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The Importance of a Healthy Committee System

by Dan Sullivan

The role of the committee system

Thomas Jefferson was right in saying that electoral democracy only works well at the local level, and that government power has to be diffused. "Democracy" does not mean elections; it means the people rule the government. Indeed, the Greeks, who invented democracy, did not even have elections. (They had town-hall meetings and a Senate that was chosen by lottery.)

As government becomes centralized, it also becomes more dominated by special interests, who can afford to send lobbyists to the state and national capitals. Although ordinary people can talk to their municipal and school officials, they increasingly find out that these officials are prevented from rational actions by state and federal mandates. Our government has become undemocratic because power is concentrated at higher levels, and electoral democracy works best at the local level.

Our political parties also work best if power is diffused, and that is what the committee system is supposed to accomplish. At its best, the party committee system is the eyes and ears of the party. That is, each committee person not only represents the party to the people in his voting district, but represents those people to the party. The committee member is responsible for endorsing candidates who reflect the interests of the voters in his or her district and the principles of justice that serve voters in all districts.

The decline of the committee system

As the power of party committees has declined in the United States, the importance of media power, money power and incumbency has grown. People think of committee people as part of a "machine" that tries to tell them how to vote. While there is a kernel of truth to that accusation, I believe committee endorsements are more reliable than advertising, media hype, and top-down endorsements. After all, registered voters of each party elect their committee members in their voting district. Voters do not get to choose which special interests fund campaigns or run newspapers and broadcast stations. Even the endorsements by high-ranking officials are are indirectly endorsements from special interests and media moguls if those officials are beholden to those interests.

Your most important vote

Although more voters pay more attention to presidential elections than to any other election, a single vote is less likely to affect the outcome of a Presidential election than of any other. Millions of people vote for each President, and the difference between the winner and runner-up in any one state is seldom within tens of thousands of votes. At the other extreme, a committee race is often decided by a mere handful of votes when more than one person runs. Yet few voters pay attention to committee races, and even fewer can tell you who their elected party committee members are.

In a healthy committee system, people elect good committee members and trust them to get good local candidates elected. Then good local officials help bet good candidates elected to state office, and good state officials help get good national candidates elected, including Presidents. Even today, Presidential candidates rarely win a state primary election without the endorsement of a high-ranking office holder in that state, such as a governor or U.S. Senator.

This means that voters who choose good committee people set wheels in motion to give us better candidates at all levels, right up to Presidents. That makes your vote for a committee person your most important vote of all.

The role of money

Special-interest money in elections has become a major scandal. The higher up the political ladder one goes, the more each candidate spends per vote, and the more likely that the candidate who spends the most money will win. Yet committee candidates rarely spend more than enough to distribute a photocopied hand-out to each voter. Rather than depend on money, committee candidates win votes from their neighbors based on their personal reputations, and campaign directly to those voters who don't already know them. Getting good committee people and then getting the public to trust their endorsements weakens the influence of special-interest money.

The role of media

Voters who would never let a committee member "tell him who to vote for" often trust media personalities to tell them how office holders are performing, and even trust them to recommend candidates. Some candidates often boost their public approval by playing up to the media, scoring points on superficial stories that make for good sound-bites or good copy, but not necessarily for good government.

Also, media outlets are often biased toward their advertisers' agendas. Perhaps advertising bias was not so bad when the advertisements were directed at selling products to the consumer.

Today, however, many advertisements are directed at political influence. For example, Pennsylvanians are bombarded with advertisements by Range Resources and Consolidation Coal, neither of which sell products directly to consumers. The point of these advertisements is to tell us that it is in our interest (and to tell media people it is in their interest) to oppose taxes, regulations or other impediments on them as they plunder the earth for their their own profit. Similarly, AT&T ads tell us how wonderful it will be when they take over T-Mobile. These ads are not aimed at cell phone purchasers, but at influencing the Justice Department, which rejected the merger, and the Supreme Court,  which is hearing their appeal. Their ads are designed to distract us from real consumer questions, such as how it can possibly be in our interest for the cell phone company with the worst record of customer satisfaction to buy out the company with the best record.

