Originally published at United Republic
Most everyone agrees Washington is over-run with lobbyists and completely disconnected from the rest of the nation. So then why continue to allow our government to operate from there full-time? In this day and age of Skype, web-conferencing and so forth, what good reason is there for our elected leaders to spend as much time as they do in this graveyard of noble intentions and common decency?
What if instead, we brought our representatives home and made them live in the communities they’ve forsaken for the false realities that have been erected and perpetuated inside the bubble of Washington?
Congress has long been dysfunctional, but it is now also historically unproductive. Yet the only time most constituents ever see their representative is at campaign rallies or the occasional public event…often just a campaign stop in disguise. So despite an abundance of time thanks to lack of job performance – and frequent claims of love and fealty notwithstanding – today most lawmakers associate with the average voter less than ever. What are they doing with their time instead? Fundraising!
Elected officials spend an obscene amount of time dialing for dollars and attending fundraisers – estimated to be as high as 70 percent of ‘working’ hours in some cases! With more than 20 fundraisers taking place every day in Washington, and regular travel to New York, Los Angeles or wherever else the big money resides, the money chase has become quite the time-consuming endeavor for lawmakers.
Money is the lifeblood of politics, and its pursuit at the expense of virtually everything else is the obligation of every modern successful politician.
It is high time we free our ‘leaders’ from this obligation. By bringing Congress home, they get to see the effects their policies have on actual constituents, rather than just accepting the distorted and biased viewpoints of lobbyists or campaign contributors as fact.
Maybe we can’t stop the flow of money, but we can ensure those representing us are too occupied doing our business to waste disgusting amounts of time fundraising. Requiring each member of Congress to open up his or her schedule for one-on-one meetings with constituents (excluding lobbyists, elected officials and staff, etc.) to the tune of 500 hours a year (approx. 2 hours a workday) would better fill that time. Ultimately, fewer fundraisers and more time spent meeting with constituents would result in a government more attuned to the needs of the people it purports to represent.
Congress could easily handle all normal business online, renaming post offices and such from offices located within their districts. Committee meetings could be handled via web conferencing, leading to a better permanent record anyway. Congress would still convene, but only for short sessions centered on specific (and singular) major issues, allowing for greater media and public scrutiny. The increased sunlight would help expose lobbyists lurking in the shadows, eager to remind lawmakers where their bread is buttered. Frankly, it’s high time voters did some reminding of their own, and this change would give them a foothold by which to do so.
While we’re making our government more genuinely representative, it is imperative we also shrink our bloated legislative districts. Simply cutting in half (at a minimum) the number of people represented per district from the approximately 600,000 where it currently resides, to a number closer to 300,000, would make it much more difficult for special interests to buy elections in House races. As it stands now, most candidates are handpicked by special interests in legislative districts too large for anyone to have the clout necessary to challenge those with such an enormous fundraising advantage. This would change that dynamic, as local leaders and luminaries with a base of support independent of big-moneyed interests would stand a much better chance against the shills representing either corporate or union interests.
Of course it would also double the size of the House from 435 to 870 members (approximately), which would almost certainly be portrayed by some as a negative – appealing to people’s sense of tradition, hostility towards an increasingly corrupt government and fear of change. The real outcome however, would likely be positive, and voters would be receptive to this idea if it were adequately propagated. Doubling the number of House members means doubling the chance that outside viewpoints not simply echoing special interest viewpoints might find their way into office.
Like-minded coalitions would help break up gridlock, meaning fewer instances of sides breaking into hardened camps as happens too often now. Lone voices would become a small chorus with real power to affect outcomes. Even if it were no better than the status quo, could it possibly be worse? Add in the benefit of a representative more tied to local communities, and it is a net gain no matter how you add it up.
The vast amount of time Congress currently spends soliciting campaign contributions while neglecting the nation’s affairs is akin to a child failing in school while spending untold hours playing video games. Just in case it’s unclear, voters are the parent in this analogy.
So what are we going to do about our ‘problem child’ America? Maybe it’s time to bring them home and exert some much-needed parental influence. It’s not a cure-all, but could be a solid first step in reasserting the proper role of voters in our republic.
Reform-minded people working to sever the corrupting influence of money in politics have had a rough few weeks. First came the collapse of Americans Elect as a platform by which a reform-minded candidate could get their message heard; followed shortly thereafter by the suspension of Buddy Roemer’s candidacy for president. Combined, these losses mean the existing power structure will go largely unchallenged in this year’s presidential election.
