It is a regular theme here of F&V–indeed a core part of its very mission– that the American political system needs fundamental democratic reform if it is to be capable of addressing the major substantive policy challenges faced by Americans. Domestic democratic political reform is also critical if this country is to become a constructive deployer of its power–mainly of the “soft” variety–to help bring about positive change in the face of problems faced by the world more broadly. In terms of domestic problems, I often use healthcare and urban and intercity transportation as examples. In terms of world problems, think climate change, as well as the fundamental issues of war and peace in the Middle East and elsewhere. But don’t think of any of these problems exclusively. These are just examples of problems for which I do not claim to know the solution, because they are not my field, though I lean pretty decisively towards solutions such as single-payer, high-speed rail, and carbon taxation (and, in foreign policy, sharp reductions in military spending and joining the international criminal tribunal process, among other steps).
When it comes to voting, the issues I mention above are paramount in my thinking. But the policy solutions I see as most viable all impose costs of one sort or another on concentrated economic interests that currently enjoy privileged access to political power–interests like pharmaceutical and insurance companies and the airline, trucking, and oil industries, and the military- industrial- congressional complex,1 among others. The problem of privileged access takes us right back to the basic problems of the political structure itself: The current US political structure retards responsiveness to public opinion about national problems, limits the incorporation of new ideas, and reinforces localism and parochialism, and is riddled with access points and vetoes favoring existing incumbent interest players. Serious discussion of political reform to eliminate or attenuate these problems needs to start somewhere, and in addition to this blog, a presidential campaign would seem to be a reasonable place to start.2
I am by no means a “single issue” voter, but I do care about political reform more than almost anything else. As such, I am very much a man without either a party or a candidate–at least if we focus on the parties and candidates that will gain either representation or a realistic prospect of influence on the current and future campaigns for president and congress. But a near constant of my political life has been to vote for candidates and parties with little prospect of such representation or influence, and so in that sense, the election year about to begin is nothing new. As I have noted here before, I do not believe in voting strategically. My vote is much too valuable to give it away to a candidate or party with a realistic chance of winning an election simply because that candidate or party is better than another with an approximately equal or better chance at winning.
Indeed, assuming I vote in the Democratic primary, its 15% threshold for a candidate to win any delegates and the fact that I consider each of the three candidates who looks at all likely to break 15% in California to be almost equally unacceptable,3 means I am free to vote my conscience even if I were to be inclined to vote strategically. Which I am not.
So, what are the stances of candidates for Presidential nomination in 2008 in the area of political reform? Not surprisingly, for most, the answer is “not much.” But there are political-reform ideas being raised in the candidates’ programs, as indicated at their respective websites. These are not high-profile aspects of the campaign, to be sure. But there is some interest on the campaign trail in political reform. This blog post will serve as the closest thing you are likely to find this year to a voter guide for political reform.
I am going to start with the candidates who have the most to say about this issue. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they are both Democrats. Democrats, I might say, who take their own party’s name seriously. Perhaps also not surprisingly, they are also the two Democrats who regularly bring up the rear in any polling–in polls that actually include them among the options, that is.
Because I do not care only about political reform, but see it as a means to better policy solutions, I am also going to refer to candidates’ stances on several other issues, including an overview of several candidates’ ratings from some of the public interest groups that provide such ratings, as compiled by Global Stewards.
THE DEMOCRATIC PRE-CANDIDATES
Gravel is about as close to a single-issue political-reform candidate as one could reasonably expect in the United States. He places great emphasis on a plan that I had never heard of before I took a look at his campaign (and therefore, in one sense, mission accomplished, Mr Gravel!): The Democracy Foundation’s plan for a National Initiative. The proposal–about which Gravel answers a question in a You Tube video–is to amend the constitution to permit a process of citizen-initiated legislation at the federal level. I am a direct-democracy skeptic, so by no means is my publicizing this here to be taken as endorsement. However, I wholeheartedly concur with a statement Gravel makes at his page devoted to this proposal.
Conventional wisdom now holds that Article V is the only way to amend the Constitution. Article V is how the government amends the Constitution, not how the people do it. If the people had to use Article V to amend the Constitution they would need permission from two-thirds of the Congress and three-fourths of the state legislatures. This would mean that the creator of our government, the people, would have to get permission from their elected representatives, the createes of the people, to amend the Constitution. This logic is ludicrous. The constituent power of the peopleâ€“â€“the source of all political powerâ€“â€“cannot be subject to the power of its creation.
