What are the current major concerns regarding the political process?
The relationship between big money and political success shows no signs of abating despite the McCain Feingold legislation. The limited public financing system for Presidential contests is ineffectual as both major party candidates have opted out of the system for the primaries and the general election. It does not appear that spending on Congressional races has been reduced in the wake of McCain-Feingold. The 2008 Democratic platform contains a general statement in support of campaign finance reform and public financing of campaigns. Despite the fact that John McCain has been a past champion of campaign finance reforem, th 2008 Republican platform argues that there should be no restrictions whatsover on a citizen's right to provide financial support for a candidate. Finally two Supreme Court rulings have limited the effectiveness of the McCain Feingold legislation.
Recently, the activities of lobbyists have come under scrutiny. Most prominently, a federal investigation resulted in a criminal guilty plea by super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff in January 2006. Mr. Abramoff was convicted of a litany of misdeeds including explicitly obtaining political action in exchange for gifts and contributions and fraudulently bilking his clients of millions of dollars. This scandal as well as unrelated charges in his home state of Texas has forced Tom DeLay to resign his Republican leadership position in the House. Also caught in the "Abramoff net" were Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) In a separate matter, Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.) resigned his House seat after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.
The two most recent Presidential elections were quite close and exposed significant problems with the voting process. One overall concern is that voting is regulated in each state by a public officer who is partisan. There were many allegations of electoral irregularities in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. In both states, a Republican was responsible for administering the election. A bipartisan commission headed by former President Carter, a Democrat, and former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, issued a report with several recommendations - including a call for all voters to show photo IDs, paper trails for electronic voting machines, and a shift toward nonpartisan administration of elections. There appears to be little political interest in implementing these changes.
There have been developments on the issue of gerrymandering. More states now impose criteria on the design of legislative districts and more states, notably California, have created commisions to design the boundaries.
Why is political reform an issue?
Many Americans, including politicians themselves, are concerned that our democracy is not working properly. The most important indicator is that Americans are so apathetic about the political process that they do not vote. Voter turnout in Presidential elections reached a modern low in 1996. It has rebounded since then but it is substantially below 1960 levels. (Click to see chart) and compares poorly to other world democracies. (Click to see map) A quarter of Americans believe that government has little effect on their lives and another 10% does not know whether government has a positive or negative effect on them.
Most Americans believe that government is primarily run by special interests looking out for themselves. Despite such beliefs, few Americans list political reform as an issue that is important.
Why has the cost of political campaigns increased?
The cost of political campaigns has dramatically increased in the past three decades. Much of the cost of campaigns is directed toward television and radio advertising. (Click to see chart) In a close election, the outcome is frequently decided by the candidate who is able to purchase the greatest number of media ads. A critical minority of voters are influenced by the content of these ads and vote accordingly. In the 1996 election, over $400 million was spent on local television advertising. Generally, the candidate that raises and spends the most money has a far better chance of winning an election. The system also strongly favors incumbents.
Why is the high cost of campaigns perceived to be a problem?
Most observers believe that the increasingly high cost of political campaigns is counterproductive to democracy for many reasons. Only candidates who are able to raise large amounts of money can even consider running for office. All candidates are totally dependent on political contributions. The overwhelming bulk of these contributions come from wealthy individuals and businesses. The individual contributions come from a very small percentage of Americans. Most of the contributions are in amounts greater than $200.00. The degree to which campaign contributions are related to the industries which stand to benefit from legislative or executive decisions can be best illustrated by analyzing the sources of "soft money" prior to 2002. All but a very small portion of the "soft money" provided to the Republican party came from business groups. Soft money contributions by labor organizations were directed almost entirely to the Democratic party but still represented just 16% of that party's donations. Some wealthy donors are motivated solely by their political beliefs, but many give with the hope that they will benefit financially from policy decisions later made by the candidates that they support. To this extent, critics argue that this system guarantees corruption. Even many business executives themselves have been critical of the current system.
The major role in elections played by expensive television advertising is believed by many to distort and cheapen the political discourse. Political candidates are sold by the advertising industry using the same techniques for selling products. Ordinarily, the content of the advertising is short on somber discussion of political topics and directed instead toward emotional appeals identified through careful research polling techniques.
Aren't there limits on how much a candidate can raise and spend?