Despite this setback, no one should hang their head or despair for the long-term prospects of fixing our broken system. Gaining traction in 2012 was always going to be a tough row to hoe; but the seeds planted this election season will bear fruit in 2014 and beyond.
There were two steep challenges facing any efforts at reform this year: The dynamics of presidential election cycles and inertia.
Presidential elections suck up vast amounts of oxygen in terms of interest/relevance with both the media and the voting public. In addition, most voters still cling to the belief – justifiably or not – that their vote matters in a system completely dominated from start to finish by special interests. Perhaps most importantly, in presidential elections voters turn to familiar parties and their hyper-partisan framing of issues because they are motivated to defeat the evil hordes of the opposing party. This makes it extraordinarily difficult to advocate for the sort of necessary structural reforms that require support and cooperation from voters across the political divide.
Of course the media influences public perception about what is and isn’t possible, and who is or isn’t electable; a fact Americans Elect and Buddy Roemer both found out the hard way. Each failed to earn a spot on the main stage due to a variety of factors (some of their own making), but one significant commonality was that both were marginalized by a media either controlled or compliant to powerful special interests.
Additionally, because the presidential contest so thoroughly dominates, reformers must battle congressional, state and local candidates for the scraps of attention not focused on the main prize. The small amount garnered wasn’t enough to propel either Americans Elect or Roemer past the obstacles special interests (mostly via a compliant government and media) have erected.
It is no coincidence that the Occupy movement was able to capture the national conversation in an off-election year; or that the Tea Party’s spectacular success came in a non-presidential cycle. How much attention is paid to either movement these days? Is either having similar levels of success in getting their message out or influencing the outcomes of elections this year?
The net result of course is that no matter who wins in November, we will have elected a president who is extremely sympathetic to the special interests who financed his campaign. In the meantime, lacking a candidate championing reform, this election will continue to focus on the same hollow partisan debate that rarely leads to resolution. Rather, it diverts people’s attention away from the true source of their problems; while masking the reason why government is incapable of solving any of them.
Yet positive developments abound. Both Americans Elect and Buddy Roemer brought much-needed attention to the issue of a broken system and the root causes behind it. People on every side of the political divide are awakening to the underlying problems within our system; while the nascent effort to enact a constitutional amendment to root out corruption further raises the issue’s profile. Yet still, we remain at the point where the vast majority of voters will not act until their lives have been affected in a significantly adverse way; and even then reluctantly. Only when things reach a critical mass and a viable solution has gained broad acceptance, will that tipping point arrive.
A presidential election year is a great time to talk about these issues because average voters are paying more attention than normal. However, continued belief in our failing institutions also means that a conflicting message – of a broken system – which potentially undermines that belief, might face a less than receptive audience in the short-term. This is a great year for sowing, but not so much for reaping.
For now we should continue to support candidates at all levels who support fixing the corrupt system of pay-to-play government. When the election passes and the political campaigns end, the campaign to spread this message to voters should not.
Over time, the more this message is repeated, the likelier voters will blame money in politics for (what is likely to be) an extremely ugly election. Prospects for reform also increase incrementally every time voters hear that reforming a broken system engenders better solutions on the issues they value most – education, economy, defense, health care and more. The greater the body of evidence presented to voters consistently over time, the greater the likelihood the issue of money and influence in politics becomes THE central issue in the 2014 election cycle.
Success will not occur overnight, but a quietly growing consensus means it could come sooner than many think. In the meantime, the focus should be to continue to plant the seeds which will pay dividends come the reaping…and to have ready a solution worthy of that moment when it arrives.
Guest Post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.RebuildDemocracy.org
J. P. Morgan Chase’s recent announcement that the mega-bank had lost $2.3 billion making bad bets on unfathomable “credit derivatives” is like a lightning bolt on the horizon. Our political leaders have obviously not steered the ship-of-state far enough away from the financial storm that knocked down the entire economy in 2008. Wall Street is still gambling on the taxpayers’ line of credit and putting the entire nation at risk. It doesn’t take a genius to see why the problem was never fixed: Wall Street is bribing America’s political leadership with campaign donations.