I have said in this space more than once that various aspects of the US Constitution that enshrine the state veto in policy-making (mainly via the Senate) are not viable in the long run. The gap between small and large states will grow. At some point, it will be non-sustainable. Yet the Constitution itself, through Article V, enshrines a veto over the structure of government itself to incumbent enfranchised minority interests, including those defined by the (mostly arbitrary) boundaries of small-state political systems. While I would not be prepared to endorse the National Initiative, per se, I commend Mr Gravel for daring to be so impolitic as to raise the structural problems of the Constitution itself.
I have no idea, aside from the National Initiative, what Gravel has been up to since he was a member of the Senate during the Vietnam/Watergate era. However, at that time he did something marvelous for democracy: He read the Pentagon Papers into the record of a US Senate committee. That alone is almost enough for him to earn my vote, though until I looked into his campaign website, I was wondering “what have you done for me lately.” Now I know: Raise the issue of the democratic limitations of the Constitution of what is allegedly the world’s greatest democracy.
On other issues, here are some selected positions from his own website.
Senator Gravel’s position on Iraq remains clear and consistent: to commence an immediate and orderly withdrawal of all U.S. troops that will have them home within 120 days.
Senator Gravel believes that global climate change is a matter of national security and survivability of the planet. As President, he will act swiftly to reduce America’s carbon footprint in the world by initiating legislation to tax carbon at the source and cap carbon emissions. He is also committed to leading the fight against global deforestation, which today is second only to the energy sector as a source of greenhouses gases. …
Senator Gravel’s Progressive Fair Tax proposal calls for eliminating the IRS and the income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax on new products and services. To compensate for the tax on necessities, such as food, lodging, transportation and clothing, there would be a “rebate” to reimburse taxpayers.
Senator Gravel advocates a universal healthcare system that provides equal medical services to all citizens, paid for by a retail sales tax (a portion of the Progressive Fair tax). Citizens would pay nothing for health benefits.
Senator Gravel supports same-sex marriage and opposes the Defense of Marriage Act.
The War on Drugs has been a failure. It is time to end prohibition and start treating addiction as a public health problem.
I am not endorsing either Gravel or any of these specific proposals. But there is a lot there that I like. And, as I alluded to above, the fact that he will struggle to get above 1% is no factor in my ultimate decision.
Because he has not been in Congress for so long, there are no interest-group ratings to report.
Kucinich has a PDF on Campaign Finance and IRV, in which he indicates his support for Instant Runoff Voting, Proportional Representation, Clean Money laws, and debates in the general election including more than the top two candidates. It includes a summary of how IRV works. It is an excellent document.
On other issues, a selection of what Kucinich says includes:
The Europeans have turned away from the catastrophic wars of the last century which took over 100 million lives to embrace a new understanding of diplomacy and dialogue as well as a new understanding of patriotism. So must the United States.
Dennis Kucinich is the only candidate for President with a plan for a Universal, Single-Payer, Not-for-Profit health care system.
Interest group rankings
League of Conservation Voters: 100% (2005-2006)
The American Civil Liberties Union: 100% (2005-2006)
Planned Parenthood: 56% (2006)
AFL-CIO: 93% (2005)
NAACP: 96% (2005)
National Education Association: 88% (2003-2004)
The Humane Society of the U.S.: 100% (2005-2006)
(I was a bit surprised at how low his Planned Parenthood score was; I read somewhere–OK, I will admit it was Wikipedia–that he tended to vote anti-abortion in his first years in Congress, but has become consistently pro-choice since then. However, the rating above is indicated as for 2006, which remains a puzzle.)
There is nothing from Obama regarding what I would consider serious political reform. (Alas, that shows what a mainstream candidate he is; political reform evidently remains something for wonks and radicals. On both points, guilty as charged.)
He does refer to Protecting the right to vote.
Senator Obama introduced the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act to enable investigations into deceptive practices. It establishes significant harsh penalties for those who have engaged in fraud and it provides voters who have been misinformed with accurate and full information so they can vote.
There was not much else there. Then there is the boilerplate stuff about cleaning up Washington’s ethical standards.
Senator Obama has been a strong and consistent advocate of ethics and lobbying reform.
Senator Obama also introduced the Curtailing Lobbyist Effectiveness through Advance Notification, Updates, and Posting Act (The CLEAN UP Act). The bill aims to improve public access to information about all legislation, including conference reports and appropriations legislation, in particular after hurried, end-of-session negotiations. Conference committee meetings and deliberations would have to be open to the public or televised, and conference reports would have to identify changes made to the bill from the House and Senate versions. Finally, no bill could be considered by the full Senate unless the measure has been made available to all Senators and the general public on the Internet for at least 72 hours.
