Saturday, May 15, 2010

The only political issue that counts

I believe the only political issue that counts is removing money from elections. Until our elected officials are free from the need to solicit bribes—that is, campaign contributions—our country’s policies are going to be skewed towards the interests of large business. The interest of the average American will not count.

Two articles in today’s New York Times made the connection between Congress and business explicit.

In “Debit Fee Cut is Rare Loss for Big Banks,” about an amendment by Senator Richard Durbin to financial legislation that would regulate fees paid by retailers to banks for the use of debit cards, “Lobbyists for the wounded but formidable banking industry made clear to some senators that this decision would affect future campaign donations, according to people who participated in those conversations.” In other words, vote in favor of this amendment at your peril.

The other article describes President Obama’s speech on Friday about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “Obama Vows End to ‘Cozy’ Oversight of Oil Industry.”

Mr. Obama reiterated that he intended to break up the beleaguered federal Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling, “so that the part of the agency which permits oil and gas drilling and collects royalties will be separate from the part of the agency in charge of inspecting oil rigs and platforms and enforcing the law.” That way, Mr. Obama said, “there’s no conflict of interest, real or perceived.”

David Rothkopf, a former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration, said that Mr. Obama was trying to walk a fine line between capitalizing on populist anger over the oil spill and alienating the business community, which he needs for his jobs agenda.

“I think one of the risks associated with his rhetoric on the spill is that it hardens the divide between the Democratic Party and the business community,” Mr. Rothkopf said. “And that’s something that while it seems to be in the spirit of the moment now, could have serious ramifications come election time.”

That, he said, could result in money from corporate America going to the Republican Party.
For some reason the conservative Washington Post editorial page has allowed Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation, to publish a weekly op-ed column. Last week she wrote about this issue, and about another bill sponsored by Senator Richard Durbin which would radically change our electoral system. "How to turn Congress Inc. back to just Congress."

What is the biggest scandal of 2010 so far?

Allegations of fraudulent misrepresentation from Goldman Sachs? An oil spill that poses a threat to our environment and economy for generations? Mining operators freely ignoring safety violations and treating workers as disposable?

Each of these is bad. But perhaps the biggest political scandal is the one that aids and abets these others -- the pay-to-play system that buys up Congress, pollutes our political system with special-interest cash and deep-sixes the kind of bold reform agenda that we voted for and need.

The health-care industry has contributed more than $200 million to congressional candidates in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Is it any wonder that there was no public option in the final bill, or that Medicare isn't able to negotiate lower drug prices for seniors the same way the Veterans Administration does for veterans?

This legislation, the Fair Elections Now Act, would sever ties between big-money campaign contributors and members of Congress, who, in the Senate, must raise an average of $27,000 every week they are in office in order to run competitive races. The bill would bar participating congressional candidates from accepting contributions larger than $100 and allow them to run honest campaigns with a blend of small donations and public matching funds.

Sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the bill has 18 Senate co-sponsors (12 of whom signed on since the Citizens United decision) and 149 bipartisan cosponsors in the House. Activists are hopeful there will be a House vote as soon as this summer, and Durbin reportedly will push for the Senate to take it up after the House does.

Fighting for this bill is good policy and good politics. A recent Greenberg/MarkMcKinnon found that voters support the Fair Elections Now Act by a 2-1 margin, 62 percent to 31 percent. Independents support it 67 percent to 30 percent. Is there a candidate in the country who wouldn't gain votes by saying, “I want a political system in which someone who doesn't take more than $100 from anybody can run a competitive race for Congress. I want a political process that makes Congress listen to their constituents and allows them to ignore the lobbyists with fat checks in hand”?

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