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Peter Riva

View from the Edge

Peter Riva of Gila has offered his many years of columns for this online newspaper. His writings have been published in East Coast newspapers, and he decided to share them with me and you, our readers.

A Most Important Issue for Our Country

by Peter Riva - Nov. 9, 2012

If there is one lesson the last election taught both parties, it is that electoral reform is critical going forward. The problem is, the public may not understand electoral reform the same way the parties do; and when so much money, jobs, and tenure are at stake, the politicians may not have the energy or impetus from the public to solve these pressing issues. However, our very democracy may be at stake.

Some people have been pressing for term limits on members of Congress, much as there is a term limit for the Presidency. On the face of it, that seems laudable; but the problem is that the civil servants, those faceless bureaucrats who actually run Washington, have long term, some permanent, jobs. If you change politicians (who oversee their activities) too often, you are sure to lose state control to these faceless people, all of whom carve out tenure in much the same way as a gambler looks for and stays at a winning blackjack table. If you change the dealer too often, the house may never spot a cheat. If you change the house and the dealer, good luck spotting the sharks, cheats and associations between players.

Some people are calling for election financial reform. There are three issues here, so let’s split them up: funds needed to run a campaign; funds coming from corporations (“people too” according to the Supreme Court); and  money from political action committees. Let’s start with the last one first.

If a person or a group of people came to your door and asked for your vote and if they were not the candidate or a candidate’s representative (or wife), you would shut the door quickly. You could not trust them to cross your threshold, because you would know they were there for their own reasons; and if the candidate did not authorize them, perhaps they would say something the candidate does not agree with, and again you would shut the door. So why do we listen to endless TV and radio commercials from these so-called political action committees (PAC), since they actually have no candidate’s endorsement? If the candidate says, on the radio or TV, “...and I approve this message,” then you know they are staking their name and reputation. But the PAC’s advertising doesn’t do that; they can lie, cheat, exaggerate, and bend your democratic right to hear the truth upon which you are going to base your vote. They are not accountable. They need to be forced to be accountable, financially and honestly.

The Supreme Court was misguided when they called corporations “people too.” Corporations are made up of people, true;  but until America has boardroom ethics and laws backed up by personal criminal responsibility (as most of Europe, Japan and even China does), the so-called leaders of a corporation can spend shareholders’ money and risk the financial welfare of the very corporation they represent with no personal responsibility. Do you know the names of the board of directors of Chevron who gave $36 million to one campaign (and a PAC at that, which is also not accountable)? To whom do they answer? The Supreme Court says that you cannot falsely yell “Fire!” and cause a crowd to stampede, even though the Constitution protects your right of free speech. Yet here we have unaccountable, unpunishable people allowed to act “as a corporation” who spin democracy in a way that suits them, but, in the end, is damaging to the truthfulness of our whole nation. We should make the corporate boards responsible – as people, not a business  – as individuals personally careful not to yell “fire” when there is none.

And so we come to the big issue: funds raised to run a campaign. It is all well and fine for the Democrats to claim that the average donation was $50 or less; but that doesn’t stop them, like their Republican counterparts, from raising big money from heavy-hitters - all vested-interest money to influence people and government programs. Let’s look at one campaign: Senator Scott Brown vs. Elizabeth Warren. He raised $24.4 million (and was helped with $21million of PAC money) to keep his job. “What?” I hear you exclaim. Yes, $24.4 million, much of it in large slices from military contractors and boards or employees of those companies – companies to whom he awards contracts as an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “You’re kidding, it’s that blatant?” Yes it is, even to the tune of $77,751 from lesser employees at Raytheon, for whom he promised to fight on the Hill. He also has gone to bat for corporate Raytheon and GE/Rolls Royce programs. Meanwhile Elizabeth Warren raised $36.6 million, largely from small donors, but with a few very deep pocket union contributors for whom she has promised to fight for wages and benefits. Gee, I wonder if there will be a payoff now? The problem here is not the amount of money.  The problem here is the influence peddling.

Okay, how do we solve this? Stop the need for such vast sums of money and make everything transparent. You want to give $10, your name goes on a public list. Stand and be counted. A good American motto of trust and honor. And how to stop the need for huge sums of money? Shorten the electioneering period to six weeks total. You can prepare offices ahead of time, you can print signs and t-shirts, you can plan advertising; but not one campaign can start until six weeks before election time. Shortening the electioneering and campaign time frame will reduce TV commercials, advertising spending, and force campaigns to use people door to door, carrying real messages from candidates. Then the electorate can make informed decisions, not coerced ones, not purchased votes.

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