A more serious issue arises when a media outlet has agendas beyond the media itself. For decades, the owner of the Allentown Morning Call also owned most of the parking lots in Allentown's prime commercial districts. The paper not only denounced proposals to change from a property tax to a land value tax, but denounced anyone who supported that proposal. After the paper was sold to people who had no financial interest in the parking lots, the reform was passed with the paper's endorsement. Allentown home owners paid less, and Allentown's economic decline was reversed, but only after that parking lot owner retired and sold the newspaper.

A better example of media's conflict of interest is subsidies for professional sports facilities. When Kevin McClatchy bought the Pittsburgh Pirates, he immediately set out to get the city to build him a brand new ball park at taxpayer expense, threatening to move the Pirates if he did not get his way. His own family's financial empire came from the ownership of newspapers, beginning with the Sacramento Bee in the 1800s. McClatchy quickly sold an "undisclosed interest" in the Pirates to the owners of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for a few million dollars and their integrity. The newspaper, which had previously ridiculed the idea of taxpayers building the Pirates a new ball park, suddenly rallied behind it.

In Pittsburgh, a small weekly "giveaway" newspaper, had run several exposÚs on how the Pirates had been weaseling out of payments toward Three Rivers Stadium and out of loans the city had made to them when they had been in financial trouble. As the campaign for the new ball park began, the brother of an owner of the Philadelphia 76ers (a professional basketball team) purchased In Pittsburgh for a million dollars, which was about four times its estimated value. He then fired almost all of the editors and writers, and the replacement staff wrote cover stories about how smart it was to raise taxes for "regional assets" like the ball park.

KDKA TV and KDKA radio, "the voice of the Pirates," also hyped the subsidies relentlessly. "The brass" instructed talk show hosts to bring McClatchy and other pro-subsidy guests on to their shows and prohibited them from hosting opponents. I was a leader of a coalition opposing the subsidies, and their most popular talk show host called us to apologize for his bosses' behavior, and to tell us that, if we called in, he would be sure we got a fair hearing.

All of this is on top of the normal pro-sports media bias. It is well known that sports pages sell more newspapers and that people watch news shows to get the sports rundown at the end if there is a home team in that sports market.

Most of all, the media is biased toward whatever the public wants to hear at the moment. For several years at the beginning of the Afghan and Iraq wars, major media outlets suppressed many scandals, such as how evidence of "weapons of mass destruction," had been fabricated, how Halliburton and other companies were profiteering off the war, etc., because war fever had swept the public. Media leaders feared that criticisms of the war would be seen as unpatriotic. Once people became interested in knowing more about the scandals, they reversed their bias and flooded the airwaves with stories embarrassing to the military effort.

These are but a few relatively clear examples of media bias. They pale beside the influence of conglomerates that own television and radio networks. As media ownership is consolidated under fewer and fewer owners, and as these owners are increasingly multi-national conglomerates with more important agendas than delivering quality news, they become less and less trustworthy as guides to ordinary citizens.

The point is that media hype is less trustworthy than recommendations of committee people. Whatever faults the committee system has, committee people are spread throughout the population, have the ability to stay in touch with their neighbors, and want their own neighborhoods to thrive.

The role of top-down endorsements

As I noted earlier, the higher the elected office, the more a candidate must depend on special-interest money to get him elected. Also, the higher the office, the more contact the office holder has with special-interest lobbyists and the less he has with voters. Even in cases where holders of high offices are not corrupted outright, they are still more exposed to the perspectives of special interests and less exposed to the voices of common sense.

While it aids the democratic process for local officials to endorse state and federal candidates, it does not help so much when state and federal officials endorse local candidates. Again, the most local office holders of all are the party committee member, and his or her recommendation is less subject to bias than the recommendation of higher office holders.

Myths about machines

The popular belief is that government employees who become committee people are not independent citizens, but cogs in a machine, doing the bidding of party bosses. However, most government employees are civil servants, hired and promoted based on objective criteria. Whatever the pitfalls of civil service, it keeps public employees far more independent than they were during the real machine era. Even those who do not have civil service protection endorse candidates by secret ballot, and are free to vote against the interests of a boss whose interests conflict with the those of the people, the neighborhood, the party or the committee person's own sense of morality.

