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Summary Response to Dr. Kimberly Conger on ‘Money In Politics’

First of all, I have to say how impressed I have been about the level of discussion in these posts.

In a day when everything can be and is reduced to not only a 10-second soundbite but a 140-word tweet, which pretty much distills the most complicated issues into pure adrenaline for supporters of any position to hate the other side even more, these responses and give-and-take have been refreshing and welcome.

I am not going to even try to deal with or debate Dr. Conger based on reams of academic research because I am not qualified to do so. What I have been trying to do, and hope everyone who reads these posts will take away from it, is that actually working in the political sphere is way different than studying it from any appreciable distance either physically or professionally.

It is like the difference of having a former NFL quarterback such as Peyton Manning or a Tony Romo give his opinion during color commentary of a professional football game versus another announcer who may have covered sports for their entire career but never played an actual game as a quarterback in the Super Bowl, for example.

There is so much that is different from the actual practice of politics at its daily, granular level than from the aggregated statistics gained from academic research and surveys with 20-deep cross-tabs on every issue and vote.

I am not saying that there are not any elected representatives who can never be swayed by the allure of more campaign money coming in from one source or another. History is replete with cases where Congressmen and Senators and Presidents have taken money and then been swayed to vote in a way that was contrary to their core philosophy or goals.

However, my experience has been that with the speed of modern-day politics and the sheer amount of work that has to be done on a daily basis on Capitol Hill, since that is where my frame of reference is, the impact of campaign money on daily decisions for most elected representatives is slim to none.

For example, 14 years ago when I was chief of staff to former US Senator Elizabeth Dole, we would regularly get 5000 emails per day in her Senate office, 2500 fax messages (which are obsolete today), 1000 phone calls in the various offices from constituents and lobbyists and reporters on TOP of the 10,000 written letters, many hand-written by constituents who were concerned about everything from the Greyhound Racing Act of 2002 to the monumental issues of fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to balancing the federal budget.

In addition to working on the legislative agenda for the day and answering all of these emails, faxes and letters, we just didn’t have time to wonder who had given how much money to Senator Dole’s campaign or not.
Every single one of our 49 staff people who handled casework, legislative correspondence and policy issues for the Senator had zero idea of who ever even contributed to her campaign much less in what order of magnitude.

The only people who had any real idea of who had contributed to her 2002 campaign was our campaign manager who lived in North Carolina and only occasionally visited Washington DC and myself and that was only because I was familiar with the large donors from my time with former Congressman McMillan of Charlotte from 1985-1995 and the various lobbyists with PACs who were from North Carolina or who had interests in North Carolina.

It is not a humongous pool to draw from. In fact, in many states, the pool of PACs that represent business interests in the state could be below 10 total.

When it comes to the elected official, in many cases they don’t even remember the name of the lobbyist and rely heavily on staff to tell them who they are about to meet with and why. Movies and the news tries to glamorize the cozy relationship between a shifty elected Senator and some nefarious lobbyist with a big PAC to protect big interests in their state but for the most part, that is just Hollywood fiction and story-telling.

Every elected official has their favorite friends and some of those friends might be a lobbyist with a PAC because of shared philosophy on government or perhaps a shared interest in a sports team or maybe they went to college together. Former staff do have a leg up on a relationship with an elected official they might have worked for over the years but that usually means that person has a close relationship with 1 out of 100 senators or 1 out of 435 Members of Congress which is hardly a majority of either legislative chamber.

So it would be good for any observer of money in politics to try to separate the fiction from the fact and put a couple of shakers of salt on any story they might come across in the news about some ‘undue influence’ any lobbyist might have with an elected official.

Often times, it is overblown.

Another major aspect of this equation that we might have failed to address is that very successful, accomplished people who run for public office for the right reasons, as in serving the nation and state as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison or any number of founding fathers did, seldom fall prey to the temptations of receiving more money from a PAC or a lobbyist or gaining the support of any number of independent expenditure (IE) organizations that could help their re-election in some form or another.

If being in elective office is the greatest job a person ever has and they will do anything under the sun to maintain that power and never lose, then that might be one of the weak links who can be persuaded to do something out of the ordinary for a constituent company, lobbyist or acquaintance.

People who really have not built a career outside of politics, say in business, law, medicine, architecture, computer software or education, and whose sole purpose in life is to be an elected official, those are the people whom you should worry about the most.