That’s timid stuff, although I do like the idea of opening the public spotlight on conference committees, which are the worst part of American bicameralism, other than the equal representation in the Senate itself.
Interest group rankings
League of Conservation Voters: 98% (2005-2006)
The American Civil Liberties Union: 83% (2005-2006)
Planned Parenthood: 100% (2006)
AFL-CIO: 93% (2006)
NAACP: 100% (2005)
National Education Association: A (2005-2006)
The Humane Society of the U.S.: 60% (2005-2006)
He has a whole section of his campaign platform devoted to Government Reform. Excerpts:
Every two years, he will ask 1 million citizens nationwide to participate in Citizen Congresses combining local town halls with the latest technology to create true national discussions, unfiltered by interest groups. Americans will discuss the challenges and trade-offs facing our country and offer advisory opinions to leaders.
Reform Election Laws: America ought to set an example with the most trustworthy, inclusive and secure election system in the world…
Protecting the vote
Expanding voting rights and participation
Ending voter intimidation and suppression
Reform Campaign Finance To Strengthen Small Donors
Reform Presidential Campaign Finance Laws to Empower Small Donors: …Edwards will create a new Grassroots Presidential Financing System to empower regular Americans in a potentially universal public financing system…
Provide Full Public Financing in Congressional Campaigns: …Edwards will create full public financing for House and Senate races. Candidates who raise a certain number of $5 contributions will receive equal public financing and air time, while additional “fair fight” funds will help candidates facing self-financed campaigns and independent expenditures…
Those are pretty good ideas, even if they stop well short of the more fundamental reforms advocated by Gravel and Kucinich (and your orchardist). He also addresses a much talked-about reform: the item veto:
Take on the Lobbyists’ Power with a Constitutional Line-Item Veto: …To put an end to the rampant abuse of earmarks, Edwards will enact a new form of line-item veto â€“ “expedited rescission” â€“ that would allow the president to single out pork spending provisions in bills and send them back to Congress for required up or down votes. Congress could earmark money only by going on the record in support of each special-interest provision, one by one. Edwards will minimize the risk that the president will abuse the process by allowing only one package of rescissions per bill and requiring the president to spend the funds if Congress reaffirms them…
For various reasons–all based on my understanding of academic research on veto power in presidential systems (including my own)–I consider the item veto to be a bad idea, and not serious political reform. If, however, one must have it, the specific provisions Edwards advocates are better than most other proposals for item veto/recisssion.
Interest group rankings
League of Conservation Voters: 37% (2003)
The American Civil Liberties Union: 60% (2001-2002)
Planned Parenthood: 100% (2001)
AFL-CIO: 100% (2003)
NAACP: 94% (2001-2002)
National Education Association: 60% (2003-2004)
The Humane Society of the U.S.: 60% (2003)
Wow, look at that League of Conservation Voters rating! Terrible. And the ACLU rating is quite bad, too. Edwards has positioned himself as perhaps the most left-libertarian Democratic candidate in the field other than Kucinich and Gravel. Maybe he is sincere. But the Senate record is not promising. In fact, from my (cynical) observation point, it looks like he was positioning himself to be at the right of his party when that looked wise for his 2004 presidential ambitions, and at its left now, when being liberal (or “progressive,” if you prefer) and pro-civil-liberties is safer.
Nothing, really. And that is not surprising. She rather likes the way the government works, presumably, including unilateral executive powers.
She does have a section called Government Reform. However, there is nothing whatsoever on election reform other than “Expanding voting access and safeguarding voting machines. ”
Interest group rankings
League of Conservation Voters: 83% (2005-2006)
The American Civil Liberties Union: 83% (2005-2006)
Planned Parenthood: 100% (2006)
AFL-CIO: 93% (2005)
NAACP: 95% (2005)
National Education Association: A (2005-2006)
The Humane Society of the U.S.: 100% (2005-2006)
Nothing on his issues page about political reform
Also nothing seems to come up in a Google search (including a Google news search) for “Richardson instant runoff voting.” I thought there might be something there because New Mexico is a state where there has been a relatively strong Green party in some congressional races.
Also, no interest group ratings as he has not been in congress for some time (and is now, of course, a governor–the only one in the Democratic field).
Richardson is a candidate I like in many ways. He certainly has all the objective qualifications–the sorts of things that would make him a leading contender for the chief executive role in a parliamentary democracy. If he could gain traction in the polls and break through to the tier of plausibles, he is the one candidate in the race I might consider a strategic vote for. But that looks unlikely, and in the next paragraph I will attempt to sketch why he may not be so mainstream, after all, and hence perhaps account for some of the puzzle as to why a candidate who has done–and done well–almost every job you might want a president to have done nonetheless has polling support closer to the likes of Kucinich than to Obama or Clinton.
