standards — reform is not in their interest. Establish an Independent Congressional Oversight Board that develops and establishes rigorous, enforceable ethics standards for members of Congress.

Key Lines of Effort for Fixing Our Broken Political System

Our elected officials should lead by example, demonstrating their personal dedication to integrity and the values we share in order to restore faith in our government. Unfortunately, the worst elements in Congress continue to prevent such standards from being enforced. There are long-term trends that weaken existing standards, often due to a “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” unspoken set of agreements. The following four policy proposals will help Congress achieve the standards the rest of us expect.

Corporations are Not People

The Citizens United v. F.E.C ruling has undermined the very underpinning of our democracy[1], allowing corporations that enjoy the benefits of lower tax rates and limited liability to take advantage of rights that should be limited to actual constituents. The ruling needs to be undone with a Constitutional Amendment that grants Congress and the States the power to regulate campaign finance.

Corporations do not send their children to our schools; they do not face the risk of their sons and daughters being sent to war; they do not have responsibilities to our communities or even to the United States of America. Their only responsibility is to their shareholders — often including foreign entities who may actually seek to harm American interests.

Increase Transparency

While reforming many of the problems with our broken political system will be an uphill battle, we can start by taking steps to increase transparency and public awareness about flaws in the system.

As one example, members of Congress spend far too much time fundraising when they are in session — despite the fact that taxpayers pay members of Congress over $170,000 each year to actually get some work done for our country. When Congress is in session, members should be busy working for the American people. Fundraising during those times distracts members of Congress from their elected responsibilities and reduces bipartisanship by further isolating members instead of providing opportunities to work together. Members often miss crucial votes or are unavailable to meet with voters because of this excessive focus on fundraising. I support efforts to shine a light on this process and believe members of Congress should be required to publicly report the hours they spend fundraising while they are in-session.

A second example is providing transparency into the current system, prone to abuse, of taxpayer-funded bulk mailings using the “Frank.” Taxpayer-funded mail from elected representatives, called the “Frank,” was meant to encourage communication with constituents regarding government matters. There have been times when this system has been vital for reaching constituents, but too often it is abused and used as a way for some members to campaign for re-election using taxpayer dollars[2]. While there are regulations and oversight from the Committee on House Administration[3], I believe we could benefit from more independent oversight and a stricter ethical standard. The current system not only provides an unfair advantage to incumbents, it also encourages an improper and wasteful use of taxpayer dollars. Too often the content of “Franked” mail is partisan and misleading. Independent enforcement should require use of the Frank be limited to written correspondence in letter form subject to a stringent non-partisan review. Each use of the Frank for constituent bulk mailings should require that such communications be publicly posted for transparency, along with the cost to the taxpayer of each mailing.

Crackdown on the Revolving Door

Our current system promotes corruption and allows those at the top to influence our Congress with a dangerous advantage. In particular, many former members of Congress become lobbyists as soon as their time in Congress is up. And the most powerful former members of Congress are the individuals that are most likely to lobby their former colleagues after leaving office[4]. Right now, former members of Congress in the House of Representatives have a one-year ban after they leave office before they can begin making lobbying contacts or communications with former colleagues[5]. That should be expanded to at least five years. There are also a series of loopholes in the law that allow ex-lawmakers to engage in lobbying activities without formally registering, such as serving as a counsel at a law firm that lobbies or working in government relations or “public affairs” firms[6]. This means that many ex-lawmakers haven’t stopped lobbying Congress; it is simply being reported less[7]. Currently, the definition of “lobbyist,” according to Title 2 of US Code, Section 1602, reads: “[A]ny individual who is employed or retained by a client for financial or other compensation for services that include more than one lobbying contact, other than an individual whose lobbying activities constitute less than 20 percent of the time engaged in the services provided by such individual to that client over a 3-month period.” We must amend this definition to remove the 20 percent and 3-month period caveats.

Strengthen Independent Congressional Ethics Oversight

Too many members of Congress have learned to bend the rules instead of acting with integrity. We need to stop allowing them to write their own ethics standards because they have proven time and time again that they cannot police themselves. I support establishing an Independent Congressional Oversight Board[8] that develops and enforces ethics standards for members of Congress. Too many of the current rules have been written by sitting members of Congress and those rules are designed to insulate them from public scrutiny and accountability to the voters.

One example of needed ethics reform includes measures to prevent the misuse of campaign donations. When individuals contribute to a political candidate, they do so in the hopes of supporting that candidate. They do not do it to enable the candidate to enrich him or herself by misapplying the funds to family-owned businesses. Campaign accounts should be held to the standard of other business accounts and the practice of allowing businesses or business interests of a member of Congress or their immediate family to benefit through payments from the member’s campaign funds should be banned.

[1] “Citizens United and the Campaign Finance Crisis.” End Citizen United.

[2] “House Members Send Mail on Taxpayer’s Dime, Vulnerable Ones Do it Much More.” Roll Call, 4/10/16.

[3] Franking Commission, Committee on House Administration.

[4] “Which Members of Congress Become Lobbyists?” Washington Post, 1/15/16.

[5] “All Cooled Off.” Open Secrets, 1/6/15.

[6] “All Cooled Off.” Open Secrets, 1/6/15.

[7] “Erring on the Side of Shady.” Sunlight Foundation, 4/1/14.

[8] “The Constitutionality and Structure of an Independent Congressional Ethics Agency,” Public Citizen.

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