Until recently there were no limits for "soft money". Under the McCain-Feingold legislation which passed Congress in March 2002 , soft money contributions are now prohibited. "Soft money" had been raised by the national parties and then transferred to state party treasuries to be used for general party building activities such as voter registration drives. Because soft money was not ostensibly used to support individual candidates, it was not regulated under federal campaign laws, and there were no limits placed on the amounts that could be contributed. Soft money became increasingly used to pay for political ads that indirectly supported particular candidates by endorsing their views. Since these ads often featured a candidate's name and image, many argued that the federal campaign laws were being subverted. Soft money accounted for a relatively small portion of federal campaign spending in 1992. But by 2000, the soft money share had grown to nearly 40%.
The first major campaign reform was enacted in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal. This legislation established strict disclosure requirements for campaign donations; set specific limits for these donations and expenditures; instituted public financing of presidential elections; and established the federal election commission to monitor campaign expenses. Some of this legislation was struck down by a Supreme Court decision in 1976. The court upheld the limits on contributions but struck down limits on expenditures except those agreed to by the candidates. In Presidential races, the candidates do agree to limit expenditures by accepting public campaign funds.
The present limits are $2,000 per candidate, $5,000 to a Political Action Committee (PAC), and $25,000 to all federal candidates, parties and PACs. The individual contribution limit was doubled under the McCain-Feingold legislation. These limits apply to individuals. Technically, corporations and unions have long been prohibited from making contributions or expenditures in federal elections although they had been the primary source of "soft money". These organizations are not barred from soliciting individual contributions from the membership and this is a common practice. Another campaign spending tactic used by PACs is "issue advocacy". The courts have held that as long as the advertising does not expressly address a candidacy, it is not subject to financing limitations. Various groups have stretched issue advocacy to its limit, often by using "attack" ads which identify a candidate's lack of support for an issue. These ads have generally been held not to violate federal election laws.
Another issue concerns the way some union members make contributions. Unions presently are able to use "paycheck deduction" as a way of forwarding individual donations from membership for political campaign purposes. Under the Beck court decision, union members have the right to a refund of any such donation but they must request it. Some reform advocates argue that unions must expressly obtain the member's consent before such a deduction is allowed.
Do other countries regulate campaign spending?
A survey of rules and practices of the 20 democracies of Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Israel, Australia and New Zealand reveals the following approaches: 1) outright restrictions on the amount of campaign spending for legislative races; 2) restrictions on the amount of donations; 3) public financing of elections; and 4) free media access to candidates and parties, coupled with a prohibition on paid political advertisements. Some countries combine several of these, a few use all four. The United States stands alone in being the only country to utilize only one of these practices for legislative elections, namely restrictions on the amount of donations. For instance, Canada, France, New Zealand, and Great Britain place firm limits on candidates' campaign spending. The ceiling for legislative candidates ranges from $6200 in New Zealand, $15,000 in Great Britain, $22,000 in Canada, to $75,000 in France. Belgium, Spain and Israel restrict the amount of "soft money" campaign spending by parties. In the U.S. there are no such limits, and costs for legislative races often exceed a half a million dollars. Another difference between democracy as practiced in the U.S. and elsewhere lies with the parliamentary system of government where candidates run in small local districts.
A major difference between the United States and most European countries is that the broadcast industry is under much greater regulation in Europe. Television advertising as a factor in political campaigns is not nearly as significant. Moreover, many countries provide free broadcasting to political candidates. Another difference is the parliamentary system in which voters vote for a district representative rather than a national or state/province candidate. Generally districts are small enough to enable candidates to personally contact many voters rather than relying on media. These differences between the U.S. and other democracies by no means guarantees an absence of corruption elsewhere. But the link between campaign contributions and policy outcomes is not nearly as pronounced.
What did the McCain-Feingold legislation accomplish?
The major provisions of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act are the following:
- Requires state parties to use hard money, instead of soft money, on activities that benefit federal candidates;
- Prohibits "issue advertising" 60 days before a general election and 30 days before a primary election that is paid for by a for profit corporation or union and which identifies a candidate; doubles the amount of hard money that can be contributed to state party committees;
- Broadens the definition of "coordinated" activities between campaigns and outside groups, requiring more activities to be paid for with limited hard money contributions, rather than unlimited soft money contributions;
- Requires state parties to use hard money, instead of soft money, on activities that benefit federal candidates;
- Codifies the Supreme Court's Beck decision, which permits non-union members to request a refund for the portion of the fees they pay to the union that is used for political activities unrelated to collective bargaining;
- Prohibits political fund-raising on federal property and campaign contributions by foreign nationals. The bill also would prohibit candidates from using campaign funds for personal expenses.