People who have careers outside of politics usually want to return to those professions at some point in time, simply because that is who they are at their essence and their profession is their vocational ‘reason’ to be on earth in the first place.

It also helps if that person has built up some financial assets that they can turn to while in public office and not be dependent solely on the $177,000 per year in federal salary that a US Senator or Congressman now receive.

That sounds like a lot of money to most people in the United States. However, maintaining living quarters and paying to live in the very expensive Washington DC area while maintaining a residence in their home states and districts and raising children who might be college-aged and ready to pursue a higher education somewhere makes that salary diminish somewhat quickly.

The former Congressman I worked for from 1985-1995, Alex McMillan of Charlotte (NC-9), was the CEO of Harris-Teeter Supermarkets the year before he ran for Congress in 1984. He had served on the county commission of Mecklenburg County while helping to form and finance Harris-Teeter during the 1970s so he had already experienced being a ‘citizen-politician’ or ‘citizen-legislator’ at the local level which did not require him to retire from his primary business to serve.

When he did retire at age 52, he has financially set himself up over the years to provide for his family but to also provide for their needs when he knew he wanted to run for Congress which would dictate that he give up his previous high income, stock options and benefits from the corporate world. He always had the goal of using half his life to provide for his family and the other half to serve his city, state and country as a public servant.

He came close.

This is not an easy thing for everyone to do. Not everyone can bank on a large annual salary to be set aside as a nest-egg to be used later for living expenses above and beyond what a congressional salary covers.

However, some elected officials have spouses who continue to work and provide income for the family. Others have businesses they own that they turn over to trusted managers to run in their stead during their public service. Many just adopt a lower standard of living and lifestyle than what they had been previously accustomed to while serving in the public interest.

All this being said, I saw it first-hand for a decade where people would come in to solicit the Congressman’s support of an issue or threaten him with opposition during the next campaign or withhold financial support if he didn’t vote the way they wanted him to vote.

‘Do me a favor’ he would often say. ‘Run against me in the primary or general election and defeat me fair and square. This is not the greatest job in the world to begin with. If you defeat me, I will just go back to Harris-Teeter and sell more groceries than any other congressman has in American history!’

They never did. Run against him that is.

It is far easier to stay on the sidelines and carp and moan and groan and to be honest, bitch about things than it is to hunker down, set up a campaign, raise millions of dollars and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and barbed political attacks ads, often not true at all, while trying to do some good for the nation as an elected representative of the people.

These are the realities of serving in public office on a day-to-day basis. The impact and issue of ‘money’ on an elected representative might be 30th on the list of priorities to do every day in terms of how to vote or who to meet with, despite the fact that a lot of a congressman’s time and effort goes into raising funds on a weekly basis to begin with.

It is one of those very odd dichotomies in the world that can really only be pulled off by the most talented and successful of our citizens.

Which is why we need great new people to run for public office.

I run The Institute for the Public Trust in Raleigh, North Carolina. Our sole mission is to find, recruit and train the next Jeffersons and Madisons and Hamiltons of this generation and the next to get them to run for public office once again.

Christians need to seriously think about putting themselves on the ballot and therefore on the direct line where the rubber meets the road of representative democracy.

Think about it: Do people really remember or care what PAC or IE sponsored a particular ad for or against any elected person anywhere in time? Or do they remember the courage and foresight of their elected officials such as the ones who voted to balance the budget in 1997 which was an effort that former Congressman McMillan and I had a hand in while on the House Budget Committee in 1993 by developing a budget proposal called ‘Cutting Spending First’?

435 Members of Congress and 100 US Senators hold the voting cards in which to play to pass or oppose any piece of legislation that affects the way the rest of us 325 million people live on a daily basis. They get to be the decision-makers. Plain and simple.

Any Christian with intelligence, integrity and real-world valuable experience in any field other than politics could and should consider entering the world of elective politics. Not only would they bring their experience to bear on the big issues of the day, such as in 2010 when the ACA was passed and very few physicians or hospital administrators were in Congress at the time to guide and direct its final shape for passage, they can do so with the added spiritual knowledge and assurance that the Lord has led them to such a decision and has planned out the path for them to take before, during and after their term of duty.

