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Occupy Wall Street Hits K Street | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Occupy Wall Street Hits K Street

If you want to understand how the top 1 percent have accumulated such power in American politics, look no further than Washington’s K Street lobbying corridor. Wall Street has long been the dominant player in the capital. “The banks,” Senator Dick Durbin said in 2009, “are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”

The financial sector has spent more money on campaign contributions and lobbying than any other sector of the economy—$4.6 billion on lobbying since 1998, according to Open Secrets. This year, commercial banks and securities and investment firms have spent over $82 million on lobbying, employing over 1,000 lobbyists.

Given these facts, it makes sense that the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread to K Street. Since October 1, demonstrators have gathered in MacPherson Square, their numbers and visibility growing in recent days. Yesterday Harvard professor Larry Lessig, one of the pre-eminent advocates of true campaign finance reform, spoke to Occupy K Street. Nation intern Cal Colgan attended the talk and passed on some notes.

“Forget the 99 percent,” Lessig said yesterday. “We are the 99.95 percent of people who have never maxed out in a Congressional election campaign by giving the maximum amount. It is .05 percent of America who have given $2500 in the last election to a Congressional candidate, .05 percent, and Congress listens to them.” These are the same people who pay lobbyists to convince lawmakers to gut crucial regulations and oppose new ones.

Said Lessig:

It is the first time in American history where we have seen a collapse followed by no fundamental reregulation of the financial services sector because [the banks] have the power to block change from either the Democrats or the Republicans, because they can say to the Democrats or to the Republicans, “If you don’t back us, we guarantee you will lose in the next election.” They are the largest single group of contributors to Congressional elections of any in the country, and they hold this country hostage because of that power, because of that corruption.

Lessig called on the demonstrators to make confronting this legalized system of corruption a central organizing principle of the growing movement, and for the left to unite with populist Americans on the right who are similarly frustrated by the stranglehold of money and politics. 

It’s worth quoting his extended remarks on this topic:

Now this movement begins on Wall Street and it points to that corruption. And it teaches the world about that corruption by demonstrating against that .05 percent that sets the rules for 99.95 percent, and sets the rules not because they’re smarter, not because they have a better vision of what America needs, but because they have the power to block and control this political system.

Now my belief is if this movement can take that message and carry it from Occupy Wall Street here, to Occupy K Street, and to look down K Street to all the other places where exactly the same kind of corruption is practiced, and talk about this problem as a problem of corruption, then this movement has the opportunity to unite people of very different views.

I spent time at a Tea Party convention in Arizona talking to people who were deeply concerned about this country. They didn’t talk about gay rights. They didn’t talk about abortion. They talked about getting our government back in control. Those grassroots populist members of the Tea Party—forget their leaders—would agree with this point about the corruption of the system. And if this movement can begin to speak about these issues in a way they can hear, where the focus is not against policies they agree with, for example against the free market, but instead against a corrupted market.

You may or may not believe in capitalism, but there is no one who believes in crony capitalism except the crony capitalists, and we can build a movement, you can build this movement, to unite around the idea that the time of crony capitalism has got to come to an end. There is no one on the left or the right who defends the system of crony capitalism; they just practice it.

Lessig has already explored this idea with the likes of MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan and Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots. Lessig’s call to join forces with parts of the Tea Party on the government corruption issue remains a controversial one in Occupy circles. “Lessig got mostly a positive response, but during the Q&A session there were a few speakers who were skeptical about his claims that the rank-and-file members of the Tea Party have much in common with the Occupy movement,” Colgan writes.

Still, I think Lessig is on to something. The public’s bipartisan disgust with the amount of concentrated wealth on Wall Street and K Street has the potential to lead to a new McCain-Feingold coalition, but this time one that advocates reforms that can actually fix the problem.

Reporting by Cal Colgan

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