This legislation is regarded by many as a compromise that is at least a beginning to genuine campaign reform. The soft money ban helps put the "lid" back on the total amount of fundraising. But the doubling of hard money limits is predicted to keep overall contributions and spending at a very high level. In 2007, the Supreme Court overturned a portion of the law pertaining to issue ads stating that corporate or union money is permissible provided that the ads do not contain express advocacy. In 2010, the Supreme Court held that corporations could expend funds to support non-partisan political efforts aimed at certain political candidates. However direct corporate contributions to federal candidates and national party committees remain prohibited. Campaign reform advocates complain that the 2010 decision is the equivalent to again opening the door to soft money influence.
What are other proposals for reform?
- Public Financing of Campaigns
Reform advocates have long argued that public financing of campaigns is a necessity for achieving true campaign reform. They argue that by removing private money from campaigns, the playing field is leveled and qualified candidates can run for public office without compromising their independence, since they won't have to ask for money from those with a vested interest in public policy. Under most public financing proposals, a candidate must qualify by raising signatures or small donations. Those who accept public money must refuse to use private money to finance campaigns.
Public financing does exist for candidates for U.S. President. Funded by the a tax "check off" provision, the federal government will match up to $250 in individual contributions for primary contests and it provides full funding for the general election. There is no realistic effort to extend such public financing to other federal elections. Recently, four states: Vermont, Maine, Arizona and Massachusetts have enacted comprehensive public financing of political campaigns.
- Providing free or reduced cost media access
Many reformers support proposals that would guarantee political candidates access to the media at little or no cost. Evidence indicates that the broadcast industry is a primary beneficiary of the current campaign finance system. Although guidelines exist for providing political advertisers reduced rates, these are often not given. Moreover, the broadcast media is criticized for the manner in which it covers campaigns. The number of political commercials in a typical election far outnumber the number of new stories. The news stories that do exist are frequently about political strategy and not about public policy.
- Ban "leadership" PACs
Some members of Congress have formed "leadership" PACs which raise funds which are distributed to other members. Many critics believe that these should be outlawed. It is argued that they can be used to as a way for a donor to avoid the direct $1000 contribution limit. Also of concern is that they can be used by senior Congressional members to "purchase" the support of other members. Moreover, the officers of these organizations are sometimes from industries with whom the lawmaker has oversight. Efforts to outlaw these "PACs" have failed.
How do Democrats and Republicans stand on campaign finance reform?
Campaign finance reform is an issue where there are differences within both parties although the issue has far less visibility subsequent to the enactment of the McCain-Feingold legislation. Democrats have generally supported campaign finance reform. Republicans tend to benefit more than Democrats from the financing system and thus are generally less interested in reform.
Are candidates for public office required to debate?
No. But the voluntary practice is increasing. There have been debates in every Presidential election since 1976. During the 2000 election, televised debates were held in the majority of Senate and Governor races.
Since 1988, the Presidential debates have been overseen by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a non-partisan organization sponsored by industry leaders and chaired by past chairmen of the two major parties. Prior to that time, the Presidential debates were organized by the League of Women Voters. The League withdrew from sponsoring the debates in response to the a refusal of the major parties to allow the League to establish the debate rules. Critics charge that the Commission is hardly non-partisan but rather an attempt by the two major parties to exclude all outside interests from the national political process. Indeed, in 2000, the Commission developed a standard for participation in the debates which required that a third party candidate have a 15% rating by national polls. This standard excluded Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate and Pat Buchanan, the Reform party candidate. The Commission does not have the power to establish rules regarding the format and frequency of the debates. Instead these matters are left to often arduous negotiation between the campaigns.
Many observers believe that the increasing number of televised debates have been a bright development in the campaign landscape. Debates allow voters to obtain a more thorough discussion on the candidate's ideas concerning public policy than they receive through "sound bites" on the evening news. Unfortunately, except for the Presidential debates, many televised political debates are confined to public television and cable channels and do not reach a wide audience.
