Ohio’s government has become a corrupt hive of scum and villainy. A pay-to-play state where the success of bills depends on how deep the pockets of its backers are and the legislation is written by lobbyists. Super PACs spend top dollar to push special interests and 501(c)(4)s act as opaque, dark money groups that obscure financial backers (as happened in the Householder scandal, an illegal, certainly questionable practice). Larry Householder is the 2nd Republican Speaker of the House to be embroiled in a corruption scandal in the past two years. Millions of dollars are being spent to buy political favors and political dynasties are being forged from it. Governor DeWine’s daughter received considerable support from a mysterious Super PAC in her primary (she lost) and Householder’s son received thousands from Householder’s allies in his run.
In July, the machinations surrounding the disastrous First Energy bailout were revealed to be part of the largest bribery scandal in Ohio history. A scandal that Householder was at the center of and which reached throughout Ohio politics. That such outrageous and frankly blatant corruption has been permitted to fester in Ohio government is emblematic of a deeply broken political system. If Ohio’s government has any hope of gaining a semblance of legitimacy and to be capable of restoring Ohio’s economy and providing for the general welfare of all Ohioans in this current crisis, it will have to change, become more transparent, and crackdown on any and every hint of conflicts of interest.
The (fairly) great Adam Smith, father of economics and a deeply misunderstood figure (he thought government has great responsibility in providing for the less fortunate and used the phrase “invisible hand” like twice in hundreds of pages of writing,), warned vehemently against the inclusion of business interests into government. Essentially arguing that if you let businessmen into government you’re a feckless idiot.
“The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market, and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can only serve to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens. The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”
-Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
Yeah, it’s a long quote, but it’s good! The most insightful part, what every voter should listen to from, again, THE FATHER OF ECONOMICS: Don’t trust any proposal from businessmen because businessmen historically have “both deceived and oppressed [the public]”. Anyone who thinks businessmen are of a quality to lead our government, that they can be entrusted to govern fairly and equitably, or that they should be consulted in the legislative process, is a damn fool. And that’s not me saying it, that’s Adam Smith, the father of economics. Because the interest of businessmen, “is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public,”.
In Ohio, we have quite a few businessmen in office and yes, they have voted themselves tax breaks. These people regulate their own industries, they have every ability to rewrite the rules to serve themselves and all we can rely on to stop them is their own sense of propriety. Frankly, I’m not comfortable with that. What’s more, when they’re not writing the rules for their own industries, they’re generally farming out the bill writing process to the lobbyists of other industries. It’s a disgusting, travesty. That we as Ohioans have allowed our state to fall into the hands of people of such ill repute, such little morality, is an absolute disgrace.
But like for all of Ohio’s multitudinous problems, I have some solutions. Unfortunately, these solutions are just a start and not nearly enough!
Transparent Political Spending
There’s a large number of organizations spending big money on Ohio politics but we don’t know who is funding them or there is a substantial time lag in knowing who is funding them. Examples include the abuse of 501(c)(4)’s which do not have to report their contributors because they are ostensibly social welfare organizations whose primary purpose is not political (but that’s often a lie) and Super PACs advertising and advocating for candidates and positions but are not permitted to coordinate with candidates (but often that’s a lie).
We’ll require more transparency from all organizations that spend money on politics in Ohio. If you think you know what is best for the people of Ohio to the tune of millions of dollars, the people should know who you are. With better transparency laws, Larry Householder would not have been able to execute his bribery scheme or fund the bailout of Marilyn John’s primary campaign through his 501(c)(4) Generation Now that funded his Super PAC, Growth & Opportunity PAC, which sent vicious mailers against John’s opponent to people in Richland County.
In the interests of even greater transparency and really to ease the process for candidates, donors, and government watchdogs, Ohio should establish a system for instantaneous campaign contribution reporting. All contributions to a campaign committee should pass through Ohio’s reporting system, be logged, and be publicly available in searchable format by the time it reaches a candidate’s bank account. No “mistakes” or “forgetting to report” and no waiting until reporting deadlines to know who is funding politicians in our state.
