Whiting column: Hold elected officials accountable to us, not themselves
November 7, 2018
The elections and their accompanying ads are over. It's a pre-Christmas gift.
Whoever the winners, it's time to encourage them to focus on action instead of campaign promises; focusing on the characteristics that would make them better at not just identifying problems, but developing solutions. Solutions which facilitate meeting our needs and improving our lives, as opposed to theirs or their party's. Too often politicians subscribe to the WIFM philosophy: What's In It For Me.
A unique starting point would be committing to utilize "common sense." It's something we all possess, in differing degrees, but often neglect to implement. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with book knowledge and definitely nothing to do with partisan requirements or obligations to campaign donors. A sign in a local establishment epitomizes common sense: "Please don't put your cigarette butts in the urinal. It makes them harder to light."
Common sense doesn't support strictly voting party line. It's not logical that one side's solutions are all right or all wrong. An effective solution can come from either side or, heaven forbid, a compromise. Common sense would entail acknowledging the obvious: Nothing is more important than our ability to earn a living and support our family. Everything, whether it be food, shelter, clothing, charitable contributions, kids' education and our personal self-esteem is a function of that.
Common sense means they're understanding most everything they do has a cost, and every dollar taken from those earning it hurts the economy, and hence the above.
It's also logical, if an elected official is to understand our needs, their life should mirror the same environment within which their constituency functions. An example: retirement. In today's working environment, most employer-based pensions are a thing of the past, especially in the case of "temp" positions, which political terms are intended to be.
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We have Social Security. If we desire additional income, it requires saving and investing our own money in that regard. Most politicians have an employer-based pension and we, the taxpayer, are the employer. It would be more equitable and empathetic if politicians had only Social Security and whatever they chose to add.
Another example: health insurance. Another politician needn't say it's a problem; that's well-known. We need a solution financially viable for all stakeholders whether government, employers, employees or the medical industry.
However, such solutions aren't being discussed or emerging. The reason may be that most politicians are provided subsidy and access to generous health insurance. Having to personally purchase health insurance on the private market might make them more motivated to develop a solution.
Most employment situations require employees to show up for work. Yet, many times our legislators don't show up for discussion, debate or the vote on a bill. In 2017, there were senators who didn't show up over 25 percent of the time. To be fair, there were four with perfect attendance.
In addition, most employees must do the job. Politicians can vote "present," which is neither a positive or negative vote. It's either saying "I don't care" or "It isn't to my political advantage to take a side." This isn't doing their job. When an Illinois state senator, Obama voted "present" 130 times. If docked a day's pay for missing a vote, our elected officials might be more motivated to do their work for us every day.
Another method to increase their focus on improving our lives would be to minimize pressure from large corporations or foreign governments. While in office, legislators are limited in what they can receive for a speech, but they aren't limited after. Corporations and foreign governments could "promise" to pay $X thousands in the future, creating an avenue for current influence. Either Clinton receives over $200,000. According to the Washington Post, Bill Clinton had received over $100 million in speaking fees since leaving office. Though lower, $50,000 for Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney is still a handsome figure. Prohibiting all post-term speaking fees is unrealistic; however, a prohibition for five years might serve to minimize the purchase of influence.
Another political route to the same end is the establishment of a foundation. The politician can legally "encourage" corporations and foreign governments to contribute. Regardless of the technical beneficiaries of the foundation, most are not going to contribute without the expectation of access and influence as a return on their investment. The NY Times reported the Clinton Foundation has received over $2 billion from a variety of corporate, individual and foreign government sources. The same prohibition stated above might help mitigate this problem.
In a similar vein, billions are required to get elected. In 2016, $6.5 billion was spent on presidential and congressional races. State-level races total more. Since the Supreme Court effectively ended any limit on corporate PAC contributions by declaring them a "person," our concern about buying influence has increased as the level of contributions added zeros. Prohibition of such might be illegal, but making PAC's a tax paying entity and political contributions not tax deductible might again help mitigate.
It would be interesting to see a politician have the courage to introduce legislation in regard to any of the above. Maybe we should add courage to common sense as desirable characteristics.
Instead of being party responsible, our newly elected officials need to be personally responsible to us. It's our responsibility to make them realize we notice.
Bryan Whiting feels most of our issues are best solved by personal responsibility and an understanding of non-partisan economics rather than by government intervention. He recently retired after 40 years of teaching marketing, entrepreneurship and economics. Comments and column suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org