This is not to say that government employees do not have a pro-government biases, but only that they see government from the bottom, "warts and all." Compare this bias to that of special interests, media pundits and high officials, and the bias of committee people seems more trustworthy.

One candidate (whom I happen to hold in high regard for his integrity, if not for some of his views), declared that he would not accept campaign contributions from any government employees. Yet he did accept contributions from employees and owners of corporations that got tax subsidies and government contracts. I do not think he was being hypocritical, but only biased. Like many voters, he saw political machines as being about government employees, ignoring the role of contractors and licensed monopolies.

The fact is that many committee people are quite ethical, and certainly more ethical than higher elected officials, if only because they are under less pressure to  be unethical. They would be even more ethical if we the public paid more attention to the committee system.

Contract patronage vs. wage patronage

The most notorious political machines in American history were based on contract patronage far more than on wage patronage. New York's Tammany Hall, the most notorious machine in our history, lived off of kickbacks from contractors, land speculators and licensed monopolies. The employees of these contractors and monopolies had no protections from being arbitrarily fired, and ballots were not secret. The employee of a government contractor or licensed monopoly could lose his job by voting against his boss's choice. The same progressives who brought about the secret ballot also brought about civil service. While public employee unions encouraged people to support particular candidates, private contractors forced their non-union employees to support candidates and could fire them for contrived reasons if they did not go along.

They still do so today. Election finance records often show a page or more contributions from upper-level employees, all for the same amount, and all submitted at the same time. This is nothing more than laundered corporate giving. Recent court decisions that allow corporations to give directly (at least in federal elections) make the matter even worse.

Corporate roots of corruption

People often think of corruption in terms of favoritism in hiring and public employees (policemen, building inspectors, etc.) taking bribes and kickbacks. However, where these small abuses occur there is usually a bigger, more institutionalized corruption at the top, involving entrenched interests controlling the highest elected officials.

Often this corruption does not even involve anything illegal, as laws are tailored to the desires of the interests in control. This was the point of the essay, "Honest Graft and Dishonest Graft," by famed Tammany Hall boss, Congressman George Washington Plunkitt.

Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I've made a big fortune out of the game, and I'm gettin' richer every day, but I've not gone in for dishonest graft -  blackmailin' gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc. - and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.

There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin': "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."

Just let me explain by examples. My party's in power in the city, and it's goin' to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I'm tipped off, say, that they're going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that place makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before....

Ain't it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course it is. Well, that's honest graft.

- William L. Riordon, Plunkitt Of Tammany Hall,  Chapter 1, "Honest Graft and Dishonest Graft"

The official historian of Pittsburgh's centennial described its Magee-Flinn machine as "the most cold-blooded and vicious political ring that ever ruled an American city." Magee and Flinn owned the streetcar monopoly at a time when city transportation was mostly by streetcar. The Flinn machine was finally brought down in 1910 by a scandal in which 41 people were indicted, including the chief executives of six major banks.

The corrupt Quay machine, which dominated Pennsylvania, and especially Philadelphia, was also based on railroads, streetcars and other companies that provided jobs based on loyalty to the machine.

In the State ring are the great corporations, the Standard Oil Company, Cramp's Ship Yard, and the steel companies with the Pennsylvania Railroad at their head, and all the local transportation and other public utility companies following after. They get franchises,  privileges, exemptions, etc.; they have helped finance Quay through deals; the Pennsylvania paid Martin, Quay said once, a large yearly salary; the Cramps get contracts to build United States ships, and for years have been begging for a subsidy on home-made ships. The officers, directors, and stockholders of these companies, with their friends, their bankers, and their employees are of the organization. Better still, one of the local bosses of Philadelphia told me, he could always give a worker a job with these companies, just as he could in a city department, or in the mint, or post office.