Yes, that’s a crude explanation, but it also happens to be largely true. One of the parallels between banking reform and political reform is that while both systems are complex, basic and commonsense understanding comes easy. The most ordinary citizen can comprehend that while the public must underwrite traditional banking, taxpayers should never backstop anything that resembles gambling. An ordinary citizen can also understand the folly of permitting lawmakers to take campaign money from the same interests they regulate. Put it together, and it’s hardly rocket science. A monkey could connect these dots, which form a clear picture of corruption.
The banking crisis of 2008, coupled with our government’s inability to address the underlying causes of that crisis, is yielding one – and only one – clear benefit to the American people. It helps us see just how corrupt and dysfunctional our political system has become. What essentially needs to be done to fix the banking system is obvious. (Here is a clear explanation.) And it’s striking how much progressive outsiders and conservative outsiders actually agree on the nature of the banking problem and the necessary remedies.
Big banks must be broken up, with risky business separated from relatively safe FDIC-insured practices. Simpler solutions to banking reform are better than 2,300-page laws that regulators are supposed to implement because regulators can make mistakes and are subject to manipulation by financial and political interests. The Glass-Steagall Act was just such an approach that worked well for seventy years. Taxpayers should only back traditional lending. If a bank is mixing in riskier practices, then that aspect of the business must be broken off to stand on its own and suffer the consequences of any recklessness. No exceptions. End of story.
Incredibly, approaches that are clean and obvious usually don’t happen because Wall Street has politicians from both parties in its back pocket. Of course there’s a chance that public outrage and awareness could reach such an intense level that real banking reform might conceivably take place. But who wants a government that acts sensibly only in the wake of repeated calamities?
The President is now saying that the revelations out of JP Morgan demonstrate the need for the Democrat-passed Dodd-Frank Act. Barack Obama is doubling down on a law that shows every sign of failing (and he’s worried about the implications JP Morgan’s continued gambling habit) . For his part, Mitt Romney proposes no meaningful banking reform at all. Both politicians are taking in money hand over fist from Wall Street.
The madness only stops with comprehensive and non-partisan political reform. Just as a consensus outside of the Washington establishment is mostly established on banking reform, the shape of an outsiders’ consensus for political reform is also appearing. Lawmakers should not be permitted to take campaign money from the same interests they regulate. Congress should be comprised of citizen legislators from all walks of life and not professional politicians. Elections should always be fair. We, the people,all agree: we can’t afford the corruption any more. We need to compartmentalize our many differences and not be distracted from pursuing the reforms that we all know are just common sense.
The claim is often made (especially by political insiders) that the case for money controlling things in Washington is overstated. They claim that in instances where voters make their wishes well known, money doesn’t stand a chance. This is actually true…sort of. But at the same time, nobody is really saying that special interest money literally runs government – it’s more subtle and tougher to pinpoint than that; which is exactly what makes it such a difficult problem to deal with.
On issues where the public is activated and aware, money doesn’t have nearly as much influence as it might otherwise. Under those conditions, it can only nibble at the fringes while lawmakers appease anxious voters. Of course moneyed interests still do okay, either by preventing certain options from being considered (a ‘la the public option, single payer or even tort reform during the health care debates) or by watering down legislation so lawmakers can say they did something without actually doing much of anything (there are countless examples of that).
Even when the public scores a win against a special interest, they are usually thwarted in the end by a captured & compliant regulatory agency who – with the public’s attention elsewhere – implements the new law in special interests’ favor. So yes…people can still win hollow & meaningless victories over moneyed interest when they are fully engaged and able to cow government into not completely selling them out on a specific issue. It’s just as the founders envisioned!
But wait. What about issues where the public isn’t engaged or even aware? Most of what government does takes place far outside the public view. Trade agreements, tax policy, regulatory policy – these and other obscurities are what government spends most of its time on. Absent the public’s attention, special interests and their money generally rule the day.
This isn’t to say that corporations or other special interests conspire to run the government or harm individual citizens; they are just looking out for their own interests with ruthless efficiency. The problem is that the most sure-fire way to profit or succeed is not to work harder, but to rig the game in your favor. Since we allow anyone with enough money to do pretty much exactly that, no one should really be surprised when they take full advantage.
But if someone is winning, that means someone else is losing; and decades of legislation designed to look out for these narrow interests has created a god-awful mess for our country. We now face a tsunami of unforeseen consequences and externalities hammering us from all sides. Yet inexplicably we keep turning to the same system with the same actors indebted to the same special interests which tied this noose around our necks to begin with.
