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Blagojevich Fri Feb 20 2009

Political Panhandling: A Modest Proposal

I've got an idea for stemming the corruption associated with money in politics. How about stopping the politicians from asking for it so much?

Among the many topics never taught in high school civics, and rarely in college political science, is begging. The "beg." The "pitch." The "ask." Otherwise known as the direct solicitation of money, by an officeholder or would-be officeholder.

The uproar over the Blagojevich-Burris follies might lead some to believe that the constant "touch" put on friends, acquaintances, and the not-so-well-acquainted was some freakish aberration on the part of the governor and his henchmen. Hardly so.

Twice in recent weeks I've heard a legislator complain -- or was it boast? -- of spending six hours a day on the phone. Yet another elected official concluded our meal by looking at his Blackberry and excusing himself because he had to "go do calls." Realize that "phone time" in modern political parlance does not refer to personal chit-chat with ordinary citizens, or asking for input on stimulus appropriations. It refers specifically to the obligation to spend hours a day -- hours -- dialing for dollars from past or potential contributors.

An operative once explained to me a simple truth: a candidate's campaign has many facets, but only one candidate. The candidate himself or herself is the most valuable asset, because a personal request from the candidate for an endorsement, a favor, or money is always more effective than entreaties from an underling or volunteer. If the candidate is already elected, a call from a muckety-muck is both flattering and intimidating. But even from a novice candidate, the call is more effective than the letter, simply because it's interpersonally harder to say no to someone's face.

Similarly, a candidate is more effective than a surrogate at a debate or a community forum, more effective shaking hands on an L platform than a volunteer handing out leaflets, more likely to win a vote knocking on your door in the snow than some surrogate. But as districts have become bigger, and campaigns more expensive, the devotion of the campaign's main "asset" to fundraising has grown.

Why? Because it's effective. It also feeds itself, because effective fundraising enables ever more expensive campaigns, making the fundraising ever more necessary. Like the mindless mops fetching water in Fantasia, fundraising has taken on a life of its own, and the flood of money now threatens to drown our entire political process.

Most modern political operations have at least one person whose job includes keeping some candidate time free for such calling, hounding the candidate on the number of calls made, and their results. Such a taskmaster is necessary because, with rare exception, most humans loathe asking friends, family, and neighbors for money. In any normal social context it's somewhere between awkward and crass, especially because the "gasp" rule is the fundraiser's maxim: as one politico told me, "If you don't ask for a number so big it makes them gasp, you haven't asked for enough."

Driving politicians to become serial telemarketers damages both the process and the politicians. Our current crises are complex, but there are only so many hours in the day. If your congressman spends six hours a day on fundraising, that's six hours not being spent researching the economics of a stimulus or budget bill, or perhaps even reading the bill itself. It's six hours not spent absorbing the lessons of history, or the newest thinkers. It's also six hours spent communicating disproportionately with those who can write big checks, rather than the vast majority of constituents living paycheck to paycheck. Even without any quid pro quo, the process distorts a legislator's or candidate's input and world view.

The impulsion to chain-beg also habituates politicians to be quick, not thoughtful. Limit a call to five minutes, and you can make a hundred in four hours. Take time instead to listen to a constituent's account of impending layoffs at an employer, or how a credit squeeze is preventing a business from getting short-term commercial paper to survive the winter, and you can't reach as many donors. Many longtime politicians -- a species once known for long-windedness -- instead develop a habit of quick, one-line answers. It's not just for "Hardball"; it's necessary for a get-to-the-point phone beg.

Most efforts to curb the corrosive influence of cash in politics target contributions or expenditures. How about this: limit the beg. Although the First Amendment is implicated, because "beggars at times may communicate important political or social messages in their appeals for money," soliciting cash is somewhere between pure "speech" and commerce. Cities and villages regulate panhandlers; why not severely restrict when and how elected officials personally ask for a campaign contribution?

This would not stop any citizen from exercising the right to contribute; nor would fundraisers open to the public, or mailings to large groups, be outlawed. But the war chests incumbents could amass would decrease, as would, then, what challengers need to raise. Elected officials would have many more hours to devote to the policy decisions we elect them to make, or to hear from ordinary voters. They'd be freed from the demeaning burden of never-ending phone time. Most important, the possibility of pay-to-play quid pro quo would be greatly reduced. Like they say, "if you don't ask, you don't get." So why not do something about the ask?

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