Thursday, November 04, 2010

Democracy: Going, going, gone

An editorial in the Montreal Gazette - fascinating how quickly an outsider can see one of the major problems with our electoral system, but our GOP can't. Not even McCain 2010 (an entirely different beast from the moderate who proposed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance rules).
(h/t to the expats at Pisani Canadian Adventures - you might want to stay there. Canada sounds remarkably civilized.
Our American friends will find themselves, Wednesday morning, with the most expensive Congress money can buy. The last-minute tsunami of campaign spending gives Canadians still another reason to feel smug -we really do handle this better here. But the orgy of spending in Congressional races can have negative consequences for us.

U.S. candidates are burning through a record sum this year, over $2 billion. That's 10 per cent more than in 2008, and there's not even a presidential election this year.

Many representatives elected Tuesday will start Wednesday to raise money for their 2012 races. And far too often, "raising money" is a euphemism for "selling your vote." Literally taking bribes is still fairly rare, as far as anyone knows, but legislators do sell their votes, in a sense, to raise campaign funds: They decide to vote for the positions advocated by special-interest lobbyists; those interests then make donations.

Worse, much of the money goes for poisonous negative ads, which will be unavoidable on Plattsburgh and Burlington TV this weekend. These are almost always shameful over-or mis-statements, tailored to create the impression that the other candidate is a bigot, a dupe, a fanatic, a near-criminal, a class enemy, and/or a moron. Then people wonder why respect for politicians is so low.

Part of the problem is that members of Congress are free of party constraint. Where Canadian MPs risk losing various perks or even official party renomination if they buck their leaders, Congress is in a sense 535 independents, each one taking his own position on each issue -and often raising more or less money depending on what those positions are.

Sometimes the special interests want protection against Canadian competition, or more pressure put on Canada to comply with this or that U.S. policy. There's an obvious danger there for us. But there's another risk, too: Sharp left-right polarization, and the resulting big swings in control of the House or Senate or both, make it very hard for Canadian governments and companies to predict U.S. policy. A boisterous and unpredictable neighbour can make you awfully nervous.

As if Congressional politics weren't already dysfunctional, Supreme Court and regulatory rulings this year permit almost unlimited "outside money" -from outside a district, from outside the scope of laws governing party finance, and in practice even from outside the country -in campaigns since this is considered legitimate free speech.

This has resulted in parachute drops of over $250 million of such money. Some candidates have been amazed to see their opponents suddenly sharply attacked in ads from nationwide industry groups or unions or, worse, by mysterious spenders disguised behind some shapeless label like "Citizens United." The House has already passed legislation requiring disclosure of the sources of such money; the Senate has not. Usefully, sunlightfoundation.comtracks what it can of such spending.

It's a mess. You know your system needs work when your Congress can be bought by anonymous bidders, like old master paintings at an art auction.

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