Even though everyone can see where our current trajectory is taking us, those in power continue to do the same things…with predictable results. Politicians are stuck; to challenge the money would take a majority of lawmakers willing to stand up in defiance of the special interests. Since this is so unlikely, everyone just plays along so as not to be the peg which stands up and gets pounded down; and the knot around our collective neck gets tighter and tighter.
Of course, the best solution would be to somehow sever the link between money and policy so that government would be free to act independently; while also being held accountable to act for the greater good. As long as private money funds campaigns however, politicians will do whatever is necessary to ensure they have enough money to succeed. They won’t sell their constituents out and side with a special interest if doing so would harm their public standing; but they will change an “and” to an “or” in a trade agreement; eliminate a cap or limit in a tax exemption; or a million other things far beyond the notice or understanding of the average American. No enemy abroad can hurt us as much as we hurt ourselves by allowing these millions of small, self-inflicted wounds to continue to accumulate.
Ironically, the sort of centralized control by corporations or special interests often used as a straw man by those arguing against reform would actually be preferable to the status quo. If we can’t have a government responsive to its constituents, we’d be better off just letting GE or Nike or Disney run things. At least then there might be some coherence and consistency to our policy.
By placing the power of money in elections above all else, we have made government minimally accountable to voters and it shows. Government is similar to a teenager who we have virtually no control over; who is out driving our car (on our insurance), has our credit card and is using our ID to buy alcohol…but for whom we are still 100% accountable. Whenever we demand to be heard, our government humors us until we are placated; just like a teenager. But this is not accountability, and the reality is we have very little control over what our government does the majority of the time. Until we fix a rigged system, giving ourselves the leverage we need to demand such accountability, we never will.
Guest Post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.RebuildDemocracy.org
The President signed the “Stock Act” into law this week.
Passing the Stock Act was probably a good thing, though some say the kind of insider stock trading (exposed by Peter Schweizer in his book, Throw Them All Out) it’s meant to address has been illegal for years.
Perhaps now they are signalling that they are really, really serious about policing themselves.
Even with the Stock Act as law, the problems associated with stock ownership by Members of Congress are still there.
Consider the case of House Minority Nancy Pelosi and her stock ownership in Clean Energy Fuels Corporatation (CLNE).
It’s well known that Democrats have been putting the brakes on the development of America’s natural gas resources because many environmentalists are concerned that the means of retrieving the gas – a process known as “fracking”- is polluting groundwater.
But the Pelosi’s stake in Clean Energy Fuels suggests that environmentalists are about to be betrayed by the Democrats and that Pelosi and her husband are poised to cash in.
Clean Energy Fuels is positioning itself to own a monopoly of natural gas automotive refueling stations all across the country. If the government were to ever get behind a serious exploitation of domestic natural gas – a move essential to energy independence – it would be a bonanza for Clean Energy Fuels, and those who own stock in the company, like Nancy Pelosi and her husband.
No matter where you stand on the issue of fracking (I am for it, with regulation), wouldn’t you feel better knowing that the economic self-interests of our law makers were not tied to legislative outcomes?
As documented by Peter Schweizer, the Pelosi’s have a history of insider trading and using the power of Nancy’s position for personal gain. Progressive reformers almost never talk or write about the corruption of the Pelosis. It’s too painful for them and it might help elect Republicans. But in the end, partisan muckraking discredits the cause of reform .
The most important reform offered up in the Stock Act debate was a proposal by Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), which would have forced all members of Congress to place their stock holdings in a blind trust while they serve in office. It was voted down 26-73.
(Full Disclosure: I own shares in CLNE. You should too, because Nancy Pelosi does)
Guest post by Shelly Bernal. Originally published at www.streetjusticesociety.com
Sometimes things are not as they seem. We all understand that the Americans for Disability Act has improved accessibility for persons with disabilities over the last two decades. However, what we don’t know is that the manipulation of a detail of a good thing can be a really bad thing.
