Too bad all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxi cabs and cutting hair. – George Burns
It is October 2011. We are 13 months away from the next presidential campaign. However, President Obama officially kicked off his reelection bid last month. That’s right the president with 14 months before reelection has started pounding the pavement shortly after the summer from hell where the country almost defaulted on its debt obligations. The Republicans started trying to discredit the president’s ability to lead the nation on the other hand….the day after his inauguration. At some point I’m going to get to when these people actually do some governing or some dysfunctional form of it.
First lets get to my favorite thing – the money. The 2012 election price tag for all candidates is being estimated to cost $8 billion. Not really sure if that’s a lot? You remember the debt ceiling debacle I referred to earlier. Well the final deal which in the end agreed to reduce the federal deficit $200 billion a year, taking it from $1.2 trillion down to $1 trillion annually, the election will equal 4% of that reduction. $8 billion could give every man, woman, and child in the U.S. $27 per person. How many people in the U.S. are worth more than $8 billion? 35. American college & university endowments, providing scholarships to students and help pay faculty and staff, which have more than $8 billion? 6 (America has over 4,000 colleges and universities). The U.S. Department of Education has a budget of $70 billion. That’s right we’re going to spend the equivalent of 11% of that in the coming election.
Now let’s talk about who gets elected and connect it with what I just told you. President Obama alone is expected to raise over $1 billion for his 2012 campaign, not one African American college or university has a $1 billion endowment (Howard sits at $400 million), which means he’s going to need either donors with very deep pockets (who want deep influence) or a lot of donors will small donations. The latter being how he raised quite a bit of money in his last campaign. The difference between then and now is an economy in even worse shape and showing no signs of coming off life support. This would lead one to conclude that wealthy individuals and organizations will play an enormous role in this election on both sides of the aisle. According to Forbes Magazine, the Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans conservative donors have out funded campaigns in 5 of the last 6 election cycles their liberal counterparts.
The point I’m driving home here is that political campaigns or offices are not accessible to the average Joe or Jane in America’s poor or middle class. They simply do not have the finances and access to resources typically to garner the amount of money needed to make a legitimate run at a congressional or senate seat let alone the presidency. This becomes apparently obvious when we look at the financial makeup of the congress and senate. In 2009, 44% of congress were millionaires. The median net worth of the house in 2008 was $622, 254 and for senators was $1.8 million – median net worth for African America $2,170. What is the number of African American senators? 0. To gain access to the town “where the streets are paved of gold” Washington D.C. as Eddie Murphy said in Distinguished Gentleman requires money and access to even more money. But what if it didn’t?
Key problems with the current process start with politicians being who they are governing to get reelected. As such they do what’s in the best interest of their reelection not necessarily the best interest of their constituency. They are careful not to make any major out of the box decision that could be long term beneficial because in the short term they need to get reelected. Time that could be spent governing is spent focusing on reelection. President Obama and his presidential predecessors before him typically spend 14 months of their 1st 48 month term or approximately 30% of their term seeking a 2nd 48 months. Assuming they get reelected they then basically have 24 months to get something done in case the opposing party gets control of the house in the midterm election at which time they become a lame duck president. This means potentially almost 40% of a president’s time in office is taken from governing because he’s either trying to get reelected or a lame duck that can’t get anything done. In the house it is even worse since they only have two year terms. So one could estimate that almost 60% of their time is spent seeking reelection. The senators who serve six year terms come in with the least wasted time at approximately 20% of their time spent seeking reelection. The need for large amounts of times donated to major donor usually at dinners where some pay over $25,000 for a meal just to eat and be near the candidate. But being near means you get to influence and be heard in a way very few ever will about the direction of the country and its policies. Extra cheese anyone?
If time is money we are wasting a lot of it as a country. Both on account of the amount of money we spend on elections and the amount of time we spend watching our elected officials in DC try to stay there. I’m a solutions oriented person so let me offer a few. The creation of local, state, and national campaign funds paid for by tax dollars that has a hard cap which removes the slush money for starters. It is amazing to me that the NFL and NHL (and soon the NBA) have figured out in order to keep expenses under control you need to set a limit on how much can be spent. On any level each race would have a pre-set amount that would be evenly divided among the qualified candidates to run their campaign. In my world the entire national election would not cost more than $1 billion. That’s local, state, and national combined. The major cost of any campaign quite frankly is TV time. Running ads on TV and getting the message out. Allow ads and debates to only be run on PBS for one to three months depending on if it’s a local, state, or national campaign. Remember 99% of Americans own a TV. Even if you don’t have cable you have access to PBS. Make the time allotted for campaigning to be reduced. Local races have to be completed in one month, state offices have two months, and national offices three months. Move voting from during the week to the weekend. We’re losing valuable work productivity by forcing people to vote during the week. Whoever thought that was a bright idea clearly did not want an involved population in the voting process or an efficient and productive economy. Make the congress, senators, and the president a 6 year one term office. They can run for office again but only after they sit out a cycle. You’ll actually have to govern for 6 years imagine that.
If both parties examine my proposal they’ll see both of their fundamentals values in place. An increased interaction with more of the population based on the PBS involvement and higher voter turnout on a weekend should please Democrats. Less money spent on elections is money that can be used for business creation, job creation, and voting on a weekend which will increase economic productivity should please Republicans. I make no bones about the fact I’m a fiscal conservative and social moderate. I want to see this country get its financial house in order from the White House to the everyday Joe and Jane’s house. To spend $8 billion on Democrats and Republicans who pride themselves on being efficiently inefficient does not bode well for my belief in this country’s financial future or its priorities. I also believe we need more social access to the voting process and political offices. Right now the latter appears virtually impossible for a citizen with a great idea and leadership but lack of wealth. Great ideas can come from all economic classes and we should promote the ability for all those groups to have access to the halls of policy. Thankfully we can do it in a more cost effective manner. These are just a few common sense suggestions of mine. Unfortunately, as I use to tell my students – common sense is not so common.
Mr. Foster is the Interim Executive Director of HBCU Endowment Foundation, sits on the board of directors at the Center for HBCU Media Advocacy, & CEO of Sechen Imara Solutions, Inc. A former banker & financial analyst who earned his bachelor’s degree in Economics & Finance from Virginia State University as well his master’s degree in Community Development & Urban Planning from Prairie View A&M University. Publishing research on the agriculture economics of food waste as well as writing articles for other African American media outlets.