- Lincoln Steffens, "Philadelphia, Corrupt and Contented,"McClure's volume 21, May to October, 1903, page 254

In city after city, Steffens described the efforts of ordinary citizens to get out from under the power of corporate corruption. In his day, it was railroads, transit companies and banks. In our day, it is mostly subsidized developers (especially in cities), land speculators looking for new highways (especially in rural areas), and banks. Government employees play a minor role in machine politics, and civil-service employees can actually protect us by exposing corruption.

Even our modern scandals have involved the use of private corporations to crush whistle-blowing public servants. Pittsburgh's Allegheny County hired Sabre Systems, not merely to reassess county real estate badly, but to end the career of a whistle-blowing assessor who had a seniority of 83. Sabre Systems laid off 85 assessors, after which they produced a spectacularly erroneous reassessment.  However, their contract was designed to protect them from accountability.

Top county officials in both parties were involved in approving Sabre Systems' actions and in either hiring or rehiring the corrupt assessment official who engineered the Sabre Systems disaster. As a result, Sabre's bad assessments are still in force with little modification, and the whistle blower (and 82 other civil servants) have not been compensated for their improper firing.

A strong committee system, representing every neighborhood and in touch with what is going on in government, could have made politicians reluctant to abuse both public employees and the taxpaying public, or to under assess some neighborhoods at the expense of other neighborhoods.

Rebuilding the committee system

There are things committee chairs and ordinary committee people can do, things activists and civic leaders can do, and things the public can do to make the committee system both more effective and ethical, more purposeful and powerful, and more trustworthy and trusted. The party that does this will become stronger in general elections, and the committee people who do this will become stronger within the party.

Yet the key is to focus on being better, not stronger. Strength based on virtue will continue to grow, while strength based on power-seeking will self-destruct. It is in the long-term interest of committee people, the public, and the party leaders to create a healthy, virtuous committee system.

What committee people can do

The first thing committee people can do is interact with people in their own voting districts. Knocking on a few doors every weekend is good, or have volunteers distribute fliers inviting citizens to come to a local get-together

At the get-together, committee members can introduce themselves, meet and greet their constituents, and listen respectfully to anyone who has concerns about their neighborhood, their municipality, school district, county, state and country. Hosts should have hand-outs that tell people who their party committee people are, who their state committee people are, and who their elected officials are. These handouts should include addresses, email addresses and phone numbers. (Committee people who do not want to give out home numbers should be sure to give people some way to reach them.) Very few people will attend these, but they will be the people who care. Some of them might volunteer to help with future projects.

The event could be funded by  the party or by a local official, but it is best to have pot-luck dinners in which voters support the committee people and each other, rather than the party supporting the voters. Although more voters will turn out for free hot dogs, commitment will actually be stronger among voters who feel that they have contributed to the process. Besides, the goal is to make elected officials and the party feel loyal to the committee people and the voters, rather than the other way around. Freebies that flow from the top down make committee people and voters feel loyal to whoever paid for the freebies. It is sad to think of people giving their loyalty for a hot dog.

Elected government officials who also hold committee offices should resign those offices and let others serve. This implies no disrespect to the elected officials. Rather, it respects the difference between the job of governing and the job of representing the people to those who govern. Elected officials who trust their committees will let those committees do their jobs without interference from above.

Committee members from both parties can cooperate in these projects, and committee people from neighboring voting districts can join together for combined events. Still, it is important that voters interact with committee people in their own party and their own districts. In joint efforts, name tags should identify the party affiliation and voting district, not only of each committee member, but of each attendee.

Ward chairs, party leaders and public officials should not attend these events unless they are called upon to answer to the committee people and the voters. Even then, they should do this at the beginning of the event and then leave. The point is for voters to discuss their ideas with each other and with their own to committee people. Then the committee people can discuss what they have learned with those who hold higher positions. The party becomes a vehicle for bottom-up influence, which is the essence of democracy.

What party leaders can do

In Pennsylvania, each municipality has a ward chair, vice chair, secretary and treasurer in each party. Large municipalities might also have these officers for each ward, and the county also has these officers.

These officers should preside rather than dictate, and should find ways to maximize the influence of their committee people. During the primary elections, they should host forums for the candidates, in which the committee people formulate their concerns and appoint one or two of their members to seriously interrogate candidates on these concerns.