Eric Holder and our Department of Injustice has determined that every community, school and hotel pool must have a permanently fixed pool lift for each body of water, so 1 for pool and 1 for hot tub. Since September 2010 when guidelines for “recreational facilities” were issued, most people in the swimming pool industry thought that one portable lift would be enough for both bodies of water. As of January 31, 2012, the DOJ clarified that is not enough and that compliance is necessary by May 15, 2012. There are an estimated 300,000 public pools and spas in the country that need to comply and less than 5,000 pool lifts were sold in the U.S. in 2011. With only a FOUR month window given from DOJ to comply, there is no ready source to provide an adequate number of pool lifts to meet this demand, despite desperate efforts by manufacturers to design and produce them. Even those who tried to comply by purchasing portable lifts in 2011 will not be in compliance now. Manufacturers have been working round the clock to develop retrofit solutions to “fix” their lifts to pool and spa decks.
There is danger of government legislation without industry consultation. These same recreational facilities were just required to comply with a mandated public safety upgrade, VGB legislation, which made pool drains safer – at a cost of $5,000 to $10,000 . Each of these lifts cost between $3,000 and $10,000 and installation can add $5,000 to $10,000 to the total. In addition to the lack of foresight regarding production or availability, expense certainly was not taken into consideration-even during this downturn in the economy.
As the perfect storm swirls, voila! – an instant payday for unscrupulous trial lawyers whose only objective is to file lawsuits for immediate settlements, otherwise known as legal extortion. The point is not whether the case could be won or not by the property with the pool. The point is that it would cost the property tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to win the lawsuit so it is cheaper to simply pay the parasitic leech to go away. I refer to this perfect storm as a campaign contribution payback because the trial lawyers generously donated more than $45 million to President Obama’s campaign in 2008. In defense of the trial lawyers though, at least they are getting a return on their investment with those campaign contributions. But then again, isn’t that why they donate in the first place?
If you’re at all politically inclined, chances are that in addition to a deluge of campaign mailers, you also receive the occasional (or not so occasional) entreaty for money from a candidate, political party or interest group. These solicitations usually focus on a recent hot-button issue or make a more general ideological driven appeal to sway supporters to pledge money. The one constant is political opponents portrayed in the most unflattering way possible (to say the least). Is it any wonder we are so polarized when in addition to increasingly vitriolic campaigns, we must also endure non-stop year round appeals for money to stop the demonic hordes from the other party?
Is it any wonder compromise has become a dirty word when people are led to believe at every turn, in the basest terms possible, that the other side is one to be despised and feared?
The relentless and never-ending effort to finance the campaigns of those running for office has helped coarsen the discourse in this country to the point where we are now barely governable. You often hear people talk about speech needing to remain free for a democracy to function, and that is true, but democracy also requires respectful discourse so that mutually beneficial compromises can be reached. Our system has become a bi-annual system of mutually assured destruction in that, no matter which side wins, the public’s belief in the institution erodes that much more. In the end, it doesn’t matter who is in charge if all that remains to rule is the rubble of our once great country undone by our inability to cooperate.
Yet how do we improve the quality of discourse without infringing on freedom of speech? As long as the driving force in elections is money, pursuit of money will trump all else. Lessen the need for money, and the incentive to pull out all stops – including demagoguery or slandering of opposition – lessens as well.
A few options:
~ Clean money systems which provide qualifying candidates funding to compete with the candidates who are little more than mouthpieces for special interests – corporate, union or otherwise – would offer voters alternatives, but wouldn’t completely forestall fundraising efforts.
~ Increased transparency might discourage some of the nastier stuff. Just as candidates tend to be more polite at debates when their target is standing there ready to defend themselves, so too would the tone modulate if people knew who was financing all the political activity. Politicians know who’s behind these ads – instant transparency would ensure voters and regulators (or whatever passes for them at the FEC) would as well. This alone would not significantly improve the quality of discourse, but amongst its many other benefits, it might take some of the harder edges off political rhetoric.
~ An opposing approach is to create a blind trust for political donations so no one would know who funded campaigns and there would be no quid-pro-quo. This is the hardest to predict the outcome of – it could have a huge effect, or none at all as campaigns would still need anonymous money and the pleas would continue unabated.
~ Finally, constitutional amendments attempting to take private money out of elections or allowing Congress to regulate political spending might have an impact; but would also (likely) leave independent groups unaffected, and so the affect would be negligible. Even so, such an amendment is unlikely to gain the broad support necessary to gain passage, and might have unintended consequences if it did.
Clearly this is not an easy question to answer, but it is important to note the constant barrage endured by the most politically active people in this country – one which constantly paints the opposing side in the worst possible terms – and the corrosive effect this has had on our ability to govern ourselves. Under such relentless reinforcement of this narrative, it takes a conscious effort to remind ourselves that most people who disagree with us politically are not our enemies, just people working towards a similar goal with a different idea for how to get there. Unfortunately few are willing or capable of making this effort and the quality of both discourse and governance have suffered accordingly.
