As Congressional and White House negotiators wrestled with competing budget plans to avoid a government shutdown, no sane observer believed they’d put corporate tax loopholes—the kind large enough for a $3.2 billion rebate for profitable, and politically powerful, General Electric—on the chopping block. It was easy to see why: as negotiators preserved GE’s tax breaks and cut programs for the poor, power-brokers in Washington operated at breakneck speed, attending the 122 fundraising events for lawmakers over the final few days of March, as chronicled by the Sunlight Foundation’s PoliticalPartyTime.org.
Unfortunately, it’s a story Americans know all too well. For three elections in a row—2006, 2008 and 2010—we’ve sent people to change the way Washington works, only to see Washington’s big-money culture change them. Those we elect to Congress are focused too much on raising money and not enough on creating jobs, protecting a beleaguered middle class, mending the torn social safety net and securing a sensible energy future.
The House voted to repeal healthcare reform after taking millions of dollars in campaign contributions from medical and insurance interests. Tea Party favorite Jim DeMint, along with eighteen colleagues, introduced a Senate bill to repeal the tepid financial reform bill passed last year. Collectively, the senators backing repeal of those reforms have taken nearly $50 million in campaign contributions from the very Wall Street interests affected by the law, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings sound more like Big Oil/King Coal conventions than an enlightened oversight committee puzzling out our nation’s energy future.
Along with their efforts to advance or repeal policies, moneyed interests and their front groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove’s Crossroads consortium, and David and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity are pushing for structural changes to our political system to ensure that only the voices of the elite are heard and everyone else is left to fend for him- or herself. Across the country, big money is on the march. From the assaults on the collective bargaining rights of nurses, teachers and other public employees to targeted strikes against state Fair Elections public financing laws to numerous attacks on voting rights, deep-pocket conservatives are aggressively seeking to expand their advantage. These forces are also using the courts; in recent arguments before the Supreme Court, they pushed a case designed to limit Arizona’s Clean Elections system.
Against this rising tide of big money, several proposals would begin to rebalance our election system. Fair Elections–style public financing, a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, disclosure of the funding behind independent political advertising and shareholder approval policies for corporate political expenditures are all necessary, but each faces tough opposition in the current Congress. That’s not to say progress isn’t possible. On April 6 Senator Dick Durbin and Representatives John Larson, Walter Jones and Chellie Pingree reintroduced the Fair Elections Now Act—with fifty-four co-sponsors, more than ever before.
But to succeed, reform efforts—particularly in the Citizens United age—must become part of a larger fight that gives voice to what average Americans think: that our system listens too much to money and too little to people.
And that’s exactly what’s emerging. A dozen environmental groups came together in early February to coordinate efforts to expose oil and coal companies’ political clout. Community-organizing and faith-based groups together with the Service Employees International Union are fighting to hold banks accountable for the foreclosure crisis, hitting them hard on how they’ve bought off regulators and politicians.
In Wisconsin, right-wing donors like the billionaire Koch brothers thought they’d hit pay dirt, but what was supposed to be an isolated budget debate awakened and united workers and activists perhaps more than any event in a generation. Tens of thousands across the country have rallied at statehouses against anti-worker legislation and in solidarity with Wisconsin. On March 16 rank-and-file union members joined reformers and others at a 1,000-person Washington protest against a lobbyist fundraiser for Republican lawmakers from Wisconsin.
These events add up to a common narrative, one that is rooted in the deeply American belief in government of, by and for the people, not of, by and for the big-money interests. Election-night polling conducted last year for the Public Campaign Action Fund and Common Cause by Lake Research Partners showed that 75 percent of voters agree that “the amount of money being spent this year on political campaign ads by candidates, political parties, and outside groups poses a real threat to the fairness of our elections and the ability of Congress to get results on our most important issues.” Support is strong across party lines, with 62 percent of Republican voters—and 60 percent of Tea Partiers—agreeing that it’s urgent for Congress to curb the influence of money in our elections.
When it comes to who controls elections, people at the grassroots don’t see big money as blue or red. Americans of every stripe know there’s a “buy-partisan” problem. Issue organizations and membership groups—and office seekers across the country—would be strategically wise to seize this populist sentiment and wield it like a club against politicians who defend the cash-and-carry status quo.
To ignore this challenge is to surrender. On so many fights—holding big banks accountable, shifting to a green energy economy, forcing a debate on revenues as part of state budget discussions—there is a critical choice. Will we allow a few well-heeled, unrepresentative special interests to continue to call the shots and let the rest of America foot the bill? Or will we fight back and revitalize the notion of an America for the many, not the money?