They should also hold get-togethers for committee people similar to those committee people hold for citizens. Just as the role of committee people is to listen to citizens, so is the role of the party leaders to listen to committee people. In that way, the bottom-up model of democratic process is extended. Food at the meetings should be provided by the committee people themselves, either as a pot-luck or through fund-raising from outside the officer structure. There are better things the county committee can spend money on.

County committees should sponsor professionally run effectiveness training sessions for committee people. These sessions should focus, not only on how to sell the party's agenda to the voters, but on how to help voters to bring their own agendas to the party. County websites should list all of their party's committee people and give contact information.

Each municipality (and school district) should also have a party platform. The county should have a platform that is judged by its compatibility with local platforms, and the state platform should be compatible with county platforms.

National party platforms are often political footballs for interest groups, and are out of sync with the concerns of ordinary voters and local party members. This would be harder to do if there were also platforms at state, county and local levels. Conflicts between platforms at different levels are actually good things, because they keep higher levels aware of the need to stay in step with local constituencies.

What citizens can do

Find your committee people and introduce yourself. In Pennsylvania (and in most states), there is one committee man and one committee woman from each party in each voting district. You will find some of them at the polls on election day, at least during busier hours. Your party's county committee office should be able to tell you how to reach your committee person. County election departments can also tell you who your committee people are and what their addresses are. Talk to your committee people about your concerns, and also offer to help them reach other voters in the district.

Power-seekers are eager to find candidates to run against incumbents, but it is healthier to reason patiently with incumbent committee people and only run against them as a last resort. While factionalism based on honest differences of philosophy is good for a party, factionalism based on power-seeking rivalries is destructive.

Also, if you come out of nowhere and defeat an incumbent who has the respect of his fellow committee members, you will be badly handicapped in working with them as a team member. On the other hand, if you make yourself known by helping him and the other committee members accomplish things, you will have influence even if you are not an elected committee member.  You will also be viewed favorably if the committee seat becomes available, and you will even be respected if you later run against the incumbent.

Local political clubs

Committee people and ordinary citizens can participate together in local political clubs. The clubs can be partisan, bi-partisan or, ideally, multi-partisan or non-partisan. That is, people from minor parties, or even with no party affiliation, should be able to participate. These clubs can focus primarily on local issues, but can also sponsor forums on regional, state and national issues.

What interest groups should do

Even legitimate, seemingly public-interest groups are often guilty of relying too much on media, money, and connections with high-ranking officials. This often leads them to tweak their agendas to either win or at least avoid alienating these partners. The tweaking, in turn, causes the public interest to be compromised. It is important that interest groups focus on taking their message to local committee people in a way that requires less money, media and political influence than what is required for selling their agendas in conventional ways.Representatives of local interest groups should talk and listen to committee people and members of local political clubs, and should adjust their agendas accordingly.

Issue forums and debates

Local political clubs can host public forums and debates, especially if the clubs are either non-partisan or multi-partisan. Or, party committees can jointly sponsor forums, agreeing on neutral moderators. Representatives of interest groups can participate in these forums, but should not be allowed to dominate them.

Power vs. reason

The  bottom line is that the country's best interests are better served by reason than by power struggles. Regardless of ideology, people at the grass roots are  more interested in advancing those best interests than in winning power struggles. As one looks further up the political ladder, one finds that people are increasingly focused on power as opposed to reason. It doesn't matter much whether power-seekers rise to the top or whether they find themselves forced to consider power relationships in order to stay at the top. Either way, reason is best served by bringing the debate back to the grass-roots level.

It is unlikely that the average voter will ever pay close enough attention to be able to intelligently choose government officials wisely. However, committee people strike an interesting balance. Although they are interested in politics enough to be involved, their overall interests are not very different from those of their neighborhoods, they are dispersed throughout all communities, and they are best able to communicate face-to-face with average citizens, without money, media power or the privileges of incumbency getting in the way.

Until there are fundamental changes in our democratic process, I believe that the best hope for ordinary citizens lies in building strong relationships with party committee people, and in good committee people playing prominent roles in getting good candidates nominated and elected.

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