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Politician Report Cards: Consumer Protection

 

Background

Politicians routinely advance consumer protection by requiring disclosure statements for a broad range of products and services, for example, truth-in-lending statements from banks, nutritional labels on packaged foods, warranties and disclosures on household appliances, and prospectuses for mutual funds.

It seems that one of the only things for which politicians have not yet required disclosure statements is themselves. Yet, in terms of consumer protection, this would be one of the areas of greatest need, and greatest consumer vulnerability, regardless of one's partisan inclinations.

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The political marketplace is perilous. Our system takes a "caveat emptor" attitude with regard to the choice of our politicians. But, democracy would not suffer with the injection of a little more accountability. In fact, it might just be what is needed to reinvigorate the electorate's faith in government. Not "getting what they paid for" is a common complaint of the voters. Low voter turnout percentages, increasing disenfranchisement and disillusionment, and a popular sentiment in many elections that "it doesn't make a difference" are among its outgrowths. Drawing a clearer link between what was promised and what was delivered may be what is required to reach out to the disillusioned.


Ideas / Solutions

To fill this void, the creation of a non-partisan Office of Consumer Protection in Politics (OCPP) at the state level could generate disclosure statements pertaining to candidates for Congress, statewide offices, the state legislature, and other major offices. The statements would be completed a few months in advance of each election, be updated monthly thereafter, and be accessible on the Internet, as well as being included with voter information materials. The disclosure statements for Presidential candidates would be formulated by a collaboration of a number of state OCPPs, perhaps shifting the responsibility among OCPPs every four years. State OCPPs could require similar statements for local elections.

The statements would present side-by-side analyses of what each candidate promised and what they delivered in each of their recent elections, regardless of whether their earlier election was for the office they are currently seeking. Each statement would also assess the accuracy of the candidates' past and current public comments and other representations, including how well their estimates, projections, and analyses of the status of affairs and future status of affairs were, and are, supported by the facts. Statements would review economic and budgetary projections made in the candidate's previous State of the State, State of the Union, or legislative speeches. For example, did the budget deficit actually get cut in half in three years as promised?

The statements would identify areas in which a candidate has made conflicting statements. For example, in the case of a candidate who had advocated for personal responsibility and states' rights, and also advocated for Federal legislation that imposed governmental roles on personal decision-making and life choices, the OCPP would highlight the conflicting positions. The statements could also provide objective analyses of the candidates' accomplishments in recent years, and the matters for which the candidate takes credit. Finally, it could offer a side-by-side analysis of all of the major candidates on certain pivotal issues of the day.

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In addition to the statements, states could delegate supplementary functions to the OCPPs. In particular, OCPPs could be given the authority to craft campaign guidelines, both the traditional sort, such as spending restrictions, and non-traditional types, such as prohibitions against negative campaigning. The OCPPs could develop mechanisms to enforce their guidelines, as well. Among these could be emailed alerts to email subscribers when a truth-in-political-advertising violation arises.

Information about negative campaigning -- especially when inaccurate -- is especially important in light of a recent case that came before the State of Washington Supreme Court in "Rickert v. Public Disclosure Commission".  The court struct down a state law that made it unlawful to publish "a false statement of material fact about a candidate for public office" if it was made with "actual malice" (i.e., that it was made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard to whether it was true or false), as violating the First Amendment. Although more than a dozen states have passed laws making false statements about a political candidate unlawful, and some courts have upheld these laws, the law is clearly unsettled, and many states have no such laws.  Thus, the involvement of OCPPs in this domain could be especially useful and consequential.

As a means to give further weight to truth-in-political-advertising, a link could be established between OCPP certification of a campaign’s honesty and the dispensation of public financing for campaigns. In lieu of actual public financing, in the context of campaign finance restrictions, higher campaign spending limits could be accorded only to those campaigns that are determined by the applicable OCPP as conforming to its truth-in-campaigning guidelines. As a further incentive for candidates to conform, each OCPP could be empowered to publish, both on the Internet and through the mail, the results of its findings, showcasing which candidates are being truthful, and the specific areas of discrepancies.

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Especially important would be the development of standards for who could staff and lead the OCPPs, to ensure their non-partisan nature and the truly objective nature of their analyses. The leadership and the staff of the OCPPs would obviously have to be insulated from politics as scrupulously as possible. A board of five members would hire the staff, review important decisions prior to being finalized, and periodically review materials distributed by the OCPP to ensure conformance with the guidelines. The board should be composed of professors from major institutions of higher education, judges, retired judges, media analysts, or religious leaders, any of which would have to be selected by their peers, or a combination of persons from these backgrounds.

Never again would voters have to enter the political marketplace with the feeling that they are unarmed and unprotected against deceptive marketing practices or fraud. Consumers of all partisan and non-partisan stripes should be provided at least the same protections against deceptive politics as they are from deceptive credit card terms or a car insurance policy.

 
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