campaign cash

Winnowing Presidential Wannabes

Candidates are spending more time talking about airing their dirty laundry than issues.

Candidates are spending more time talking about airing their dirty laundry than issues.

This is the time in the election cycle when presidential candidates spend less time talking to voters than to donors, as well as less time talking about issues than skeletons in their closets.

Viability is determined by how much money you can bank and whether you can withstand blowback from past indiscretions, missteps or wayward relatives.

Take Hillary Clinton, for example. She is weathering attacks about donations from foreign interests to the Clinton Foundation, her use of private email as secretary of state and influence peddling by her younger brother. Mixed in there is the weirdly timed revival of Monica Lewinsky's involvement with Bill Clinton. All this baggage has taken a toll in Hillary Clinton's confidence level, but not her electability. She still leads the field by solid margins.

Clinton isn't alone in vetting political laundry, though in some cases, the vetting doesn't appear intentional. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee flubbed Sunday news show questioning about his endorsement of a diabetes drug that health professionals claim has no proven value. Huckabee, who entered the GOP presidential race last week, also faced questions about his ethics as governor when he purportedly asked friends to shower him with gifts.

Senator Marco Rubio is under the microscope because of his relationship to a political super daddy in Florida. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has received scrutiny for some of his business associations. Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina has been criticized for her performance as the top dog at the high tech giant, for running a bungling campaign for the U.S. Senate and not ever holding elected office.

Then there is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson who has won right-wing disciples, but raised the eyebrows or just about everyone else for some of his political comments, such as one that coupled homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality. He also called Obamacare the "worst thing to happen" since slavery.

Carson's jaw-dropping comments have poached on political space normally occupied by Senator Ted Cruz, who once compared Obamacare to Nazism, but now has enrolled in the national health insurance exchange, and former Senator Rick Santorum, who proudly told the National Rifle Association he gave ammo to his wife for her birthday.

For voters straining to find out what presidential wannabes plan to do about issues such as fighting Islamic State jihadists here and abroad, negotiating international trade deals or reducing income inequality, they will have to wait. This isn't the time to promise what you will do; it is time to air out what you have done. And raise money, piles of money.

This is the American way of winnowing the field of hopefuls. Air dirty laundry early while asking big donors for millions in donations. The candidates who can land on their feet and bag the most campaign cash will be the ones we ultimately get to vote on, whether we like it or not.

Fight Big Campaign Cash with More Congressional Staff

Two government reformers say the way to combat floods of campaign cash is to bolster congressional staff so federal lawmakers get information and ideas from sources other than political donors.

Two government reformers say the way to combat floods of campaign cash is to bolster congressional staff so federal lawmakers get information and ideas from sources other than political donors.

While some government reformers are still trying to staunch the hemorrhaging of political cash, two men are suggesting that is a lost cause. The road to reform, they say, is to beef up Capitol Hill staff and the nonpartisan institutions that feed Congress information.

In a lengthy Washington Monthly article, Lee Drutman, a senior fellow with New America, and Steven Teles, who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins University, lay out an idea unlikely to spark bumper stickers in support. Adding staff and bolstering the General Accounting Office aren't ideas that readily shout "reform."

Drutman and Teles say a Congress awash in political contributions, largely from corporate interests, has become dependent on the information channels of donors. Republican leadership in Congress has shrunk its own staff resources in the name of smaller, leaner government and now must rely more heavily on the information resources of the people and organizations that got them elected.

The pay gap between what Congress pays staffers and special interests pay lobbyists, they add, encourages talented people to leave Capitol Hill for K Street, leaving Members of Congress with relatively young, inexperienced staffs who may or may not be able to smell something fishy in information fed to their bosses.

Their idea is double the number of congressional committee staffers and triple the amount available for salaries. The highest-paid positions would go to the most qualified individuals, regardless of who their boss was or which party was in control.

"Because individual staffers would be employed by the committee, their jobs would not depend on whether individual members won or lost their seats," wrote Drutman and Teles. "This would free them up to think more about the long-term policy implications, instead of being so tied to electoral fortunes of individual members. By rotating between different members and working solely for the committee, staff would build broader networks, but their core network would remain the committee. This would help to build a strong and lasting community."

"A more expanded version of the rotation system could create an exchange program between the relevant executive branch agency and the congressional committee," they explained. "This would also have the benefit of increasing the networks of congressional staff that allow them to engage in serious oversight, and also increase the belief in executive branch agencies that their counterparts in Congress are trustworthy and knowledgeable."

As insiders know, there is a version of this rotation system in place between the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Internal Revenue Service. Staff members have toggled back and forth for years. Unfortunately, the current federal tax code may not stand as a great example of the result.

Drutman and Teles admit that some congressmen and senators may continue to take their information and orders from the "extreme ideological wing" or rich campaign donors. But they say the presence of a well-paid, balanced congressional staff can help federal lawmakers separate the wheat from the chaff. They speculate, perhaps too hopefully, that the presence of skilled congressional staff may prompt talented people to seek political office in hopes they can legislate, not just dial for dollars.

Criticism of the current congressional set-up eclipses partisanship. In 2010, then House Minority Leader John Boehner said Congress "does not function, does not deliberate and seems incapable of acting on the will of the people. From the floor to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised. The battle of ideas — the lifeblood of the House — is virtually nonexistent." House Speaker Boehner has not found the remedy for the problem he identified five years ago.

Drutman and Teles say GOP moves to cut staff and geld nonpartisan congressional advisory bodies may be out of touch with some of their own most conservative instincts. They say Congress has crippled its own ability to stand toe-to-toe on issues with the executive branch and legislate with discernment on issues such as taxation, health care and immigration.

In 2013, Congress spent about $2 billion on its own operation. Drutman and Teles said that is roughly equal to a Pentagon cost overrun.

"Even small-government conservatives are feeling pressure to do something about the influence of corporate lobbying. Improving congressional capacity is a reform action they can take that would increase their own power, wouldn’t force them to agree with liberal get-the-money-out-of-politics types, and wouldn’t directly cross the corporate lobbying community. For those concerned about the malign influence of corporate power on our democracy, increasing government’s in-house nonpartisan expertise is almost certainly a more promising path forward than doubling down on more traditional reform strategies."