What are proposals for improving the debates?
With respect to the Presidential debates, many believe that the candidates should be mandated to conduct a specified number of debates under a prescribed format as a condition of receiving federal campaign funds. Legislative attempts to accomplish this have not been successful. Many believe that the 15% standard promulgated by the CPD is unfair. They note that Candidate Ross Perot in 1992 had only a 7% poll score prior to participating in the debates and ultimately received 19% of the vote.
Although the debates themselves focus on policy, the network television commentary following the debates often focuses exclusively the candidates' demeanor rather than elaborating on the policy discussion. Some believe that the networks miss an excellent opportunity to further help enlighten voters on policy issues.
What are the obstacles to voting?
The United States historically has had low voter turnout. There has been an improvement in the most recent Presidential elections but the turnout is quite low compared to many democracies. Low voter participation is most evident among younger voters. The country also has had a gradual history of voting system reforms in an effort to increase voter participation. It almost seems unbelievable that women were not allowed to vote until this century. Many obstacles which had prevented African-Americans from voting in Southern states were removed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although this change dramatically increased voter registration and participation in these states, voter turnout has remained low. There is also a distinct geographical pattern to the rate of voter turnout. This is true despite the 1993 "Motor Voter" legislation which mandates that requires that state motor vehicle departments and social service agencies offer voter registration. Registrations have slightly increased but turnout has not improved.
There are various explanations for the low turnout numbers. In major races, the published polling numbers in the weeks prior to an election often indicate that the outcome of a many races is a virtual certainty. Because elections are held on work days, many people are too busy to take the time to vote. Many young people are very mobile and find it difficult to maintain a current registration. Finally, many Americans are not motivated to vote; they see no relationship between the political process and their daily lives.
What are proposals to improve voter participation?
- Eliminate voter registration or permit same day voter registration
The United States is unique among many democracies in requiring voter registration. In many European countries, for example, there is a civil registry for all adults which is used for voting purposes as well. In some countries, voting is mandatory. North Dakota has not had voter registration since 1951 and has very high voter turnout. Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Wyoming have same-day voter registration and voter turnout in these states is consistently high.
- Election holidays or weekend voting
Most countries conduct voting on weekends or declare a national holiday. In January, prior to leaving office, President Clinton proposed a national "election holiday" for the purpose of improving voter participation. A reader poll conducted by "USA Today" showed support for this reform.
- Facilitate voting by mail
The "absentee" mail voting process has existed primarily for the purpose of assisting voters who are invalid or who will not be at their residence on election day. In most jurisdictions, voters are required to specifically request an absentee each time they wish to vote by mail. Some reformers suggest that the mail voting be the primary method of voting. During the last election, Oregon used a mail system and turnout was substantially above the national average.
- Use "instant runoff" voting
Many propose this reform for all elections; not just for local elections which presently require runoffs when one candidate does not win a plurality. Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates as their first choice, second choice, third, fourth and so on. If a candidate does not receive a clear majority of votes on the first count, a series of runoff counts are conducted, using each voter's top choices indicated on the ballot. A plurality winner is then generated from this tabulation. If this method had been applied to recent U.S. Presidential elections, George Bush almost certainly would have prevailed over Bill Clinton in 1992 and Al Gore would have prevailed over George W. Bush in 2000. Reformers suggest that this method would address problems with low turnout and election costs associated with present runoff elections.
- Use of "proportional representation" for some or all legislative races
"Proportional representation" is used in many democracies, including 21 countries in Europe. The basic approach of proportional representation is simple: legislators are elected in multimember districts instead of single-member districts, and the number of seats that a party wins in an election is proportional to the amount of its support among voters. Proportional representation is comparable to reforms which most state Democratic parties made in their method of choosing delegates after a primary vote. Instead of a "winner take all" format (which still characterizes most Republican party primary systems), delegates from most Democratic primaries are awarded in proportion to the popular vote. Reformers suggest that voters in a proportional representation voting system who support political parties that do not have majority support will be encouraged to vote because their views will be reflected in the legislative representatives chosen.
What have been the problems with our voting systems?
