Padlock the Revolving Door!

Campaign finance reform isn’t nearly enough. To really get the influence of money out of politics, we need to keep ex-politicians out of corporate boardrooms.

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It’s hardly surprising that the McCain-Feingold-Cochran campaign finance reform bill continues to languish in the Senate, populated as that body is with Democrats and Republicans disinclined to limit the amount of cash they can raise from corporate donors. But even if the bill were to sail right on through Congress, it wouldn’t really help.

You can limit the amount that individuals can give to a campaign. You can ban soft money to political parties and hard money to individual candidates. You can even ban corporate contributions entirely. But a fundamental truth will remain: Politicians and corporate cash always find each other, generally at the expense of the interests of ordinary citizens.

The corrupting influence of corporate cash on elected officials goes much further than the typical access-for-cash quid pro quo. The vast coffers of corporate money are tapped in ways both indirect (consider Newt Gingrich’s and Hillary Clinton’s huge book advances) and blatant: a high-pay, low-work gig on a board of directors upon leaving office, for example.

What’s more, McCain-Feingold-Cochran and similar attempts to separate big money from politics are both constitutionally and politically problematic. For one thing, wealth itself isn’t always the enemy of democracy. Ross Perot’s millions financed the greatest challenge to the Republicratic duopoly since the Bull Moose Party. His Reform Party collapsed, but inspired the Greens. Everyone needs money; how could a new political movement get its message out to the American people without the ability to pay for TV time?

Campaign finance reform isn’t just a money issue. The real problem is the access enjoyed by corporate henchmen to men and women who are supposed to be working for us. The solution: Cut off that access.

The Constitution already prohibits certain types of citizens from running for office. If you’re a naturalized citizen, you can’t be president. You can vote if you’re 18 but you can’t become a senator until you turn 30. Why not extend that principle by saying that anyone who has been a corporate officer or high-ranking manager, or has held a substantial percentage of stock in a large corporation, shouldn’t be allowed to run for any political office? After all, if the last few decades have taught us anything, it’s that you can’t serve America and a corporation at the same time.

Once in office, the president, vice president, and members of Congress should not be allowed any interaction with any high-ranking employee or representative of a big corporation (we’re not talking mom-and-pop businesses here). That means no phone calls with old buddies with a lust for drilling holes in national parks. No e-mail exchanges with ex-frat brothers intent on hawking new weapons systems. No meetings. Nothing.

A CEO lockout may seem extreme, but consider our current situation: Now, only corporate execs and reps enjoy unlimited access to our elected representatives. And look where it’s gotten us. Can anyone doubt that we would have signed the Kyoto Accord on global warming if not for corporate influence? That we’d have socialized medicine? That the minimum wage would have kept up with inflation? That free trade agreements would at least include basic environmental and workers’ rights protections?

No comprehensive campaign finance reform package would be complete without carefully regulating the lives of former politicians. After leaving office, it should be illegal for a former public servant to accept any position working for a major corporation. Otherwise favors could continue to be doled out in exchange for future employment.

Naturally, there is absolutely no chance that these ideas will even be discussed in the halls of power, much less enacted. That fact — that we as a nation don’t even talk about such things — is as disturbing as the excesses of our cash-bloated political system.

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