Breaking the Pattern. (Isn’t it about time?)

Monday, June 25, 2012

It’s gotten to the point that a dysfunctional Congress (the President included) has become our most important problem – more important even than the economy because, unless and until Congress becomes functional, it’s not going to deal effectively with any of the critical economic, fiscal and social issues we’re facing.

We’re all about patterns. Some of them are dictated by work. Others are just the way we do things, the sequences of events and habits that express and define who we are. To no small extent, we are and become what we do.

The problem with patterns is that they’re hard to break, even when it’s blatantly clear that the patterns aren’t helping us and may even be detrimental. It’s just too easy to keep doing things the same ways we always have.

Complaining about Washington, about the “Washington” that is our federal government, is a tradition that reality, as of late, is turning into a bad joke. Our Congress does next to nothing and what it does do, it does poorly. Way too much politics, not enough careful study and collaborative making of creative, effective legislation. Money, specifically the costs of getting elected, has made matters worse, has subverted the whole idea of elected representation, of “one person, one vote.”

They can say what they like, and they do, but most what of our Congressmen and women and Senators are representing is themselves and the major contributors to their campaigns.

“Well, jeez,” you’re probably saying to yourself, “why don’t we just throw the bums out, every mother’s son and daughter of them and send some fresh faces to the Capitol, and keep doing that every election until they get the point?” Good question. Here’s why. Here’s the pattern we need to break.

1. We start with an incumbent and a cost of re-election that is staggering.

2. To assure his/her longevity in office, the incumbent spends a great deal of his time while he’s in office raising the money he needs to stay in office. This entails everything from innocent enough fund raising events to doing the bidding of major interests who want to influence his committee activity and votes on key pieces of legislation. It’s not explicit bribery. It’s about buying access to the official that ordinary, individual voters, like you and me, will never have. It’s about moneyed interests investing in keeping someone whose points of view are aligned with theirs, and making sure those views stay that way.

3. The primary happens. The incumbent runs more or less unopposed, and the other party picks a challenger who, for the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume is not independently wealthy. Enter the media – local newspapers, television and radio. They pay some attention to the primaries, but not much. Voter turnout is traditionally pathetic. Nobody really cares, so why should the media bother? Coverage won’t affect ratings one way or another. The winners are the incumbent and a challenger who, however competent, doesn’t have the money to make his or her campaign competitive. Name recognition for the challenger is often the most serious problem he faces. How do you beat the established, well-funded incumbent when nobody knows your name?

4. And so the race sits, ignored by the media after the primary, waiting for the last 30 to 60 days prior to the general election when public interest in the election begins to build. It’s largely a self-fulfilling prophecy. The media starts paying attention, and that stimulates public interest that, in turn, justifies the media’s attention.

5. Unfortunately, the media’s ignoring both candidates in a given race equally, however fair, favors the incumbent. The incumbent has money and name recognition. The challenger has neither and won’t get any until he can get the media exposure that will bring him within striking distance of the incumbent, close enough to attract the money he needs to mount a credible campaign. (“Money” likes to know it has a reasonable chance to make a return in its investment.) To be clear, even when the challenger goes to the media, the electronic media, and offers himself to be interviewed or for an early debate with the incumbent, the media turn him down. Maybe the media would agree if the incumbent would participate, but the incumbent, who is no dummy and sees no reason to help his opponent get exposure, is effectively hiding out for as long as he can.

6. They’ll be one or two debates, tops. (Remember, these are Congressional offices that we’re talking about, not the Presidency.) One or two debates that no one will watch and that will happen too late to make any real difference.

7. The challenger will lose. The incumbent will win. Business as usual continues in Washington. Is this really what our founding fathers had in mind? Does asking that question make any difference? Of course not.

What’s the point? Nothing’s going to change until real laws level the playing field by taking money out of the election process. It’s called “campaign finance reform.” Understandably, it’s not something incumbents are likely to support.

So what’s the solution? How do we break this pattern that supports incumbency regardless of the effectiveness of our government? You know, don’t you? “Ehhhhh.” ..What’s that? Oh yeah, I can hear you whining, the way you do when you realize you’ve got to do something when you’d really prefer taking a nap in the hammock your children gave you for Father’s or Mother’s Day. That’s right. You want better government? You’re going to have to get up off your tush and make it happen, because nothing short of a voter revolution is going to change anything.

Actually, it’s simple. Find out the name of your incumbent. Hold him or her responsible for the ineffectiveness of our government while he/she has been in office, and vote for the other guy. Keep doing that, election after election, until we get people in office who pay attention to what we need, in an intelligent, creative, non-partisan way. Most importantly, you’ll be telling the special interests that their money doesn’t count.

“Ahhhh.” ..Yeah, you feel good already, don’t you?

-Next Contestant

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