The ironic part is that we don’t even like the people shoveling this swill. Opinion polls would not be so universally low if most Americans agreed with the platforms of the two major political parties, yet our willingness to buy into the two-party dynamic ensures that nothing ever changes. The problem isn’t that left and right can’t compromise, it is that the Democratic and Republican Parties stand in our way from doing so. They cannot effectively raise money if they work harmoniously with the other side for the greater good, and because money rules all in Washington there is zero incentive to do something so damaging to the bottom line.
The rot of money is not just in the direct (and disastrous) effect it has on specific policy decisions, but also in the pervasive coarsening of public discourse that is making us increasingly ungovernable. Whatever the solution to this problem, it must deal with the effect money currently has on our political system and eliminate the incentive to constantly paint the opposition as evil.
Cooperation shouldn’t be a dirty word, and those with different political beliefs don’t need to be sworn enemies demonized at every turn. Money in political campaigns creates a motive for political players to pretend otherwise…especially when we keep rewarding them for doing so.
Guest post by Stephen Erickson originally published at www.rebuilddemocracy.org on 2/23/12
Surging Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was declared one of the “most corrupt” members of Congress in 2006 by a group called CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington). The charge is often used against Santorum in the presidential campaign by his Republican opponents. Santorum denies any wrongdoing and claims that CREW is a politically-motivated left-wing organization. Let’s take a closer look.
CREW makes a number of connections between contributors to Santorum’s campaign organizations and legislation he sponsored or supported while serving in the Senate. Most damning is the $44,750 Santorum received from hospital-related interests in Puerto Rico, which appears to have been in exchange for Santorum sponsoring the Medicare Puerto Rico Hospital Payment Parity Act in the US Senate.
Santorum also sponsored legislation that would require the National Weather Service to provide data to private weather forecasting companies but prohibit the government service from disclosing the data itself in most cases. The founders of AccuWeather had “contributed $40,000 to Santorum and the Republican Party since 2003,” reported CREW.
There’s more. The day after a vote in support of tobacco interests, Santorum’s leadership PAC received $10,000 from the tobacco industry. Santorum also took in $6,000 from Miller Brewing Company and Anheuser-Busch while sponsoring legislation to cut in half the excise tax on large brewers.
Rick Santorum engaged in crony capitalism when he secured a $100 million loan in an earmark for Waste Management Processes, a Pennsylvania company that converts coal to diesel fuel. The company’s CEO and his family members donated a total of $16,500 to the Senator’s campaign committee and $8,500 to his PAC.
CREW also makes some lesser charges against Santorum, but the above examples seem to substantiate accusations that Rick Santorum is indeed what most ordinary citizens would consider a corrupt politician.
But is Santorum among the most corrupt? Here is where CREW gets into trouble. To look at CREW’s list for 2006, one would think that being a Republican is as much of a problem as the corrupt system. They list twenty-one Republicans and only four Democrats. Most of the Democrats are such egregious cases that leaving them off the list would have been impossible without CREW losing complete credibility. For example, CongressmanWilliam J. Jefferson of Louisianawas caught with his refrigerator full of cash from a bribe. CREW goes after only token Democrats.
CREW’s 2011 list of the most corrupt members of Congress is at least better balanced. But it’s not good enough. Partisan reformers discredit the cause of reform. Progressive reformers still refuse to go after the most corrupt and most powerful progressive politicians, like President Obama, Congressman Barney Frank, or former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Consider the case of Pelosi, who was exposed by conservative muckraker Peter Schweizer in his book Throw Them All Out. Pelosi and her husband were able to secure shares ofVisa’s initial public offering (IPO) at a price unavailable to the public while important legislation affecting Visa was before Congress. The Pelosis’ investment in Visa was quite substantial, representing 10% of their total stock portfolio. The IPO soon paid them a handsome 203% return. Pelosi, a credit card reformer, chose to focus on regulations that affected the banks that issue the cards, and not the card companies like Visa, which were targets in some other unsuccessful pieces of legislation. The Visa IPO was just one of several that Pelosi and her husbandconverted into big personal financial gains.