The absence of centralized standards have long plagued our
voting systems but they received major attention in the 2000 election with the
close count in Florida. Americans learned that many of our voting machines
do not work well. "Hanging chads" and poorly designed ballots were just some
of the problems. The problems in Florida also involved other aspects of
election administration as voters were incorrectly purged from eligible lists
and the polling places could not accommodate all of the voters who wished to
vote. Unfortunately, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which was passed by
Congress in response to the Florida fiasco did not fully address the problems
which occurred in Florida. HAVA establishes federal registration requirements
and provides funding for states to upgrade their voting systems. HAVA has
therefore accelerated a national transition to electronic voting - a process
which has created its own set of concerns.
By 2008, most of the country had abandoned the punchcard
method used in Florida election in favor optical scan or electronic systems. But that has not quelled the controversy. The 2004 presidential
election was also close and allegations of a tainted result again surfaced -
this time in Ohio. As in Florida, some voters were required to wait in
unconscionably long lines to cast their ballots. But there were also concerns
that there was tampering in some of the precincts using electronic voting
machines because the tabulated results differed so significantly from the exit
Who is in charge of U.S. elections?
Under the U.S. Constitution, the responsibility for
elections is delegated to the states. There is no federal system which
administers elections although there is a Federal Election Commission which is
mainly responsible for enforcing federal campaign financing laws. Within each
state, the overall supervision of elections is commonly under the jurisdiction
of a partisan elected official, the Secretary of State. That office issues
regulations and guidelines for election officials at the local level. The
local offices are usually organized at the county level under an official known
as a "registrar". The registrar is responsible for maintaining a list of
eligible voters, setting up voting precincts, conducting the elections, and
counting the vote.
Is the voting bureaucracy similar other in other democracies?
No. The U.S. is unusual in many respects. Most countries
administer elections at the national level with uniform voting systems. In
contrast, localized election administration in the United States produces many
different voting systems.
Few countries fully entrust the voting process to a partisan elected official as do our states. In some
countries, including Australia and Canada, the entire process is managed by a
non partisan independent non-governmental commission. In the majority of the
countries where the government administers elections, there is an oversight
body composed of independent judges. In most democracies, the judicial system
is the final arbiter of electoral disputes.
How are votes commonly cast and counted?
It basically depends on the voting system used by the local
registrar. The common types of modern voting systems are the following:
- Optical scan machines. (see picture) Optical scan machines use a ballot
printed on special paper that is then marked by the voter, usually with a
#2 pencil or with a special marker. The ballot is then fed into a counting
machine that reflects light off the markings to scan and count the vote.
Central-count optical scan systems, where the ballots are collected and
sent to a central location before being scanned, cannot provide for
"second chance" voting, as is required by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA),
because the voter cannot make a correction to the ballot. With
precinct-count optical scan systems, the voter or an election official
puts the ballot in the scanner at the polling place. If there is a
problem, such as an "overvote", the scanner returns the ballot for
correction by the voter. Central count is used for mail-in and absentee
voting. The advantages to this system is that it is user-friendly, it
produces a relatively fast vote count and voters are able to correct
mistakes. The disadvantages are that the equipment is costly, they are
prone to voter error in completing the ballot and the counting equipment
may not pick up lightly shaded entries.
- Touchscreen electronic voting machines. (see picture)The voter touches a computer screen to vote for each
candidate or issue, has an opportunity to review the ballot, and then
casts the ballot on the electronic machine. The voting process is much
like using a ATM machine at the bank. Indeed Diebold, the major
manufacturer of electronic voting machines is a leading maker of ATM
machines. Supporters of electronic voting tout the fast ballot
tabulation; its accuracy (assuming thorough testing and no programming
errors or equipment failure) and the fact that it is user-friendly.
Opponents complain about the high cost; the absence of a tangible paper
ballot (although paper receipts are now common); the fact that a
dual system must be maintained because of absentee voting; and the possibility
of intentional manipulation of the results by manufacturers, voting
officials or interlopers.
- Punchcard voting. (see picture) Punchcard systems employ a card (or
cards) and a small clipboard-sized device for recording votes. Voters
punch holes in the cards (with a supplied punch device) opposite their
candidate or ballot issue choice. After voting, the voter may place the
ballot in a ballot box, or the ballot may be fed into a computer vote
tabulating device at the precinct. This was the most common system used
until its defects became apparent in the 2000 Florida vote. The system
is the least expensive of the currently used systems and it generally
produces reliable results. But some intended votes are nullified because
the voter has not completely punched out the hole. The counting process
is slower than the other systems and there is no easy way for a voter to
Why is there so much controversy regarding the electronic
Basically because voters are concerned that with so much
money at stake in a major election, there is an ability to covertly alter
voting results through manipulation of the machines and their software.