The main problem we have today, not only with Christians but with men and women of all faiths who could be the next Madison or Jefferson, is that they are not even contemplating or praying about whether the Lord has any sort of public service in store for them at ANY level of government.

They have virtually all self-selected themselves out of the pool of possible candidates and therefore, have almost no say in what is passed by the people who take their place as a legislator in any capacity.

Upset about public education? Christians should learn how to run for public office and organize campaigns to get elected to school boards. A highly-qualified individual can do more to help a community while on the local school board than in almost any other elective office to be honest.

Upset about local taxes or spending? Run for the local city council or county commission. Many big city and county budgets are billions of dollars annually. Care to guess who gets to make the final decisions on how that tax money is spent every year and on what?

Those 7-to-11 local council members or commissioners. Those are all decisions being made by people who most people today would characterize as not being cut out of the same bolt of cloth as Thomas Jefferson or James Madison or even made with the same kind of thread.

State legislatures are the next step up. They ‘only’ deal with massive budgets affecting public education across-the-state’ the largest medical care program in the country; the joint federal/state matching program called Medicaid; state transportation needs and public safety.

Congress and the US Senate deal with everything under the sun. Plato wrote about ‘philosopher kings’ running the ‘ideal Republic’ which is about the opposite of any Republic most Americans would want to live in today in the sense that The Republic takes over many of the responsibilities most families assume themselves today.

But we live in a time when many elected officials and candidates for office do not read any ‘philosophy’ nor do they spend their spare time reading Christian theology or the Bible itself.

Consequently, we have elected bodies around the nation at the federal, state and local levels that are but a distant shadow of what our Founders envisioned when they met to write the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776 and then engaged in a long war of revolution against the entrenched authority of the King of England and then returned to Philadelphia to write our Constitution in 1787 that has withstood the stress of time and human foible ever since.

The way to rejuvenate our truly wonderful and marvelous system of self-governance?

Highly qualified, educated, trained and experienced Christians and non-Christians really across-the-board and the nation need to seriously consider pole-vaulting over the everyday controversies and idle discussion of the critical issues facing us and get into the arena of elective politics where they can use the terms of current campaign finance to get elected. There, they can make changes from the inside of the government, not stand or sit idly by on the sidelines watching others do what they very easily could and should be doing themselves.

Telemachus was a monk who taught younger students in Rome during the time of Caesar.  For close to 500 years, gladiatorial games were held in the Roman Empire, many at the Colosseum.

In his older years, legend has it that Telemachus entered one of the games to see for himself what was going on. To his horror, he recognized one of his former students suited up to engage in fight-to-the-death mortal combat as one of the gladiators.

He scrambled down the steps to the walls and leaped into the arena where he ran to insert himself between his former student and the adversary crying out: ‘In the name of Christ forebear!’ three distinct times.

His former student recognized his old teacher Telemachus and lowered his sword. His opponent, out of shock probably more than anything else, lowered his sword as well.

The fight to the death was averted.

However, the crowd that had gathered to watch a good fight-to-the-death gladiator contest, rose up in their seats and proceeded to stone the old man to death because he had interrupted their entertainment for the weekend.

Slowly, once they realized what they had done, they quietly exited the Colosseum. The Emperor Honorius banned the games soon thereafter, after 500 years of carnage and waste of life.

I use this story as the title of my blog where for the past 8 years, I have written about budget, tax and health care matters mostly. My point always comes to this: we are never going to solve all or even any of our problems if we all to a person remain seated and don’t ‘enter the arena’, in this case the public square arena of politics, and at least try to ‘stop the madness’.

You might get ridiculed. You might get embarrassed by some misstatement or the other. You might even lose the political contest.

So what? You will have at least ‘tried’ to make a solid difference and contribution to our collective life together.

Bring your experience, your integrity, your Christian values and faith into the public arena. Don’t run away from it with all of those valuable assets and keep them to yourself.

That is the thing I hope every reader of this chain of civil dialogue takes away from the past 3 weeks: Get Involved. As a candidate preferably. As a volunteer if you don’t run yourself.

Discussions about things such as the effect of money on politics are very interesting and they should be continued.

As Teddy Roosevelt wrote long ago, without being too schmaltzy, I hope:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Get in the game. That is the main thing I would hope everyone would take away from this wonderful ‘Respectful Conversations’ led by Harold Heie.

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