Schweizer also shows how Nancy Pelosi secured transportation infrastructure projects near property she owns in California, dramatically increasing the value of that property. Schweizer spotlighted a similar deal that Speaker Pelosi’s Republican predecessor, Dennis Hastert, got for himself by funding a highway project near land he owned. By calling his book Throw Them All Out, and going after powerful Democrats as well as Republicans, Schweizer models a non-partisan muckraking approach that progressive reformers need to learn to emulate.
Was Rick Santorum one of the most corrupt members of Congress? Sadly, he is probably more typical than especially corrupt, but that important point gets lost when partisanship and reform get mixed together.
Note from CommonSenseMan: This week’s guest post offers a defense for certain types of large political contributions as they relate to other types of contributions. Frankly, my belief is that all political contributions of the magnitude being discussed contribute to a system-wide corruption which puts the needs of funders over the need of constituents, and places a premium on fundraising over job performance; regardless of the intentions behind the donations themselves. Further, I believe that the Koch bothers and George Soros could potentially serve as useful symbols which motivate partisans on both sides to support reform; while simultaneously demonstrating to partisans and non-partisans alike that this isn’t a one-sided (one-party) problem.
However, to be able to work together and truly solve the problem of money in politics and the influence/control it buys, we must first understand how those whose political opinions differ from our own truly see the problem. This piece offers a view into the conservative perspective too often overlooked by reformers, and why I thought it important to share regardless of any misgivings I might have with the argument it lays out.
Guest post by Stephen Erickson. Originally published at www.rebuilddemocracy.org. Reprinted with permission.
Ted Olson, the prominent Republican attorney, lives a life woven into the great events of his time. Olson defended President Reagan in the Iran – Contra affair, represented Bush in Bush v Gore, served as the attorney for famous accused spies John Pollard and Wen Ho Lee, and helped lead the opposition to a proposed California constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. Time listed Olsen as one of America’s “100 greatest thinkers.” His wife Barbara, a staunch Democrat, died in the plane that hit the Pentagon on 9/11.
In addition to all of this, Olson litigated the famous – some say infamous – Citizens United case before the Supreme Court (See HERE for Olson’s defense of that ruling). So it should come as no surprise that last week Olson engaged in a public defense of the allegedly infamous Charles and David Koch, a/k/a “the Koch brothers,” who are oil industry magnates and financiers of conservative politics.
In the Wall Street Journal Olson argued that the Obama administration and its allies, channeling Richard Nixon, have created an “enemies list” with David and Charles Koch right at the top. Olsen’s article begins his defense of the Kochs with a series of rhetorical questions:
How would you feel if aides to the president of the United States singled you out by name for attack, and if you were featured prominently in the president’s re-election campaign as an enemy of the people?
What would you do if the White House engaged in derogatory speculative innuendo about the integrity of your tax returns? Suppose also that the president’s surrogates and allies in the media regularly attacked you, sullied your reputation and questioned your integrity. On top of all of that, what if a leading member of the president’s party in Congress demanded your appearance before a congressional committee this week so that you could be interrogated about the Keystone XL oil pipeline project in which you have repeatedly—and accurately—stated that you have no involvement?
These are good questions. Ask yourself another question: Have the Koch brothers done anything nearly so bad as quasi-government entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or their many Wall Street counterparts such asGoldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan? These are companies run by executives who have enriched themselves at public expense while destroying the economy and ruining the lives of countless ordinary Americans.
Have oil men Charles and David Koch done even one scintilla the damage to our country that British Petroleum did in the Gulf of Mexico?
The answer to these questions is clearly, “no.” So why are the Koch brother singled out?
The answer is obvious. The Koch brothers donate large sums of money to candidates and organizations that oppose Democrat politicians and progressive political philosophy.
Yes, maybe it’s problematic for democracy when extremely wealthy people like David and Charles Koch have so much more political power than the average citizen. But the same should hold true for George Soros, investor, currency speculator and funder of all things progressive. Are these guys really the baddest of the bad? Do they really deserve all of the hate?
Unlike Soros and the Koch brothers, Wall Street , Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac and British Petroleum all divide their political donations between Republicans and Democrats. They aren’t supporting a party or a cause; they’re investing in people with political power. They sleep with who will give them what they want, finding no shortage of obliging politicians on both sides of the aisle. To pass itself off as environmentally responsible, British Petroleum is even a long-time funder of climate research, which is probably less expensive than properly managing its oil platforms. These corporations donate money to various politicians and causes for one reason and one reason only: they wish to buy influence in order to enhance their profits.
