Answer to a Constant Complaint

The news media is always whining that the Occupy Wall Street movement is not specific about their aims and demands. I have a simple answer for them:

GET THE INSURANCE COMPANIES OUT OF MY HEALTH CARE

And

GET THE NEWS MEDIA OUT OF MY ELECTIONS

The first one is relatively easy to understand and would not be supported by a lot of people on the right side of the spectrum. The second one is more complicated, and should appeal to everyone.

First, as a senior who has been on blessed Medicare for fourteen years, I am an advocate of the single payer and the “everyone covered” school of thinking. Medicare works just fine, thank you, and if there was some logical way to contain the rising costs of medical care (care that comes without commensurately good outcomes) we could swing this deal, just the way other countries with some sense have done. Single payer is the only thing that will work. There will always be a role for the insurance companies for medi-gap. Naturally, doctors, hospitals and a plethora of others, including drug companies, would not make as much profit. In my opinion, that puts them squarely in the corner of most Americans who haven’t seen their take-home rise in twenty years. Look to the states that have tried really health care. It’s a doable deal.

As for the second demand, it takes some explanation. I don’t mean we will all be relieved of the endless television ads. They are a necessary tool in a campaign. I believe we have been concentrating on where the money comes from instead of where it goes. This is the wrong end of the stick.

Let me tell you a story. Last weekend I went to the home of former Senator Charles Robb and his wife Lynda, who gave a thirty-year anniversary of his election as Governor of Virginia. I had worked not only in that campaign, and in his Lt. Governor’s campaign that preceded it.

At the party I ran into Derwood Settles, a retired accountant. He and I had worked a number of campaigns in the 70s.*

* Congressman Joseph L. Fisher gave us two instructions; first, no contribution larger than $100 from any individual or more than $500 from any PAC and second no debt. If you run out of money the campaign was to close.  These dicta were followed in all four of his House races. We did it, so I know it can be done. However, there are some caveats, and that’s the subject of a separate blog post. 

My job was to raise and expend the money for the campaigns and to work with the vendors. He acted as campaign treasurer. We both set the budget and kept an eye on the appropriate regulatory agencies, some state and some federal. He helped with the onerous reporting. It was those budgets we discussed at the party.

If you’ve ever set a campaign budget you know where the lion’s share goes. To staff? Nope. Campaigns run on volunteer effort and peanuts. The most I ever made for managing a Congressional race was about what a part time slightly better than minimum wage worker would make—and the hours were very, very long. It would have been a full time wage, still minimum, but I had a co-manager. Half for two full time employees was all the budget would stand. Consultants? Nope. Here’s where the Media fit in. You pay tons of money (up front and in cash—because that’s what the networks, radio and print demand) to the consultants. Of course they have production and other overhead, but they are essentially advertising agencies that get their percentage cut—fifteen percent like regular advertisers if they are lucky, but often less than that. The vast bulk of political money goes straight into the pockets of big Media. They LIVE for election years. They clean up. Then they either ignore you or beat up on you. GREAT GAME!

The second big blow to a budget is the United States Post Office. Even at bulk, political rate, all those mailings you hate cost a lot to produce and mail. And be honest, without them would you even know an election was going on?

Then there are the phone calls. Here is where things have gotten cheaper. We used to spend a lot on installing phones and paying the phone companies. The cell phones that belong to volunteers are a real savings. Robocalls are cheap.

If you are lucky you have a little money left over for field work, bumper stickers and yard signs.

But it’s the media that absorbs most of the money. When I first started in the political business, it was the news papers that had the whip hand. They charged the highest going rate, prepaid. The election reforms after Watergate forbade them to charge those rates. They had to give politicians the same rate as everyone else. At least the USPS has a political bulk rate for mailings.

We have to sever the connection between special interests and the need to feed the Media. There are ways to do this.

Public financing is often cited, but I’ve always been suspicious that to do this directly opens the door to a lot of unforeseen consequences. First, to add this to the national budget is going to make law makers want to skimp. You have to have enough money to run a credible campaign. Yet, there is a limit to what is really needed. There could possibly be a consensus on what that is, but the amount would never stay the same. There is that little thing called inflation. Can’t you just see the Congress voting to raise their campaign limits? They’ll bite the bullet and do it for their salaries, but campaigns? Never.

I’m for making the TV outlets give time to candidates and more than thirty seconds, which is a non-starter if you really want to inform. What candidates ought to get is fifteen to thirty minutes, and if you have to boot the Simpsons out of their time slot, tough. This will probably never happen, but I have been fascinated with a trend toward something like it. Somehow the political debate has moved from the League of Women Voters to—the media! Actually, I have thought the various networks have done a pretty good job of showcasing the candidates. Too bad they are only interested if there is a race to the top, so all we’ve seen are Republicans. Whatever happened to balance? I know you can’t have a one person debate, but you can give coverage.

There are a number of innovative ideas out there that make money available to candidates without raising it the old way or direct public financing and certainly not by resorting to secret PACs. See Lawrence Lessig’s OPED article in the New York Times, Thursday, November 17, 2011. His scheme has some holes in it, but at least it’s a new look at an old problem.

The point of all this is that if you eliminate the need for candidates to raise the money themselves for what is necessary to run a credible campaign the K Street gals lose their clout. They have to go back to the old fashioned and honorable way of being a lobbyist. Back in “the old day” lobbyists stuck to their vital function of bringing facts and a point of view to Congressional staff, so that intelligent decisions could be made on important and complex issues.

Anyway, here are a couple of foci for the Occupy Wallstreet folks.