I heard a news item some months ago to the effect that Richardson was the only Democratic candidate, other than Gravel and Kucinich, to be calling for cuts to US military spending. However, I could not find such a statement on his website. (Is he too timid to say so openly?) Assuming the claim is accurate, then he would be the third or fourth best candidate in the two parties’ fields on foreign policy–after Kucinich, Gravel, and (the otherwise mostly wacko, if you ask me) Republican pre-candidate, Ron Paul. If his position really is to reduce military spending, maybe that’s part of the reason for his lack of emergence as a leading candidate: He is rather more distant from the mainstream than he otherwise appears.4 In any event, on democratic political reform, he is certainly in the mainstream: he ignores it.
At his issues page, Joe Biden has no category regarding political reform or democracy. At least not in the United States. The first item on his issues page is a link to his Five Point Plan for Iraq, which is for a much more well thought-out federal system than the one we were stuck with by the logroll at the Philadelphia Convention. Do not take this remark as an endorsement of Biden’s plan for Iraq; I am referring only to the fact that it is allegedly based on fully implementing the federalist principles of the existing Iraqi constitution, which bears much more resemblance to James Madison’s original proposal than does our current US Constitution.5
On his issues page, Dodd has a subheading for Restoring the Constitution. This is narrowly based on a proposed Act of Congress to repeal key provisions of the Military Commissions Act. (“Narrow” here does not mean unimportant, of course.)
There is nothing on Dodd’s issues page related to elections or executive-legislative relations (aside from reducing presidential discretion with respect to “enemy combatants”). He does, however, devote an entire subheading to “A Renewed American Heartland: Revitalizing Rural America.” That’s appropriate, I suppose, for a presidential candidate who has taken up residence in Iowa.
THE REPUBLICAN PRE-CANDIDATES
OK, on to the Republican field. These men have little to say about political reform, with the partial exception of John McCain. The general silence of Republicans on democratic (or, for that matter, republican) reform is as unsurprising as it was for Clinton. The Republican candidates presumably don’t think there is much wrong with a political system that they have played to maximum partisan advantage in the years since the 12 December coup.
Before moving on to the individual candidates, I want to cite a statement from the League of Conservation voters (because the Global Stewards site I referred to for the Democrats gives ratings only for candidates of that party).
On the Republican side, the differences are much more stark.6 With the exception of a few of the more fringe candidates, each candidate has acknowledged that global warming is a problem. But that is where the similarities end. Sen. McCain has offered legislation to reduce global warming pollution by 65% by 2050. None of the other Republican candidatesâ€”Mayor Giuliani, Sen. Thompson, Govs. Romney and Huckabee and Rep. Paulâ€”have offered any kind of comprehensive plan to address global warming. Moreover, aside from Sen. McCain, only Gov. Huckabee has signaled support for a cap on emissions.
Now, back to the Republican pre-candidates and what little they have to say about political reform.
As one of the signature issues of his campaign in 2000 was the influence of interest groups and campaign money, McCain unsurprisingly again features these themes prominently.
There is a section on his platform devoted to Lobbying and ethics reform:
As President, John McCain would shine the disinfecting light of public scrutiny on those who abuse the public purse, use the power of the presidency to restore fiscal responsibility, and exercise the veto pen to enforce it.
Democracy is not for sale
…Since campaigns require spending funds to communicate with voters, they know we can never take money completely out of politics, nor should we. Americans have a right to support the candidates and the parties they endorse, including financially if they so choose.
But what most Americans worry about profoundly is corporations or individuals with huge checks seeking the undue influence on lawmakers that such largesse is intended to purchase. That is why John McCain has fought to enforce long-standing prohibitions on corporate and union contributions to federal political parties, for sensible donation limits, disclosure of how candidates and campaigns are funded, and the diligent enforcement of these common sense rules that promote maximum public participation in the political process and limit opportunities for corruption. …
There is nothing more about political reform than that. It is my understanding that McCain is on record as favoring IRV, so it is disappointing that it does not even merit a mention on his campaign website.
Nothing regarding elections, but on his page about federal spending, he says:
Institute The Line-Item Veto. Give the President the same power held by most state governors, to veto individual elements of a spending bill and strip out unnecessary spending.
Give President Flexibility. Authorize the Executive Branch to spend up to 25 percent less than Congress appropriates for a given project or agency.
