Montana Viewpoint: The power of the people

Jim Elliott

It was a stirring sight to see the beautifully illuminated White House from the south lawn, all awash with American flags and the President of the United States standing before it at the podium.

If the occasion had been, say, a memorial for American victims of the COVID pandemic or a recognition of America’s servicemen and servicewomen, it could have been truly inspiring. However, it was nothing more than an opportunity to use the “people’s house,” as Ronald Reagan used to call it, as a prop for a political campaign.

Employees of the United States government are not allowed to use public property or time for political purposes; that means everything from real estate to official stationary to postage stamps to staff time. The holders of the offices of president and vice president are not considered to be public employees, but their staff are classified as federal employees and subject to the same rules as others.

Why is this important? It used to be that the political power of American bureaucrats and elected officers was used to influence elections, offer patronage jobs as a reward to cronies and to use their position to threaten those who acted contrary to their wishes.

Years ago, when a new federal, state, or municipal administration came into office there was often a mass purge of current employees down to file clerks who were replaced in bulk with people “loyal” to the new administration. Politicians used their office to conduct re-election campaign business, including fundraising.

One of the more innovative ways of building a campaign war chest was instituted by Governor Huey P. Long of Louisiana, a state known for “innovative” politics. Long’s system was simple, he used the state treasury department to collect campaign contributions from each state employee. It was called “the Deduct” because the state deducted 10% from state employees’ paychecks and directed it to Long’s re-election campaign. It made sense to Long, after all, he was the one who gave them the job.

Political power comes from the individual citizen. I envision political power as the collection of the individual power of each citizen combined and placed in the title of an elected office, whether the title is senator, representative, mayor, or commissioner. It is in the title representing the position wherein the power lies, not in the person occupying it.

If anyone doubts that take a look at how much power a lame-duck officeholder has.

Many elected people think that the power belongs to them, but the power of the people is only loaned to them. For those people it is tempting to use their title for personal gain. I’m not referring to money alone, but influence, favor, special privileges, and self-promotion.

Because the power of the office is meant to be used for the good of the people, not the office holder, we place restrictions on how that power is used. While the great majority of politicians are honest and true public servants it is never bad policy to “trust everyone, but brand your cattle” so we have laws to help them avoid temptation.

Because the use of our power by those we elect is important to us we deny them the ability to use anything owned by the public for personal or political purposes, and there is no building more public than the White House. I give you leave to form your own opinions.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.