Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Case of the Curious Quiet

About a week ago, I noted the strange silence coming from Tennessee's Democratic quarters about the Tennessee Waltz indictments and the legislators who got them. What anger there was seemed to be muted and specific, or tightly generalised to only those indicted. Little to no anger at the leadership of the party, or the atmosphere within the party that made such widespread corruption possible did I find.

I asked my readers to point me to anyone who was expressing what I wasn't seeing. I got no real response.

The guys at LeanLeft, one of the blogs I criticised then, have since had three posts on legislative and government corruption. All, however, reference Republican wrongdoing in other states and do not address the Tennessee situation. It was, as I noted then, a lot of hand-waving to distract attention and shift responsibility. The conflation of "Quick, look over there!" and "Well, they do it, too." While it is important to highlight and draw attention to corruption -- a core purpose of the First Amendment and absolutely essential speech to free and honest government -- those aren't valid responses to my question. It still remains to be answered.

But, in this post, Kevin argues:
Campaign financing has now become almost indistinguishable from open bribery. In public the fiction is maintained, but, as the Westar case reveals, in private companies know they are buying Congresspeople and Congresspeople are quite happy – indeed, they need the money to get re-elected – to be bought.

The only solution to this is public campaign financing....
He must be kidding. Having just seen how access to legislation -- a core function of government -- can be controlled by extortion and bribery he wants to take all that money used to finance campaigns, put it into one pot, and then give control of that pot to the same legislators and public officials he documents, and we now know, are bribeable! What possible logic is there in this?

The solutions are simple and threefold: transparency, openness and reporting.

Money should be transparent. Donations to candidates should only be allowed from living humans who are citizens of this country. No donations from parties, corporations, foundations, unions or PACs allowed. If organisations want to make a group donation, it should be composed of bundled and identified individual donations. (I would also argue against limits on contributions, but we'll leave that for another day.) Groups that campaign on behalf of a particular candidate should be subject to the same restrictions.

Donations should be recorded and posted to the candidate's offical website within 72 hours. Give the FEC regulatory power to audit those lists with a warrant. All campaign expenditures must be accounted for, although they don't have to be publicly posted. Just accessible to the FEC.

Yes, there is a loss of privacy. But I would argue that the public good done by transparency outweighs that significantly.

Next is openness. Meetings by public, elected and appointed officials must always be open to the public and the press. Period. Failure to follow this law results in fines by the State Attorney General to the people involved. Automatically upon discovery. This will slow down some government action, but since when is that bad?

In this digital age, I might even push for recording of all public meetings. It's as cheap as its ever been, easily done and permanently storable. This would allow for public review at a later date.

Public records? Same thing. Not databases of private, required information like dates of birth, Social Security numbers, phone numbers driver's license numbers, and other identifying information, but the reports, transcripts, files and other output of public officials and their offices. This should be automatically available and there should be no delay or excuse in granting access.

The work of government is the work of the people. There is no valid argument for hiding it from that public. If work proceeds more cautiously because of the awareness of public scrutiny, again, how is that a bad thing?

Lastly is reporting. This is the secondary essential function of the First Amendment, to make the doings of government and its officials known to the people they are supposed to serve, but frequently exploit or rule over. (The primary function was to encourage and protect free dissent.) We the people must take active interest and participation in our government. Reading about and being familiar with the players and their actions is necessary. Newspapers used to do this job pretty well, until the post-WWII period, when they adopted the "fair, neutral and objective" stance. Nowadays, blogs and websites are moving quickly and decisively to fill that void.

I would add keeping power as close to the people as possible, making it possible for the people to feel they have a real hand in it. But that, too, is a discussion for another time.

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