The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

No carrots for lawmakers without sticks

Once upon a time, a variety of blogs convinced a number of House Representatives to sign a letter saying they would vote against any bill which did not include a public option.  Happy with the promise, blogs then raised money for those Reps.

And many of those Reps are now breaking their word, after having taken the money, and saying they will vote for a bill without a public option.

This is a failure of carrots and sticks.  The problem is that the carrots (money) were given upfront.  Believing there is no real stick, the Representatives will now break their word.

Let me suggest, then, than in any future efforts, any money raised be put into escrow.  If Congress critters keep their word, they get the money.  If they break it, it is automatically used to run attack ads during the next election, noting that the Rep in question is the sort of person who thinks nothing of breaking their word.

Carrots without sticks mean people will take your money, then spit in your face and laugh at you because they know you’re too cowardly to do anything about it.

No carrots without sticks.


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  1. b.

    I like the escrow. It makes obvious that pay-to-play is a reality. I suggest that this should be mandatory by law for all political donations, esp. corporate: escrow with clearly defined terms, pay on delivery. Better yet, I suggest a law that requires politicians to always wear the logos of their biggest donors in public.

  2. Wear logos? Why not have them tatooed on?

  3. This may be a very stupid question, but … strictly speaking, isn’t a transfer of money which has been made contingent upon a legislator’s specific vote a bribe? Or, maybe it would be better to rephrase: what legally distinguishes a campaign contribution from a bribe?

  4. Ian Welsh

    You may be right? Anyone know the law?

  5. I asked during the 2008 general election how Obama would be motivated to do anything for progressives, considering that they pledged to vote for him without demanding anything in return.

    That made me a racist, of course.

    Carolyn Kay

  6. >>isn’t a transfer of money which has been made contingent upon a legislator’s specific vote a bribe?

    Yes, to people who make a habit of living in the real world, but don’t ask Rod Blagojevich.

    Or Don Siegelman.

    Carolyn Kay

  7. zot23

    I don’t actually like this idea, it would seem to be common sense but might actually change nothing or be worse.

    Corporations (like pharma, health care) have very deep pockets. They pay whether you’ll secure your vote or not. Then if you vote for them, they give a lot more afterward (and going forward.) To hold progressive’s feet to the fire for the vote sets up a situation where: the person can support your viewpoint but not be able to deliver thus losing the money and losing the future pharma money too. Also what if the HCR was tabled, do they get paid then without voting? But if they abandon your viewpoint, they lock in the money from HC today and tomorrow and give up the escrow they never had. Going forward you have a situation where he/she learns that you never pay and the special interest always pays. Who are they going to support? A wad of cash in the pocket today or a phantom escrow check that is more than a year away?

    Plus there is an argument to be made that the PO was only in the bill in the first place due to that early money that got those progressives to make that pledge in the first place. They shifted the debate earlier so the initial bill was better (small comfort now but it’s likely true.) Would an escrow account have gotten as many onboard back then to get a decent PO in the house bill?

    I know Ian is thinking about how to improve things, I’m just not convinced this is it. I think concentrating on somehow removing the obnoxious amounts of cash from the system would be a better way to go. Full disclosure: I have no idea how in world we could do that.

  8. Marsha

    I suggest that any money you ever think of giving to any political party go to Arthur Silber, instead.

    At least you know it will be put to good use.

  9. nihil obstet

    I like the idea of having the corporate logos tattooed on the legislators. They should all have to go into their next re-election campaign displaying Goldman Sachs, CitiGroup, and CIGNA body art. Just in the interests of an informed electorate.

  10. Forty2

    Sorry, after the Dem betrayal started in 2006 and reached its apex last year — mandate! have you heard of it? — I resolved to never give one more cent to any politician, party, or political organization. They’re all venal scum. Besides, they all seem to get plenty from their corporate overlords so they don’t need my paltry few dollars.

    The other reason is the incessant hounding for more once they figure out that you’re dumb enough to think that it matters, but this is pretty secondary.

    Hope? Change? Wow, I sure feel like an idiot after falling for that one. Hope: dashed. Change: none. I’m debating even bothering to vote Tuesday in the Mass. senate election. I hate Coakley, but I hate Brown more. Some motivation eh?

  11. Lori

    The difference between a bribe and a contribution? For one thing, there must be a direct negotiation between the two parties. Constituents joining together and contributing in response to proposed representation or actual representation is how the system is supposed to work. That’s honest and responsive. A constituent meeting with a legislator privately and saying that they will only contribute if an action is taken, and providing enough money to sway the legislator’s actions is something else entirely.

  12. beowulf

    Direct contributions are nice, but all you’re doing is subsidizing whatever campaign ads the candidate ends up running. Better approach (and the one that avoids any bribery accusations) is to take a page from the Club For Growth “no new taxes pledge”… Ask Democratic Members or candidates to agree to a “no public option, no bill pledge” (or whatever progressive goal you want them to commit to). Raise the money and let the politicians know that it will pay for ads supporting members who keep their word and for opposing members who lack the integrity to keep their word.

