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Friday, January 13, 2006

Commonsense Ethics Reforms

As I mentioned yesterday, Jon Corzine has publically stated that ethics is job one. As a resident of Hudson County, I can only say that it's way past due.

The problem is that ethical problems like Hudson County (and, to be honest, every other county in New Jersey) faces are not the result of a few bad apples being in position to enrich themselves. The problem is that a system has developed that encourages back-room dealing and underhanded contributions. Even a two year old expects to get something in return when they part with money, so it shouldn't be shocking that so many politicians end up falling prey to greed and graft.

And, yes, the DeLay-Abramoff scandal is symptomatic of the same problem at the federal level.

Changing the system is much more difficult than locking up a few pieces of fruit here and there. A big reason is that it requires that the people who benefit from the system actually work against their best interest to change the rules of the game. People do sometimes work against their best interests, but generally not in big groups and not intentionally.

Regardless, here are my suggestions for creating a more ethical system:

1) Only registered voters can donate to political campaigns. Currently, individual donations are already limited. However, I can max out my donation (in theory - I don't actually have that kind of money laying around) and then max out my wife's donation as well. If we had eighteen kids; then I could max out donations for them, too. I actually don't have a problem with my wife making donations. However, children are not able to vote - why should they be able to have donations made in their names?

This would also cut out all of the corporate and special interest money in elections. Corporations and non-profit organizations, quite simply, do not vote. Therefore, they should not have the ability to influence the election through their use of greed and graft. I simply don't buy the idea that a corporation - a legal entity created to protect its owners from liability - has a right to free speech. Corporations don't have any rights. They are actually given permission to exist by the state - which is why so many financial corporations are housed in Delaware. Get them out of elections. Period.

2) No out-of-district contributions. When I vote for my State Assemblyperson, I am voting for them to represent the interests of this district - not the district next door to ours and definitely not any interest from other states or countries. A politician cannot serve two masters - either you are vested in this district or you are taking cash from somewhere else. I simply cannot believe that you can do both and never have a conflict of interests - and I have no illusion over who would lose when such a conflict came up.

3) Personal contributions limited to $100 total per office per year Currently, people may contribute several thousands of dollars to both sides in any election contest. Obviously, the reason for supporting both sides is to be able to influence whoever wins, no matter who wins. Knocking the donation limit down to a reasonable limit - $100 is ridiculously low for millionaires, but for the most of us, it would mean that our donation would be of more note to the campaign. It strengthens the voice of the people while not cutting out the voice of the wealthy. Pick a side, give a moderate amount - and then volunteer your time personally if you want to make a difference. You have a right to speak, but you do not have the right to influence the election with your donations.

4) Public posting of all governmental budgets and contract bids and proposals. Each level of government should make public every source of revenue and where every single penny is spent. Quite simply, the public cannot adequately conduct oversight of the government unless it has access to governmental records. At the federal level, there are things that need to be kept secret - but not at state and local levels. An honest government has nothing to hide and should be willing to go to reasonable lengths to prove it. Posting all competing bid proposals would allow the public to review the choices their offiicals are making.

5) Ban one-on-one lobbying Require that any meeting between a registered lobbyist and a member of the government be attended by an equal number of people from the opposition party. Such meetings must be publicized at least three days in advance and must be open for members of the public to attend. The effects of such a move should be fairly obvious - opposition parties would keep the meetings on the honest side of the law and attendance by the public would make sure that no lobbyist could speak unopposed.

I don't think anyone will ever ban corruption in politics. What you can do, however, is design a system where the burden of the decision is placed fully upon the individual in question. Currently, so much political buying and selling occurs behind the scenes that corrupt politicians and power brokers seem genuinely surprised that anyone would think they are doing something wrong. The system is broken - and it draws broken people into it (or, alternately, breaks people to fit it). Until that is changed, nothing else will change either.

The Twelve Step definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The people of New Jersey, indeed, of all the United States, deserves better than an insane system of government.

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