Charles & David Koch on the Right and George Soros on the Left don’t play this game. They don’t compromise principles for profit. Each has deep and abiding beliefs in right versus wrong, and at the risk of their interests and reputations they fight for what they believe with their money. Agree with their political philosophies or not, these are acts of courage, not self-interest. They risk retribution and their profits by standing up to powerful political interests with every check they write.
As big-spending Super PACs continue to dominate our election process this year, the debate about the role of money in elections will continue to heat up. Yet while it is a near certainty that the media will portray the opposing views of those on the left & right as being incompatible with one another, there is more common ground on this issue than meets the eye; and a solution which benefits all sides equally is possible.
The conservative viewpoint on political spending generally holds that money will always find a way in, and any obstacles put in its path easily circumvented. Add in the fact that such obstacles are often seen as either violating free speech rights or putting too much power in the hands of congress, and it’s little surprise conservatives show little inclination to support (progressive) solutions which offer more of the same. Instead, conservatives often counter with the argument that money should flow freely without limits, but in a transparent way so voters can know who is funding whom. Progressives are of course horrified by this prospect, and argue that such a deluge of unlimited money would completely drown out ordinary voices already struggling to be heard.
The reality is that both views have merit. Money has consistently found a way into the process no matter what limits or restrictions have been enacted, reinforcing the conservative argument. On the other hand, simply letting the money flow without acknowledging the corrupting effect it has had on our system would take a serious problem and make it much, much worse. So the question then is, if there are flaws with both approaches and neither is likely to get the broad support necessary for success anyway, why do both sides continue to cling to dead-end solutions?
Frankly, progressives are worrying themselves with the wrong thing in this debate. Rather than focusing on limiting the money, and immediately making conservatives dig in their heels, why not focus instead on the influence and/or control which that money buys? If there were a way to use the conservative model, and thus gain necessary conservative support, why should it matter whether the money flows or not if the influence/control it buys has been dealt with?
What if in exchange for eliminating all contribution limits, and letting the money flow freely and with more-or-less instantaneous disclosure/transparency, the following reforms were implemented:
~ Clean funding for the campaigns of federal candidates, offering voters the choice of quality candidates free of the strings often attached to special interest money.
~ Congressional term-limits with provisions to ensure people leaving government service can’t immediately spin through the revolving door and profit from their ‘service’.
~ An independent oversight authority free of congress’ influence, which would be able to legitimately enforce election, lobbying and campaign finance laws. No more lax enforcement and slaps on the wrist for those not playing by the rules.
~ An end to gerrymandering and other types of voter fraud which allow politicians to pick their voters, rather than the other way around.
The only thing this approach would fail to accomplish is to ensure that ordinary voices were given the opportunity to be heard. But really, at what point in our entire history as a nation has that been a priority in our electoral process? Sure we celebrate the vote in our democracy, but the wealthy and powerful have been the driving force in elections since the very beginning. In fact, with the advent of the internet and other modern technology, one could argue that average voters have never been more likely to have their voices heard than they currently do; even as difficult as it can be to penetrate the cacophony created by special interest money.
Additionally, as Obama’s 2008 campaign & the Tea Party in 2010 have both recently demonstrated, enthusiastic volunteers/supporters can still have an enormous impact on elections regardless of special interest money. Perhaps candidates free of special interest influence (and more in touch with concerns of voters in their communities) would lead to even higher levels of involvement; especially if the current gap in relative worth between campaign volunteers and special interest money narrowed as a result of changes to election law.
At the end of the day, if we can somehow strengthen the voices of ordinary voters and limit the influence of special interests on our government…does it really matter whether or not we ‘get the money out’?
This question is especially pertinent when you consider how ineffective existing limits on contributions have been. Bundlers easily circumvent limits on direct contributions to candidates in order to gain influence; and who knows what sort of favors are being bought with the gobs & gobs of money pouring into Super PACs and other independent groups?
The money is already flowing freely and influence being bought left & right. If a compromise could be reached using the conservative framework which focused on limiting influence & control rather than money, we would emerge with a system infinitely better than the current one. Abandoning solutions which truly get the money out of politics(and thereby avoiding entirely any free speech concerns) would be a small price to pay for such a colossal improvement in our electoral system; and in turn our government.