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.