Restore Supermajority Requirement. Impose congressional rule requiring a three-fifths (60%) supermajority to pass any law that would raise taxes.
Well, that is “political reform,” in the literal sense of changing the form of the political system. But it is junk political reform. These ideas would alter the structure of power further towards the interest-group status quo.7 But at least we know where the candidate stands.
At his issues page Thompson has a section on Government Effectiveness, but nothing there is structural in any way. (It is all boilerplate like “Attracting and rewarding the best Americans to serve in government and ensuring they have the authority and resources needed to get the job done” and ensuring government has the best information technology systems.)
The section on Federal Budget does not refer to any of the Executive-empowering and Congress-constraining structural changes advocated by Romney (or even the weaker–but still retrograde–item veto supported by Edwards).
Nothing at his issues page on political reform
No heading on his issues page having anything to do with political reform
Nothing on political reform. Even with all the attention he devotes at his “core principles” page to taxes and spending, he does not even endorse the reactionary constitutional amendments Romney favors for making the federal government more beholden to incumbent interests and less capable of democratically demanded policy changes. He does, unsurprisingly, favor one constitutional amendment: The so-called Right to Life Amendment.
There you have it. If your vote depends to a significant degree on which candidates have articulated an understanding of the fundamental deficiencies of the current American electoral and constitutional arrangements for addressing pressing policy problems, then the only candidates with strong statements to this effect are Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich. The third best would perhaps be John Edwards, but the dropoff is great. Among Republicans, the silence is deafening on political reform (not counting the highly reactionary constitutional changes advocated by Mitt Romney), but if someone committed to voting for a Republican were to ask me which of that party’s pre-candidates was most open to at least some aspects of electoral and campaign reform, I would say that clearly it is John McCain. The other candidates for the Republican nomination are not deserving of a moment’s’ consideration, and neither are Democrats Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or any of the others not mentioned in this concluding paragraph.
Voting for small-d democratic political reform means voting for Gravel or Kucinich (and for Republicans, maybe McCain).
- That was the original term President Eisenhower intended to use in his Farewell Address, but he dropped the references to Congress before actually giving the speech. [↩]
- I am not in this entry proposing specific solutions, but as I periodically articulate in the set of plantings on American Political Reform, I start with the principles of the original Madisonian draft–the “Virginia Plan“–which called for both chambers of the legislature to be apportioned by population and for the executive to be selected by that legislature and to have no effective veto on legislative acts. Regardless of any changes to the cameral and executive-legislature structures, political reform should include the use of proportional representation in a larger House and, even if we keep equal state representation in the Senate, expand that body, too, to accommodate PR. Assuming a separate presidency is here to stay, elect via National Popular Vote instead of the absurd and archaic electoral college. Make the veto weaker. Other reforms are discussed regularly, including in the comment threads. [↩]
- I am referring to Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. Below I will note that Edwards might be the third best candidate on political reform. He is, however, unacceptable to me on other issues, including his terrible record on the environment and civil rights when he was a Senator and his vote for the Iraq War and the so-called Patriot Act. Some past transgressions can’t be forgiven. (Among current candidates who were members of Congress at the time, only Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul voted NO on either; in fact, both voted NO on both of them.) [↩]
- As I noted before, while he takes a strong position on disengaging from Iraq–itself, unfortunately outside the mainstream–he actually wants more troops in Afghanistan. [↩]
- I say “allegedly” because, despite statements of support for the existing Iraqi constitution, Biden’s plan actually appears to envision a much weaker central government than the current Iraqi constitution, by my reading, establishes. I covered the Iraqi constitution and federalism rather extensively in the summer and early fall of 2005–plantings that are now on the second and third pages of the Iraq category. [↩]
- More stark, compared to the similarities noted among Democrats:
“In the race for the Democratic nomination, all of the candidates have shown a commitment to addressing global warming. Senators Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Obama and Rep. Kucinich have co-sponsored the strongest global warming bills in Congress. Each of the top-tier candidates, including Gov. Richardson and Sen. Edwards, have put forward aggressive plans to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.” [↩]
- Despite being portrayed as anti-pork, the item veto is no such thing. It simply makes the executive a direct party to bargaining over the distribution of pork and limits the ability of the legislature to make programmatic policy (by letting the executive cut specific spending provisions in a policy-reform bill)–which therefore has the perverse effect of inducing members to demand more pork in negotiations with the executive, rather than less. Again, this conclusion about the item veto comes from my own political-science understanding of the matter. and towards the executive. I have addressed these matters before here at F&V, specifically in the planting, “The Latin Americanization of the US Constitution?“ [↩]