Term limits were a response to a problem for the people who voted overwhelmingly in favor for the amendment to the constitution in 1992. In hindsight, the response may not have been the best answer but the problem the majority had identified -- money and influence peddling -- still begs our action.
As this discussion rose this past fall, I saw sweet justice that it was quickly followed by the allegations against Jack Abramoff and company, concerning their criminal maneuvers in Washington D.C. to influence legislators with lavish trips and campaign contributions. As a country we must face the fact that we have allowed the creation of a government that is powered by greed, instead of one accountable to the publics vote. One man, one vote, has been replaced by influence peddling and leveraging corporate contributions. Its sad but true; many of our elections are not won, just purchased.
This problem exists at all levels of government. Whether it comes in the form of a state senator going to bat for an unscrupulous developer, or a congressman greasing the environmental skids for a bayfront hotel owner who wants to alter the swampland he purchased and built on, all the way to a member of the executive branch aiming multi-million dollar contracts at his old company, the dark cloud of campaign contributions to buy influence is a stench that permeates our government. And basically it hasnt changed since the last citizen revolt in 1992.
Let‘s try another approach to the same problem for the beautiful state of Michigan and to lead our country once again.
By adding campaign spending limits, and some lengthening of the term limits, I believe we could get closer to the result we were looking for 15 years ago. Spending limits, as I see them, would be a preset amount each candidate could spend in the general election. When each candidate works from the same base amount, we would not only get a campaign with less nonsensical mailings and mud slinging, but a better chance to see the management styles of the candidates. The candidate who can get a bigger bang for the buck will show their prowess in fiscal management, and old-fashioned hustle, not just prove who has the richest friends.
Add financial disclosures to show how the money was raised in simple, easy to find web locations. Which report would you favor: the candidate with 100 thousand-dollar contributions, or the candidate with one $100,000 loan from themselves?
The spending limit could easily be established by placing a dollar value to each vote cast in the prior election for that post. For instance, if 30,000 votes were cast for both candidates in the previous election, a three-dollar per vote limit would place the following campaign on a $90,000 budget for each candidate. An added benefit to this strategy would be to create a larger pool of quality candidates. Many well-qualified citizens, who just lack the fundraising capacity to keep abreast with those already in power, are left on the sideline each election cycle.
Additionally, those elected would have more time to do their jobs instead of planning the next fundraiser to keep pace with the ever-spiraling costs of getting elected. Our legislators will provide us a higher quality of service if they are not constantly looking over their backs for someone with deeper pockets. Campaigns themselves will be brought back to the public as volunteer time and public debate will take the place of high cost advertising.
As the amount of spending for our elected officials campaigns is decreased, so is the opportunity to purchase persuasion. Those who relied on direct contributions for influence would be left with the old fashioned obligation to provide good, sound arguments for their causes. This tips the playing field closer to level when deciding for a special interest versus the common good.
Yes, term limits themselves do need to be extended. I believe campaign spending limits would bring us better qualified legislators who are truly responsible to the voters. When this happens I do want them in office long enough to learn the job and provide leadership. There would be greater public confidence in the number of citizens who can answer the call to public office who can therefore replace those who have served with distinction.
This concept is not meant to be a cure-all. PACs and special interests will take advantage of any loophole they can sneak a pinkie finger into to influence elections. This problem will require some intricate wording of regulations. But campaign-spending limits will have a direct impact on the way candidates fundraise, campaign, and subsequently do their jobs.
Michigan voted in some of the toughest term limits in the nation in 1992 as a result of an organized voter revolt. We may have another opportunity to shape our government to be more responsive to the voter, and not to the rich and well connected. Please stay informed as this debate continues and be part of the corrective measures that will create the quality of government that this truly great state deserves.
Tom Karas is a Grand Traverse County resident who has been an active observer of local and statewide politics.