Americans are pretty cynical about politicians. And much of that distrust springs from the professional politician's love of money.
It's not just the outright corruption, though that's certainly bad enough. Congressional approval ratings don't improve when agents find 90 grand tucked away in a sitting congressman's freezer, for example.
But what really eats away at the public is watching interest groups stuff millions of dollars into lawmakers' campaign chests. It's legal, but everyone knows these sponsors expect a legislative return on their investment. And when they get it, it's just another nail into the coffin of public respect for Congress.
No wonder Americans still chuckle at Civil War lawmaker Simon Cameron's wry comment that, "An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought."
Now, some people think the answer is to limit - or even ban - private campaign donations. That view has led to measures like the McCain-Feingold law, but that approach has been both troubling and counterproductive.
For starters, it limits free speech. Moreover, it doesn't work. Each new regulation just sparks a creative way to evade it. The money just keeps flowing, just through different channels. So now we have "soft" money, PACs, "Section 527" groups and the rest - and record-high spending with each new election.
An alternative approach is to improve transparency. We can't, or shouldn't, stop people from sponsoring political speech and the politicians they agree with. Instead, let's make it much easier for Americans to know exactly who sponsors the senator or congressman on C-Span who is advocating the bailout of AIG, or touting a big new highway program.
But how to do that week after week as laws are passed and billions spent? How can any ordinary American keep up?
Well, my Heritage colleague Brian Riedl has a mischievous idea that just might work. His answer? Ape NASCAR.
Just glance at any NASCAR driver in any race and you immediately know who sponsors him. Their logos cover not just his car, but his clothes as well. One look at Jeff Gordon and you know DuPont is rooting for him, and you also know why he drinks Pepsi. Anyone can see why Office Depot wants Tony Stewart to get the checkered flag. And there's no mistaking Viagra's interest in Mark Martin's racing performance.
There's an equally simple way for Americans to know who sponsors a politician, says Riedl. Every time they make a speech on the floor of Congress, or show up to vote on a new program, let's require them to wear a special coat with stickers identifying their sponsors. The size of each sticker should reflect the running total of contributions received from that source. There could be a coat rack in the well of the House, to make it easy. And senators could keep the coats in their desks, ready in an instant.
Rather than sift through campaign contribution reports, a politician's clothes could tell Americans just who sponsors him. Rather than drive campaign money underground, or make it take circuitous routes, the NASCAR solution brings the money out in the open. Then voters can decide if the sponsorship bothers them. If it doesn't, fine. If it does, they have a solution available at the next election.
It would certainly make floor action more colorful.
When House Minority Leader John A. Boehner enters the well to denounce gun control legislation, his blazer could sport a large decal from the National Rifle Association. When Sen. Christopher J. Dodd votes on financial legislation, we would see big, bright stickers on his coat from sponsors like Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. Sen. Charles E. Schumer could show off his Citigroup patch for the cameras, and compare the size of his with Mr. Dodd's.
Or, to give another perspective, the stickers might show total contributions from a particular industry. That would give voters a quick peek at which group of companies has a keen interest in their voting pattern.
So, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank would sport a huge sticker from the securities and investment industry, alongside one about as big from the real estate industry. And Sen. Arlen Specter, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, would boast a "Lawyers/Law Firms" sticker that even short-sighted viewers couldn't miss.
You get the point.
These days it's fashionable for many politicians to show their connection with regular voters by showing up at NASCAR races. Just think how it would help full disclosure and voter knowledge if they didn't just get pictured next to NASCAR drivers, but dressed like them.
Stuart M. Butler, Ph.D., is Vice President for Domestic and Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the Washington Times