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The Good Soul Howard Schultz: Exploiting an Addict Rather Than Ending an Addiction

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Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has joined a small but important group of business leaders who believe it right to use their personal influence to make government work better. In a letter to colleagues and friends, Schultz pledged to end his contributions to political campaigns "until [politicians] strike a bipartisan, balanced long-term debt deal that addresses both entitlements and revenues." He also pledged on behalf of Starbucks to "hire and accelerate employment." Both pledges flow from an obviously deeply felt view that something profoundly wrong has happened to our government and nation. His efforts -- like the efforts of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates -- are not first steps in a political campaign. They are the actions of decent citizens trying to make a society better.

Schultz is right that something profoundly bad has happened to American politics. He is also right to tie that profound bad to the endless addiction that our elected officials have to campaign cash. We have entered a time when politicians like Republican Scott Brown are not even embarrassed to argue that while programs like Medicare and Social Security must be on the budget chopping block, subsidies to big oil (a contributor to Scott Brown) should not. Or when Democrat Xavier Becerra, appointed to the "super Congress" that will have extraordinary power to make spending and revenue budget decisions, doesn't think twice about cashing in on his newly-found power by touting it in a fundraising letter to DC lobbyists. (Update: Congressman Becarra writes that he "did not know, did not ask, would not ask and I will not ask any of my supporters to use my appointment to the select committee for purposes outside its principle focus." Bravo.) Or when Congress, in the middle of two wars, a recession, a jobs crisis, and an impending government shutdown, spends most of its attention on whether "swipe fees" for debit cards should be higher (banks win) or lower (retailers win). Why would it do that? Because of course, both sides in that fight are only too eager to shower the not-yet-wooed Members with endless campaign cash. In context after context, the priorities and sensibilities of this Congress are queered by its perpetual addiction to campaign funds. Nothing in Washington will change until we change this.

But however right his motivation, Schultz's pledge to withhold campaign dollars until Congress agrees on a budget won't fix this mess. No doubt, you can get an addict to clean up the garage by withholding his fix until he is done. But that won't help the addict end his addiction. The same with our cash-addicted-Congress: What reformers like Schultz need to do is to use their power to get Congress to end its addiction, by pushing for reforms that would make it possible for government to act sanely and independently of special interest funders.

That was the objective of Arnold Hiatt (former CEO of Stride Rite) and Alan Hassenfeld (former Chairman of Hasbro, Inc.) when they launched a similar campaign just last year, by writing (PDF) to the largest campaign funders, and asking them to withhold funds from any candidate who didn't pledge to support the Fair Elections Now Act -- a bill that would give candidates the chance to opt out of special interest funding, and into a voluntary system that would limit campaign contributions to $100, with each contribution matched 4 to 1 by the government. Their letter convinced scores of large funders -- including producer and director J.J. Abrams, Edgar Bronfman Jr., CEO of Warner Music, Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's, and Vin Ryan, Chairman of Schooner Capital -- to withhold campaign contributions from special interest candidates. It also inspired thousands of smaller contributors to make a similar pledge.

The Hiatt/Hassenfeld strategy uses the leverage of campaign contributions to change the system for funding campaigns. It doesn't withhold the fix. It ends the addiction. There are any number of important causes that powerful souls like Schultz could organize funder strikes around -- bank reform, health care reform, tax reform, global warming legislation -- for our current Congress can't address any of these issues sensibly because special interests always block change. But far better is a strategy to change the environment within which these special interests can always block change. That was Hiatt and Hassenfeld's objective -- an objective that Schultz's approach cannot achieve.

Schultz could fix this flaw by adding an escape clause to his current pledge. Let contributors promise not to give unless Congress strikes a deal or a candidate pledges to funding reform. Let this powerful movement produce something permanent, rather than a single victory in an endless tale of defeat.

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil," wrote Thoreau in Walden, "to one striking at the root." We need souls like Schultz to be that one, striking at the root, if the efforts of the thousands are ever to have an effect.