How Voters Support Corruption

06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Instead of lamenting the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, and its probable effect on elections, why don't voters just stop reinforcing the influence of money?

Voters could break the power of dollars by breaking a bad habit of electing the biggest spenders in House and Senate races over 90% of the time, as they did in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Voting based on how much a candidate spends, instead of relevant considerations, spurs the frantic fund raising that really determines who wins.

Campaign contributors, candidates for Congress or governor or mayor who accept contributions, everybody except voters understands that voters will elect the biggest spender. Nobody says, "I'm going to vote for Smith instead of Jones because Smith spent more money on his campaign." But when we look at the results, we might as well say that. We need to have the public discussion that enables us to see that our bad habit actually serves "those special interests" we love to hate. This bad habit causes lawmakers to take contributions so they can outspend challengers, and then do favors, to make bad policy that benefits the few who pay at the expense of the many who don't, such as continuing toleration of reckless practices in banking.

We need to lobby our lawmakers because, unlike paid lobbyists, registered voters aren't directly, one-on-one, telling lawmakers what we want them to do. Is it just possible that the reason we voters don't get what we want from Congress is because we don't ask? And paid lobbyists do get what they want because they do ask?

If we ask, if we lobby for a single-payer "Medicare for Everybody" health insurance reform bill (HR 676) 2/3 of us favor, this direct request will enable 2/3 of us to vote based on whether our lawmakers support the bill we want, rather than on how much they spend. We will be able to curb the clout of dollars because we can declare independence of the expensive attack ads an incumbent throws at a challenger. After we have lobbied 2/3 in favor of a single-payer, for example, we will be ready and willing to defeat a big-spending incumbent who ignores our request and opposes HR 676.

As we lobby on other issues, we will make lawmakers aware that we are watching, and after a few high-profile upsets by underfunded challengers, our lawmakers will learn that they need voters more than they need dollars. Voters need to make the effort to educate them. Lobbying our lawmakers and then watching how they respond will make us unlikely to keep re-electing incumbents who ignore us, who feel free to serve the few who make big campaign contributions, who pay to be represented, at the expense of the many who don't pay.

Paid lobbyists are busy telling lawmakers what they want and holding them accountable with the implicit threat of limiting campaign contributions. They have told lawmakers they don't want HR 676. There are no unpaid lobbyists telling lawmakers yes, 2/3 of us really do want HR 676, with the implicit "or else" of "term limits." Inexcusable mistake.

The problem isn't that special interests lobby lawmakers. The problem is that the lobbying is one-way. If there is pressure on one side of issues and a vacuum on the other, things can only keep moving in the wrong direction. The electorate, consisting of registered voters, is the only "interest group" in America that has plenty of "interests" but doesn't regularly lobby lawmakers directly to enact specific items of legislation that 2/3 of us favor. This sad fact probably explains why in recent polls only 19 percent are satisfied with the direction of the country and 73 percent are dissatisfied. Only 1 in 10 says members of Congress deserve to be re-elected.

How much of the massive discontent can we attribute to the fact that paid lobbyists ask for what they want, such as banking deregulation, and registered voter unpaid lobbyists don't ask for what would benefit them, such as keeping safeguards in place? What else has to happen? How many more calamities need to befall us? How many more Enrons and A.I.G. bailouts and recessions and various kinds of bubbles will it take before we finally understand that if we want Congress to serve the many and not just the few, the many need to ask?