Reduce Maximum Donation Amounts
How much do candidates really need to run? Why should our elections be decided by the strength of a candidate’s ad buy rather than the strength of a candidate’s character or policies? I’m not saying we cap total campaign spending, money is speech or whatever the Supreme Court decided (I’m not sure that should really allow deep-pocketed citizens to have way more sway over our democracy than everyone else but… such is life), but we can certainly reduce the max contribution an individual or organization can give to a campaign.
Look through candidates’ financial disclosure reports (seriously, wild stuff) and you’ll see that often a candidate relies disproportionately on a handful of big, max donors (~$13,000) and large transfers from the state party which often acts as a sort of clearinghouse, taking incredibly large donations and redistributing them to their candidates. This is a recipe for corruption. When candidates takes large sums of money, when they are funded by a small cadre of individuals and interest groups, there is the inevitable perception of a conflict of interest, of quid-pro-quo.
To limit the overreliance on a few big donors, Ohio campaign finance law must be changed to reduce the maximum donation from any source down to something closer to say $2,000 sound good? With reduced district sizes the money becomes less important anyway and direct outreach more important. The way it should be.
If we’re taking away funding sources by limit PACs, limiting dark money groups, and reducing maximum donations, well that creates a really unfair advantage for those people who can self fund to the tune of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cut that out! We don’t want just a bunch of rich people to be able to run for office. The rules should be you cannot give to your own campaign more than anyone else can. $2,000, that’s it!
Now if we’re really going to level the playing field and make our political system serve democracy and consensus building, there’s a simple answer: Democracy Dollars! Far from an original Sam Grady idea, it’s quickly gaining popularity across the country.
It’s really quite simple. Everyone in Ohio gets essentially a digital voucher valued at, let’s say $100. This voucher is good for a donation to any campaign for office in Ohio. Paid for by Ohio, a small price for a functioning, democratic government. Suddenly it becomes a lot less important for a candidate to secure those big, special interests donations, and a lot more important to appeal to a great many of their constituents. And if they don’t, their constituents are likely to take that money to the candidate’s opponent. Politics is a market and every voter should have a say.
No More Lobbyists, Ohio Has Progressed Beyond The Need For Lobbyists.
Okay, so we can’t actually get rid of lobbyists. They do play a role in advancing causes, informing, and really getting government to act on important concerns. And yet, have they gone too far? Yes. Lobbyists essentially are writing the laws down in Columbus and it’s devolved into outright bribery. We’re going to cut down on that, make it way more expensive for them (bribing a majority of 225 representatives is way more expensive than bribing a majority of 99 representatives.), and also ban representatives from becoming paid lobbyists in the future.
A Motivated, Conscientious, Informed Electorate
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “Good government cannot be written in stone,” (there, I’ve definitely said it at least once). We live and work within a constantly evolving and changing environment. Regulators are in a constant race against those they are empowered to regulate. Whatever adjustments we make to our government, all our attempts to root out corruption will prove folly in the long run as politicians and their corruptors adapt to the new rules and discover workarounds.
America’s founders did not devise a brilliant system, they devised a compromise that could hold a fledgling nation together when other forces were working to drive it apart. It worked but only because of the sacrifice and good will of the people that made a dysfunctional system function long enough. But that dysfunction has once again caught up with us. Not because the system is fundamentally flawed (it’s certainly not great), but because we have lost our good will to our fellow humans, we have come to put partisanship and “winning” above all else and it is leading to our doom.
The only means by which we can hope to continue a free, just, and democratic society long into the future is if we, as a people, will work for it. We must remain vigilant against the demagogues that inspire fear and hatred of others. We must remain vigilant against those who would try to mislead and spread false information. We must recognize in those around us our shared humanity, that we are indeed real people with histories and people who rely on us and not just names on a screen or a faceless “other”. We must seek to good and be good.
As citizens of this republic, it is our duty to be informed, to be discerning, to take responsibility for our government and the actions of our leaders who WE elect, no one else. Because as much money is floating around, as much as the rules favor the two parties or more often one party, as much as we claim it is out of our hands, that it is everyone else’s fault, the undeniable reality is that we are a democracy and it is solely at our discretion that our leaders are elected and act.
Sure, we can see ads, get misleading mailers, be inundated with fake news, or moved by a savvy politician. But no one can actually buy votes, none of this can force us to vote one way or another. All this shit, every terrible thing that happens in this country, every bad thing our government has done, everything our government fails to do, it is entirely on us.