It really is extraordinary. Bechtel is awarded the biggest reconstruction contract in Iraq without having to compete for it. Halliburton, winner of another no-bid contract, overcharges the government by millions of dollars after only months of service. A Medicare bill passes that prohibits the federal government from negotiating with drug companies for any price but what drug companies set. Congress puts a provision into the Homeland Security Act immunizing Eli Lilly from any lawsuits related to vaccines it produces. Then, of course, there’s the tax bill, which transfers such great and unprecedented wealth to the already greatly wealthy.
To Republicans, “privatization” no longer means cost-cutting efficiency. These days, the federal government has been diminished as a public entity, re-emerging instead as a wholly owned subsidiary of various private concerns. Public accountability in every area has eroded, as though information about government were a kind of trade secret. Whether you’re from a Democratic district or from France, if you don’t “contribute” or “play the game” you will suffer what is sarcastically called “payback,” i.e., no recognition of civic partnership, no goodies for you. Loyalty to the directors of this federal-system-as-private-company earns one legislative pork, which is passed out as recklessly by this Administration as bonuses to CEOs at Enron. Government programs reward major political donors as though they were stockholding investors rather than citizens in a representative democracy with no greater or lesser stake than any other citizen.
In 1976 the Supreme Court issued its controversial opinion in the case of Buckley v. Valeo, qualifying the expenditure of money as a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. The door opened by that decision has changed the nature of campaign finance, many would say for the worse. If money is a form of “free speech,” goes the argument, then rich people end up inherently and always more persuasive than the poor. The McCain-Feingold debate has been the most visible attempt to deal with this issue; and the Supreme Court’s recent upholding of the ban on soft money in the McConnell v. F.E.C. case is an important acknowledgment of the degree to which unbridled political payment can also corrupt. Even so, the majority in McConnell seemed resigned to their inability to wholly stem the excesses, observing, “Money, like water, will always find an outlet.”
Recently, Public Campaign, the Fannie Lou Hamer Project and the William C. Velasquez Institute have combined forces to issue a report titled “Color of Money 2003.” This study, which can be read in its entirety online at www.colorofmoney.org, is a national effort to focus attention on the relationship between political contributions and access to power and services. It analyzes our current campaign-finance system as a kind of structural barrier to political equality. It looks at the demographic patterns of where most campaign contributions come from. California, in particular Beverly Hills, tops the list. Then New York, in particular the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Then Texas, with oil-rich Houston and Dallas, then the Miami-Palm Beach areas of Florida.
“Neighborhoods comprised mostly of people of color are severely underrepresented in the campaign finance system,” says the report. “Given that money typically determines who wins political races, this means that these neighborhoods are effectively disenfranchised. Indeed, nine out of ten individual federal campaign dollars come from majority non-Hispanic white neighborhoods. Yet nearly one out of three adult Americans is a person of color…. Another way to look at it: individuals living in wealthy neighborhoods supply eight dollars for every one dollar that people living in poor communities give to federal campaigns.” Julian Bond’s introduction to the “Color of Money” study summarizes the concern: “Washington responds to campaign donors first, and voters second. The concerns of ordinary Americans cannot compare with the wealthy executive who raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for a campaign.”
This corporate model of governance is evident in the Bush Administration’s repeated rhetorical conflation of Halliburton with America itself. Halliburton’s no-bid contract has been rationalized as though Halliburton were serving a public trust, or as though it were an arm of the government. But while its employees undoubtedly include many good-hearted American patriots–as no doubt Cheney is the best-intentioned of Vice Presidents–the company itself is not an American interest in any public sense of that word. Indeed, the fortunes of the average American will suffer as taxpayers end up paying through the nose for jobs whose profits go to Halliburton’s very private and not necessarily American stockholders. Ultimately, this is not good for voter morale, not good for faith in government; and it is terrible for the economy because the absence of competition is bad, bad business.
The Supreme Court’s banning of soft money is one good step toward reclaiming political power as opposed to financial sway; but to revitalize faith in a voter base that feels both jaded and betrayed it will also be necessary to re-examine the recent redistricting plans that have made Republican wins all but inevitable in certain areas. It will be necessary to institute much broader use of Clean Money systems, which, as the “Color of Money” report explains, “require a candidate to collect a large number of very small contributions (say $5) within his or her district, which helps the candidate prove broad popular support. Once candidates meet these requirements, then they qualify for a full and equal public grant to run their campaign.” And it will be necessary to confront the extremist ideologues who have disguised old-fashioned cronyism as a new form of laissez-faire. We–that is, all the people–won’t have much of a democracy left if everything is for sale and every sale is a deal made behind closed doors. “Take it or leave it” is the way we shop for blue jeans. It demeans our social compact to reduce American citizenship to such cynical consumerist helplessness.