    If you make the dispute about policy, that lets the politicians rationalize it aways with that they couldn’t let “the perfect be the enemy of the good” and it becomes a he said/she said public dispute that no one but the policy wonks will be able to follow. But make the dispute about integrity, and everybody gets that since nobody likes a liar. Your message will get amplified by Republican groups citing it in their own ads, “Even liberal Democrats agree that Senate Lincoln can’t be trusted to keep her word”.

    Good government arguments are killers because they swing votes of people who’d otherwise be voting the other way if the debate were kept to issues. The White House is going to regret all of Obama’s broken promises (especially the C-Span negotiation statement) because every Democrat who votes for the healthcare bill is going to be hit with ads on this in November.

  13. selise

    Once upon a time, a variety of blogs convinced a number of House Representatives to sign a letter saying they would vote against any bill which did not include a public option. Happy with the promise, blogs then raised money for those Reps.

    it wasn’t just any public option, it was a “robust” public option. and by their own definition most of them have already violated their pledge when they voted for the house bill.

  14. anonymous

    Fun idea, but I don’t know if it is the most necessary. Mabye attack ads are not the best and highest purpose. Probably they are too small potatoes. Maybe donations to a potential primary opponent would be better, and language in the trust document preventing the money from being contributed as anticipated should the anticipated donee renege on his promises. But I think aside from the money, if there were a way to show the politician 1) how many people money-contributing voters contributed to his campaign as a result of the promise and contrast that to 2) how many of those contributors took their future contributions and activism elsewhere, and how many other people were influenced negatively by the broken promise.

    But such a demonstration would very likely show the consequences for breaking promises to liberals are not that costly.

  15. b.

    The serious answer is: *never* donate money to a politician. Say you care about civil liberties. You donate to the ACLU, you let the ACLU push the issue, and let it rate and, where warranted, oppose through advertising, individual candidates. You invest in infrastructure that is not owned by politicians. That’s why Hamsher’s critique of NARAL, Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List is so important.

    If you need proof, revisist how the Obama Machine suppressed, co-opted and assimilated third party issue organizations to build their own. The answer to the dilemma Ian describes is not the try to make the money contingent – it is to build an infrastructure that is accountable to donors, focused on issues, and – where legally possible – has “non compete” agreements for all individuals involved to prohibit them from taking Yet Another Revolving Door to Deferred Payback.

  16. b.

    ” I think concentrating on somehow removing the obnoxious amounts of cash from the system would be a better way to go.”


    “I have no idea how in world we could do that.”

    There are several pressure points, all of which are out of reach as long as the silent majority is not making the connection:

    a) The claim (not supported by the actual case law) that corporations have personhood with respect to free speech.
    b) The claim that financial transactions (donations) amount to free speech.
    c) The lack of law mandated free access to media for registered candidates.
    d) The lack of sole source public financing for registered candidates.

    Corporate executives will raise customer prices to divert profits from shareholders to pay for political lobbying which might or might not benefit shareholders, but will directly benefit corporate officers. Corporations do not have “deep pockets”, their executives are simply able to have one hand in your pocket, and one hand in the shareholder’s pocket. The more they take, the more they can tilt the table to increase the stream of profits. To end, not attempt to regulate, this feedback loop, you have to take money of of the equation. That means: all campaign activity has to be unpaid volunteer labor, all donations can only be in volunteering your time, not your money. A billionaire might be able to sacrifice more hours of his day than a minimum wage slave, but there are less of them, and they are not as likely to make any sacrifice that is not a tax deductible expenditure.

    And a corporation, barred from hiring “volunteers” and paying them, has no means left to exercise any claim of acting as a “citizen”.

    The fix is in the First Amendment. The problem is that in the absence of a majority demanding this type of reform to the exclusion of all other concerns, the current necrosis will persist and spread. In short, there really is no fix – democracy is dynamically unstable, as you have to do democracy with The People you have, not The People you need.–federal-election-commission—jeffrey-toobin

  17. Regardless of the legality, it’s a very interesting proposal at least as a thought experiment. Not a lot of attention has been paid in the blogosphere to the incentives for career political candidates. But I think zot23’s objections are about right; how does this proposal take into account changing circumstances? It’s sometimes *not* a good idea for a political representative to keep a promise s/he made during a campaign.

  18. I don’t know if you struck a nerve, Ian, but one of those blogs wants their money back. For my part, I had the same idea zot23, show them that we’re capable of helping them if they vote our way. That’s a positive thing.

    As it is, it looks like they won’t be getting any more of my money. I suspect that will be a tough sell for a lot of folks.

  19. Ian Welsh

    Positive incentives are not enough by themselves.

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