The Death of Debate in Washington

© Josh Sager – January 2012

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The classical view of the legislative process in Washington is one of debate and compromise between officials representing their constituents. Ideally, our legislators meet in Washington’s legislative buildings to engage in a fact-based and honest debate. Once they make their case to their peers and accept concessions from opposing views, these idealized politicians put their carefully sculpted bills up for a vote and, eventually, laws are passed.

While such a purely idealized view of Washington is unrealistic—there has always been wheeling-and-dealing and alternative motives in government—the fact remains that this has been the general way that our legislature works. Throughout American history, we have seen many cases of compromise and honest debate within our political structures. To give one example of such a situation, we can simply look back to Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil’s debate and compromise surrounding entitlement reform.

Unfortunately, the domination of politics by money has led to a complete transformation of the work of a legislator; debate and compromise have been replaced by fundraising and scripted voting.

In a recently leaked document we see just how money in politics has changed the operation of Washington. Politicians are expected to spend several hours every work day calling and talking to potential donors. As reported by HuffingtonPost, this fundraising is necessary, and there are many cases where politicians will skip hearings on subjects in order to attend fundraisers held by parties interested in a specific resolution of the very hearing that they were skipping. Instead of learning about issues and picking the most effective solution to a problem, these legislators have been compelled to support the side which pays them more—fundraising has eclipsed governance as the primary occupation of Washington legislators.

Debate has become largely meaningless in Washington, simply because Washington politicians have lost much of their control over how they vote. A need to raise large sums of money from interests translates into a need of every politician to court those who can donate money. This need forces politicians to vote in certain ways (ex. opposing tax increases) and prevents them from being shifted by honest debate—even if their personal opinions change on an issue, they are compelled to vote in line with the interests that fund their campaigns.

Many politicians are no longer in control of their vote; instead, it is the partisan leaders and donors who dictate how politicians vote. If politicians fail to toe the line of their party’s donors, they are denied leadership positions within their partisan structure and are not given the funding that they require for reelection. Once these politicians are up for reelection, they are often challenged by politicians who are willing to toe the donor’s line and thus are armed with their donors’ money. This selection process favors the corrupt and makes it easy for corporatists to replace principled politicia

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The shift in representative power from officials to donors is most clear in examples involving the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is a group composed of numerous interest groups and elected officials. ALEC interest groups write legislation and give it to politicians to pass through the legislature. Rather than simply telling the politicians what to support and how to vote, ALEC has dispensed with pretense and has begun writing the law. Functionally speaking, an ALEC politician is simply a ceremonial figurehead and a vehicle for donors to pass their own laws (as of current law, it is still impossible for corporations to be elected to office as people with political rights).

If money were to be taken out of politics, our legislators would begin to govern, rather then just craft and pass legislation to appease potential donors. A system of publically funded election (or simply spending caps) would free up hours a day that politicians currently waste raising money and would release our politicians from the tethers of money. Such a system would allow our legislators to look out for our interests, regardless of what interest money supports.

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