Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Politicians-In-Firesuits Thing

Over the years, in various places, I've heard various people put forward a proposal that politicians wear the logos of their donors, like a NASCAR firesuit. I remember first seeing it written by Dave Barry in his book Dave Barry Hits Below The Beltway; it may have come earlier, but that's where I first know of it. In other early mentions, it was used in a similarly jocular manner. However, as the years went by, money pervaded elections more and more until finally the dam broke with Citizens United, and rhetoric in all levels of society became increasingly jumentous, subsequent proposals became progressively angrier and are now only just short of dead serious.

So maybe it's time we took the NASCAR firesuit proposal and looked at it seriously. Its heart is in the right place, so let's try to flesh it out, clean it up, and see if we can make something out of it that we can seriously put forward.

First off, since the idea is to expose for easy public viewing who has "bought" someone, it's only going to do to put the titular logos where they can be easily seen. The most common method by far of viewing a politician is straight-on, while he or she is standing behind a lectern. Which means any ad that is going to be seen enough to matter must be placed in that region. You're not going to get much use out of sticking a BP logo on someone's sock. The logos must also be large enough so that each of them can be made out by someone watching an average-size television. That limits the number of ads that can be displayed. A person can have a million donors, but you can't put a million logos and names on that person's clothing. They'd never fit, especially not on the top-front area. Even if they all made it on, the firesuit would be a jumbled mess. By seeing everything, you see nothing. You'll maybe get ten to fit without problems arising, so that's what we'll go with-- the ten largest donors.

We should also consider the cost of the firesuit itself. Simpson Racing has them starting in price at $110. Each. Also consider that you would have to update each one, every quarterly reporting period, to reflect the new top ten. That's going to get very expensive, very quickly.

I personally see no reason why the firesuit's job can't be handled cheaper and more efficiently by a safety vest, available for $5 a pop. (Besides, it'd be a lot easier to wear in summer. Much less heatstroke-y.) All you would have to do is attach ten slots to each where you could insert laminated tags, like a baseball card album, and you're good to go. I imagine each slot being numbered 1-10, with the bigger donors getting the lower numbers, positioned closer to the candidate's face, like so:

1 2
3 4
5 6
7 8
9 10

Next question: who gets the vests? Obviously, any incumbent or challenger for a seat in Congress. That's the whole idea of the proposal. But who else? We'll expand it to include registered candidates for governor and President. (Though we'll allow the President himself to go vestless when on official, non-campaign business. We don't need him making a speech in front of the United Nations or something while festooned with the logos of Bank of America and United Healthcare and six different PACs. That's just needlessly embarrassing ourselves.) I'll stop there because after that you start to get into cost concerns quickly; the next level down is state legislatures and that's a lot of people. But, if you've looked at Wisconsin lately, you may consider it worth the cost and if so, go for it.

After each quarterly reporting period, everyone will get an envelope from the FEC containing their new tags for the quarter and instructions on where on the vest each one goes. The vests, we'll say, must be worn to every legislative session, signing ceremony, stump speech, town hall, or other campaign event or official function. You also must have all 10 tags in their proper place. (We'll allow them the dignity of being inaugurated vestless. And if some random constituent spots them at Burger King eating a Whopper and starts asking them stuff, they can go ahead and chat.)

The logos and names that go on the tags will be determined on an all-time basis, from throughout your entire political career, with dollar amounts adjusted for inflation. (When someone donated, though, will be how we determine ties for placement; we'll weight things toward more recent donations. If it's still a tie, we'll go alphabetically.) We will include in this dollar count the value of ads that can be tied to benefit one specific candidate. (The existence of third-party candidates may make this more difficult when they are present, as they create a weird sort of deniability, but it's better than nothing.) This means any PAC that thinks they can get away with delaying disclosure until after an election, that then got into the top 10 with those contributions, will show up on vests like a scarlet letter as soon as they reveal, and will remain there until ten other groups spend more and knock them off the vest. Dead companies are also eligible; after all, if a company went Enron and collapsed after cooking the books, you'd want to look around and see who's wearing an Enron logo. If you've self-financed enough to put yourself into your own top ten, that counts as well. You'll go on your own vest.

Just in case someone chooses not to wear the vest, we'll also make this information searchable online. You'd be able to search by person and by donor, so as to see how deep a given group's pockets are and who they've dug their claws deepest into.

Violations will not be a set dollar amount. It's too easy to game. It's too easy to "buy" a violation through thinking that the cost is "worth it". Instead of dollars, we'll fine by percent. That way, it hurts everybody equally. Finland does this with a lot of their penal code, something called a day-fine. Let's go with a violation for not wearing the vest being charged at 1% of receipts newly announced over the past quarter. This is not the same as the money you actually got. This is the money we just found out about. (Again, we are hedging against PAC's holding off on announcing until after an election. If they ever, ever, EVER mention their donations during a politician's entire political career, the very next quarter, it goes on their record.)

Now, 1% may not sound like much, but no matter how much money a politician takes in during a campaign, every cent of it is aimed towards winning that election. It goes out as soon as it comes in. It's designed to. Being made to dig an extra 1% out of the budget, which you may have to get from people who just found out that their money may not be going towards helping you win but rather towards helping you pay your fine for being stupid and/or deceitful, that's going to make some wallets close until the fine is paid. And given that they would close just as you need them to open up extra wide, that's going to cause some problems. Additional violations will add up quickly. If you get up to a 10th violation, your campaign budget will have taken a major hit, both from self-inflicted money problems and from voters wondering just why you're so ashamed to display "who bought you." Misordering the tags, while still a violation, isn't nearly as bad. We'll charge that at a quarter of a percent.

I suppose since we've gone this far already, we might as well talk colors too. Let's just agree that it would be an assault on all our eyeballs to have everyone in bright yellow and orange. That said, there are three ways we can go with this:

1. Politicians may choose their own colors. (One solid color per vest, though. No campaign logos. No McCain star, no Obama sunrise O, none of that. And no gaudy technicolor things designed to obscure the logos' prominence.)
2. Everyone gets the same neutral color- gray, perhaps.
3. Everyone is color-coded by party: Democrats in blue, Republicans in red, Greens in green, Libertarians in yellow, independents in gray, everyone else in whatever color it is they pick. (Non-partisan races, you ask? You forget, those are not the races that would see vests in play.)

There is, I imagine, a debate to be had between 2 and 3- is it better to avoid formalizing the political team-sport mentality more than it already is, or better to give low-information voters a better chance to tell people apart. (The people picking 1 likely don't think color matters much.) I'll leave that debate to the comments section if anyone wants to pick it up.

A couple other odds and ends concerning vest conduct:

*Spare vests and tags are available. They do have to be able to wash them, and hey, someone might lose a tag under the couch or in the laundry or whatever. If you need more, just ask.
*You don't have to wear the vest outside U.S. borders. We seriously do not need that kind of international incident. So if you're willing to do all your campaigning to American voters in Canada just to get out of wearing the vest, well, shine on, you crazy diamond.
*Because the vest is required apparel, we are going to have to make it a crime to yank the vest or any of the tags off the politician in an attempt to take them out of action. Should someone actually do that, the politician will be permitted to go vestless until they have a reasonable chance to put on a new one.

Is this a free-speech violation? No. It's a dress code. Dress codes happen all the time. It is, however, the weirdest dress code we'd be likely to enact anytime soon.

But until we can get ourselves back to the point where this all returns to being a simple silly joke, perhaps it's something to consider.

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