Monday, March 23, 2015


I have a question for you:
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America stipulates (in part) that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech”. Can that stipulation be reasonably interpreted to protect the right of individuals, interest groups, companies and action pacts to finance the election campaigns of the people running for elected public office?

Apparently that is possible, because that is exactly what the judicial system going up to the Supreme Court has sanctioned with only peripheral limitations.

The readers of my book ‘NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism’, are familiar with my belief that there are several serious flaws in the American system of public governance and the more I think about this, read about this, the more I come to the conclusion that the root cause of the flaws we encounter is in the influence that campaign donors exert over the political process and public policy making. The other flaws that I signal in my book are: the two party system; our election system (including terms of tenure and frequency of election); and the absence of a national strategy requirement. I now believe that the only reason why these latter three flaws are near impossible to address is that the vested interests who finance our politicians’ campaigns don’t want to see them changed. If there is complete gridlock these days in Washington DC, it is because that is what the moneymen who pull the financial strings want to see. And they are willing to spend big money to protect their perceived interest (about $4 billion just for the 2014 mid-term elections). We get exactly what the campaign donors were looking for when they wrote their large checks: nothing coming out of Congress: no tax reform, no tort reform, no education reform, no debt reduction, no gun control, no comprehensive immigration legislation, no infrastructure investments, no climate control measures, no Arctic development, nothing to enhance America’s global position, NOTHING!

Ideally, I would like to see complete public financing of election campaigns together with time limitations on the start and ending of political campaigns. As it is, America is near permanently in election mode. We just had mid-term elections in November of 2014 and here we are in the spring of 2015 and the airwaves are filled with buzz about the 2016 Presidential election. I am for a one term presidency of six years, enough time to allow any occupant of the White House to pursue his/her agenda and make a mark, especially if the term would not be interrupted by the need to go back on the campaign trail for a re-election.
For members of the House of Representatives I advocate terms of four years and a term limit of maximum three terms. For members of the Senate terms of six years like we have today but also a term limit of maximum three terms.

If our elected representatives would not have to worry about raising the money to finance their campaigns and if they would be seated for longer terms, they would gain precious time to do the work they are elected to do. As it is, they now start the day with a fundraising breakfast, leading into a fundraising lunch with fundraising calls made in between. And they finish the day with a fundraising dinner. When in such schedule is there time to do the People’s work?

More importantly, if our elected representatives would not have to worry about raising money to finance their campaigns, they would no longer be beholden to campaign donors who come into their office to lobby for or against legislative proposals being considered by Congress. Former Senator Alan Simpson said it best when he testified in a campaign-finance court case: “Who, after all, can seriously contend that a $100,000 donation does not alter the way one thinks about—and quite possibly votes on—an issue?” The money influence in politics has separated our politicians from their constituents by placing the moneymen in between, forcing our politicians to do the bidding of their campaign donors rather than their people.

For all these reasons, it is only fitting to ask the question again: Should the US Constitution protect the current system of private funding of election campaigns as an expression of the right to free speech or is Congress at liberty to do what already is the norm in almost all other Western democracies and limit both the duration and private financing of federal elections?

Unfortunately, that question is unlikely to get answered as long as the moneymen hold sway over Congress by paying the bills for the election and re-election of the representatives of the People. And, if Congress does not act, there is no chance that the Supreme Court would reverse its decision that throwing money at the campaigns of candidates for federal elections is an expression of the first amendment right to free speech.

Friday, March 13, 2015


Driving back from a winter break – we finally had enough after a record cold February in Cleveland – in Low Country Carolina, I listened to a commentary by Ari Shapiro from London about the differences between election campaigns in England and the USA and it brought this thought to mind: “Are we too accepting of the way we do things in America even if most of us despise how and why they are done?”

Ari Shapiro’s piece centered on the fact that, although the British parliamentary elections are to be held on May 7, 2015, less than two months away, you would never know about it if you listen to British TV or radio. How unthinkable is that in the US, where for months on end we get bombarded with political advertising on all available air waves?
The reason the Brits are spared the nauseating and exhausting campaign advertisements is simple and twofold: Campaign spending is strictly limited and political advertising on TV and radio is not allowed.

Our Canadian neighbors are spared the agony of endless political campaigns played out on the airwaves the same way, by putting limits on the time to be spent on election campaigns and by strict limitations on private campaign donations (public financing of election campaigns is the primary way Canada pays for the cost of its elections).

Are the British and Canadian democracies less perfect as a result of these constraints on time and money spent on elections? I don’t think so and will argue that the combination of the unlimited flow of money in US election campaigns and the peculiarities of the election system in the U.S. is a major cause of the almost universally recognized dysfunction in Washington DC.

The most recent Gallup poll, released March 12, 2015, found that Americans name “Government” as the number 1 U.S. problem. This may be in part a reflection on an unpopular administration, but I like to think that it is more a reflection on American popular dissatisfaction with the way things are getting done or, more to the point, not getting done in the public sector. What amazes me, as a first generation immigrant and a relative newcomer to the USA, is that this dissatisfaction does not translate in spontaneous public initiatives to change the rules of the political game.

This raises the question if, as a nation, we are too accepting of the status quo and – if that is the case – why that is and what can be done about it.

I do think indeed that America is too accepting of flaws in the system, of failures of the public sector to deliver the goods for the American people and of the lack of willingness to make dramatic changes in the way the nation’s affairs get governed. This is what I concluded in my recently published book ‘NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, A First Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism’.

Why that is the case looks less certain to me. I see several contributing aspects in the attitude of the American public. Most importantly, there is a sizeable segment of the population that sees little or no need for a (federal) government and wants nothing more than to see the system collapse under its own weight.

Then there is the segment that holds on to the belief that the Founding Fathers created the most perfect governance system in the world and that it is sacrilege to mess with any of it. This segment conveniently overlooks the fact that our current political system is more influenced and characterized by rule making by the courts and by the branches of government than by the founding documents.

The polarization of the people in two partisan camps is certainly also a contributing factor to the complete absence of a renewal spirit when it comes to dealing with the flaws in the American democratic institutions. There never seems to be room for compromise between the two entrenched camps and stalemate is the inevitable result.

Finally, there is a large part of the population that does not seem to care. They don’t go to the polls and they have never registered to vote.

These are formidable factors that keep us, ‘We the people” of the preamble to the Constitution, from retaking control of the governance of our public affairs that we have gradually allowed to be usurped by the moneymen, the special interests and an ever growing bureaucracy. Yet, if enough of us are fed up with the dysfunction in the Beltway, with the ineffectiveness of an ever burgeoning bureaucracy, with the endless election cycles and the political advertising, with the gerrymandering of voting districts, with the unfettered growth of our national debt and with the control that the moneymen, the special interest groups, have taken of our political process, then there must be a way to lead us back to what the Founding Fathers wanted us to have: a government by the people, from the people and for the people.