By Peter Bearse, Independent Candidate NH CD-1
"Talk is cheap" but words have meanings. Talk of change comes easy. Especially now in the midst of a historic political year, however, confusion among people and meanings of the word can be dangerous to our nation's future. Candidates at all levels who like to put a "change" badge on their buckles fail to distinguish between two basic levels of change: superficial and structural, or between changes affecting media-topical issues and reforms of basic institutions.
We can begin to see why most campaign statements speak to "superficial" and "media-topical" issues and confuse reform on the latter (like "reform" of Social Security, energy policy or taxation) as evidence of their commitments to "change." Most politicians, like the people and government institutions they aim to serve, are allergic to risk. Serious attempts to address the need to make major reforms of institutions (like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Federal Reserve or -- heaven forbid! -- Congress itself) are risky -- highly controversial. Why? -- Because they require:
* A vision and strategy for change that involves much more than just an institutional "insiders game"; * Long-term commitments to change (covering multiples of Congressional 2-year terms) by a number and variety of change-agents;
* Willingness and ability of change-agents to take significant risks, especially risks of offending big-money interests or "the powers that be";
* Receptivity of people at all levels, not only public officials but, especially, the public at-large, to opinion leaders and political candidates who think independently and "out of the box;"
* Media who do good investigative journalism and serve as watchdogs for the public interest; and last but not least...
* Good political-institutional leadership.
For example, look at repeated attempts to reform Fannie and Freddie. These go back at least 16 years. In October, 1992, Republican Congressman Jim Leach introduced legislation to create a new regulator for Fannie and Freddie, saying that the two companies were becoming "money machines for the favored few." According to the Washington Post: "On the other side stood Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat...(and so) Congress chose to create a weak regulator, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight" [OFHEO]. As I stated in my Sept. 8th blog, "Fannie, Freddie and the Corruption of Congress," the companies have been "using portions of their excess profits to lobby (Congress) against legislation that would reform the companies..." This statement has been validated by the subsequent (Sept. 14th) Post article.
The failure of institutional change led to the recent crisis that has required the U.S. Government to take control of the companies through a plan that may not succeed. The risks of failure have been shifted to the U.S. taxpayer. Several of the preconditions for institutional change cited above were missing. The missing ingredients led to three basic sets of actors being co-opted away from a real change agenda:
1. Most important, the Congress: Co-opted by big money campaign contributions, extensive lobbying and expensive advertising ($174 million worth) paid by the companies.
2. New company leadership brought to effect change from within, after the companies were found to be "cooking the books" in 2003: Also co-opted by the companies, aided by Congressional politics of good intentions – that the companies should be serving to increase both home ownership and affordable housing nationwide.
3. OFHEO, the regulator: Co-opted, too, with the complicity of Congress.
These point again to Congress as the prime culprit. Many other examples of Congressional failures could be mentioned, including those with respect to energy, NASA and Social Security. Thus, real, basic institutional change in/of Congress should be a leading issue/goal of this election year if the year is to live up to its billing as "historic" in terms of "real change." The prime, driving incentives of Congress are to go along/get along; spend, spend, spend; and get media coverage. These lead to quickie reactions to long-term problems -- not leadership, not risk-taking and not real change. These will lead to continuing crises in a number of crucial areas of concern, not unlike the financial crisis that brought Fannie and Freddie to their knees. We need to be as innovative in adapting our governmental institutions as we are in science and technology, else this age will become the China century, not the American.
It is with no pride of authorship or of my own candidacy that I feel compelled to write this piece. Every Congressional candidate should recognize the need to reform Congress. Unfortunately, I am thus far the only candidate in NH to recognize this and detail a strategy and program to address it. See my "Pledge to Constituents" in www.peterbearseforcongress.com.
PETER BEARSE, Ph.D., Independent Candidate for Congress, NH CD 1, 9/15/08
Peter Bearse is a consulting economist and political activist who is running an independent campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, New Hampshire District 1.