Dear Mr. President,
We don't often think of the U.S. government as one of the most corrupt on the planet. We don't think that because instead of eliminating corruption, Congress (with help from the Supreme Court) has made it legal. In the past, it would be seen as improper for a president to push congressional reform. Well, the time for niceties is over. We need you to put your foot down and go after Congress to radically change how business is done. Here's why:
1) Americans are priced out of Congress. In the 2010 election, it cost, on average, $8,002,726 to run for a Senate seat and $1,163,231 for the average House seat according to the campaign finance institute. That's the "cover charge" to get into the exclusive club of governance. It all but assures average Americans that there is no place for us in public office at the national level. But can't we just donate money to the candidate we like most, isn't that democratic? No, just 0.26 percent of Americans donated $200 or more in the 2010 election cycle. That means one fourth of one percent of Americans were responsible for elevating candidates to election. Then in office, members spend 30-70 percent of their time raising money for their next election. Do we still get to vote? Yes, but we vote off of a menu of candidates that has been pre-approved by the wealthy and who must then cater to the wealthy.
2) Representatives are no longer accountable to voters. Voters reward their politicians who deliver results and reflect constituent priorities. However, the necessity to raise outrageous amounts of money to campaign has created a bizzaro alternate system of accountability. For example, Ted Cruz' PAC raised $797,000 during the government shutdown while his approval rating plummeted 10 percent among his conservative base, and further among liberals. Under more ordinary circumstances, a 10 percent hit in approval would reflect a crisis-level failure of confidence. In this circumstance, his display of rhetoric and obstruction proved wildly lucrative and successful despite being deeply unpopular. Similarly, Representative Joe Wilson raised $1 million off of his tasteless "you lie" outburst. Money rewards sensationalism at the expense of good governance and statesmanship. Accountability to the voters is obscured by loyalty to the funders.
3) Congress is incapable of dealing with this problem on its own. There are very real systems in place that perpetuate dysfunction. Gerrymandering has created a situation whereby most districts are not competitive between parties. Instead, members race to the far fringes of their party where compromise and collaboration are seen as sign of political weakness. Congress has no capacity to work together except to rename post-offices. There is virtually no chance that, without outside pressure, they will reform their own institution. At the same time, Americans having waning power to pressure their representatives due to the rising influence of money.
4) Congress has betrayed the vision of our founders. Arguably, more than any other political theorist, our government was founded upon the principals of John Locke. We even quoted him, verbatim, in the Declaration of Independence. His message was simple: Those making laws should be immediately subject to those laws. It sounds simple, right? You wouldn't vote to outlaw steak if you were a cattle rancher. That's how representation works, you take a cross-section of people that are representative of the hopes and aspirations of the average person and you let them make self-interested decisions, together. Well, it only works if you have representatives who are truly representative. Unfortunately, we have a congress that is unrecognizable, demographically, to the rest of the U.S. -- in fact, for the first time, a majority of congressional members are now millionaires. They might as well be residents of another country. They are making laws that benefit those similar to their friends and family (the investment class) who look and act nothing like the average American.
5) Now is the time. It's only going to get worse. Each election is exponentially more costly and each congress is more ineffective than the last. Sure, if you push to reform Congress, paid pundits will claim that you are trying to subvert democracy and turn the United States into the People's Islamic Republic of Kenya. They say that already. The reality is that congress has a 10 percent approval rating and Americans will back commonsense reforms and efforts to take money out of politics. None of us feel that we are being well represented.
There is already great work being done. The group Represent Us is working hard to pressure congress to pass the Anti-Corruption Act, which will end these practices of legal bribery and reform lobbying and campaign financing laws. You might find surprising support for eliminating the practice of gerrymandering from republicans who had previously benefited most. Now, they have to contend with the fact that without more moderate districts, the Republican Party will split in two. Less pessimistic republicans might still feel unduly pressured by primary challengers from the right.
The point is that we need you to fight this fight -- even if you lose. This is the challenge of our generation. The country faces immense demands for change. It is hard to consider an institution that does not require large-scale reform in this country -- from the education system to criminal justice, to immigration, welfare... the list goes on. We elected you to make these changes. But, no true reform will ever precede election reform. This can be your legacy.
It is time to stop thinking of congress as an obstacle to change and to start seeing it as the problem itself. Let's get to work.