Although electronic voting critics concede that security concerns exist with
all voting systems, the technical nature of such possible manipulations make
this type of malfeasance more difficult to detect by poll workers or election
officials. Some of the particular concerns are the following:
- Absence of a verifiable paper trail. When first developed,
electronic voting machines did not produce a verifiable paper record of
the vote which can be verified by the voter and which can be used in a
recount. Now the majority of states using such voting systems mandate
such a paper record. Some states also mandate audits of voting by
comparing the electronic tabulation with a partial manual count of such
paper records. Still, critics of electronic
voting machines will not be satisfied unless the paper product prepared by
the machine is can function as a countable ballot which is reviewed by the
- Failure to use open source software. Critics maintain
that even the development of paper records and spot audits cannot full
prevent the possibility of manipulation of the voting result by the
machine manufacturer and its technicians because the company alone is
privy to the software code used in programming the machines. But others
suggest that making the software fully "open source" presents even greater
security concerns because any technically minded person could potentially
modify the voting outcome.
Are other countries experiencing similar controversies
with their voting systems?
No. Although there is some experimentation with electronic
systems, in most countries votes are cast through paper ballots that are
How does lobbying affect political decisions?
Very significantly. Lobbyists are employed by virtually every business, labor organization or public interest group that has a stake in the outcome of legislation or executive policy. The total amount spent of federal lobbying in 2000 was $1.55 billion. The expenditures were dominated by business interests, particularly communications, energy, finance and health groups. As representatives of these groups, lobbyists perform the very important role of providing technical information to public officials regarding issues that are the subject of legislation or regulation. Because congressional staff personnel are poorly paid , they are usually young and do not have the technical expertise in these subject areas. On the other hand, lobbyists are presenting this information and influencing policy not from a general public interest perspective, but only based on the narrow interests of the organizations they represent.
What are the concerns about lobbying?
To the extent that lobbying is limited to providing politicians with information essential to policy, there can be little question that lobbying practices are beneficial to society. But many who are concerned with political reform suggest that often the degree to which lobbyists have access to decision makers is in direct proportion to campaign contributions made on behalf of the industry or organization involved. Thus to a large extent, the perceived abuses of the lobby system is integrally related to campaign finance reform issues.
But there are also many concerns that are limited to lobbying itself. Lobbyists traditionally solicit the attention and interest of politicians by plying them with meals, junkets and other benefits. Because politicians are generally paid much less than other high level executives, such enticements often prove difficult to resist.
How are lobbyists regulated?
For more than 150 years, Congress considered various ways to regulate lobbying. Not until 1946, however, did it pass comprehensive legislation -- the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act. The law soon proved largely ineffective, however. The major problem was that it did not cover executive branch lobbying, grassroots lobbying or the lobbying of congressional staff. In 1991, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that almost 10,000 of the 13,500 individuals and organizations listed in the Washington Representatives Directory were not registered as lobbyists. The climate seemed right for an attempt to plug the holes in the original legislation passed almost 50 years earlier.
Despite some opposition initially, the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act passed Congress with overwhelming support, was signed by President Clinton, and became law in January 1996. It significantly broadened the definition of people and organizations that must register as lobbyists. According to the filings under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, there were almost 11,500 lobbyists working the halls of Congress.
In 1996, Congress also passed legislation limiting the size of gifts to $50 per event and $100 annually. It also banned the practice of honoraria which had been used by special interests to supplement congressional salaries. But Congress did not limit the travel of representatives, senators, their wives, or staff members of Congress. Interest groups can pay for congressional travel as long as each trip is related to legislative business and is disclosed on congressional reports within 30 days. On these trips meals and entertainment expenses are not limited to $50 per event and $100 annually. The rules of Congress allow its members to travel on corporate jets as long as they pay an amount equal to first class air fare.
What about further regulation?
Although recent legislation has provided substantial reform, there remains concern about the total lobbying expenditures and about the relationship between the ability to effectively lobby and campaign donations. Although reporting of gifts and travel is required, this information has not yet been collected in a meaningful manner for public review. A recent bipartisan Senate resolution urged the availability of this information on the internet.
How much are elected federal officials paid?
The present Congressional salary is $141,300 per year. The salary of the President effective January 2001 was raised from $200,000 to $400,000 per year.
Is the compensation level excessive?
In comparison with high level officials in the private or educational sector, the answer is an unqualified no. As executive compensation has soared, the salary of the Presidency in real dollars has been in precipitous decline incomparison to leaders of industry and even other high level public officials. This remained true even when the salary of the President was doubled in 2001 to $400,000. and The salary of the Congress has also slightly declined since 1970. Even when the generous pension arrangements are considered, the compensation package for elected officials is far below the type of salary that most qualified candidates would receive in the private or university sector.
On the other hand, the pay of Congress is in line with salaries that many professionals receive and is substantially greater than the median income. While the President's pay is far less than that of a CEO, it is a substantial salary. Moreover, the actual living costs associated with the Presidency are paid separately. There is a substantial pension, secret service protection, and a library fund that is provided at public expense after a President retires. Public opinion polls have generally opposed providing elected officials with more pay.
There is disagreement between political reform advocates on this issue. The "Public Citizen" organization associated with Ralph Nader has consistently opposed pay increases. They argue that when congressional salary is set too high, as it is now, it lures the greedy, selfish and the power-hungry, in addition to those who merely wish to serve their country, and who are deserving of the public trust. But the Common Cause organization believes that the public should be the sole source of compensation for public officials - a belief that reflects our deeply held view that public officials should be accountable and beholden exclusively to the public whom they are privileged to serve. Thus Common Cause believes that our government officials should be paid an adequate salary commensurate to their vital responsibilities as our nation's leaders and has supported the recent increases in Presidential and Congressional pay.
Are there any limits on the terms served by elected federal officials?
As the result of the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution, there is a lifetime limit of two terms for a United States President. The United States Supreme Court has held that a similar amendment would be necessary for term limits to apply to Congress.
Are term limits a good idea?
Term limits are the favored reform of the 90s. A total of 17 states have imposed term limits on state legislatures. The limits range from six to twelve years. Those that favor term limits believe that career politicians are so intent to stay in office that they are more likely to betray their constituents and bow to corruption. They argue that term limits encourages newcomers to take risks and push for ethics reform. Opponents of term limits argue that inexperienced legislators cannot act effectively in the public interest because they lack the knowledge and experience necessary to be effective. They maintain that term limits force out well-regarded politicians including many who have formed strong ties with their constituents and developed expertise in particular policy areas.
How are legislative districts determined?
The determination of legislative districts is entirely a state responsibility. For purposes of creating Congressional districts, states are required to redraw districts every ten years to reflect current census data. In thirteen states, congressional redistricting is performed by commissions with v
arying degrees of independence; otherwise it is the responsibility of state legislatures - often a contentious and politicized process. Virtually all states require that their state legislative districts be contiguous and most require that they incorporate existing political boundaries. But many states do not set any criteria for congregssional districts. The boundaries are often drawn in a manner in which voter registration of one of the major parties is overwhelmingly dominant - all but guaranteeing the seat to that party's candidate. The boundary lines often defy any type of geographical logic. According to one study, there has been a significant increase in the number of "safe" congressional districts during the past 25 years. This process has been called "bi-partisan gerrymandering" and has been sharply criticized by many concerned with political reform and representative government.
Political Reform Links
Google Directory - Election Reform
Google Directory - Lobbying
Wikipedia - Campaign Finance
Wikipedia - Campaign Finance Reform in the United States
Wikipedia - Presidential Debates
Wikipedia - Voter Participation
Wikipedia - Voter Turnout
Wikipedia - Voting Machine
Wikipedia - Electronic Voting
Wikipedia - Term limits
Wikipedia - Presidential Pay
Wikipedia - Congressional Salaries
Center for Responsive Politics
Federal Election Commission
Administration and Cost of Elections Project - International Democracy Site
Annenberg Public Policy Center
National Institute on Money in State Politics
California Voter Foundation
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance
Center for Voting and Democracy
Voting and Democracy Report 1995
Green Papers: Election Site
Manuel Alvarez Rivera: Election Resources on the Internet
Political Resources on the Net (International information)
U.S. Term Limits