Providence Journal: Director Francis Megahy’s Op Ed

Written by admin on January 14th, 2011

Francis’ piece ran at the end of December.

Providence Journal

Now that the election is over, we may expect that our elected members are hard at work dealing with the many issues raised during the campaign, but the only certainty is that they are hard at work raising money for their next campaign. Members spend up to 40 percent of their time fund-raising; that’s 40 percent of their time they are not doing the work we elected them to do.

A major topic of the 2010 mid-term election conversation was the flood of money released into the political process by unknown donors as a result of the Supreme Court’s January Citizens United decision, giving corporations the same right to spend money on elections as individuals.

This disturbing development almost certainly affected the outcome of several races. But more disturbing is the assumption that before the court’s decision, all was well with our electoral process and that if we can somehow circumvent the decision, all will be well again.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

It was obvious before the Citizens United decision that our democracy was broken. But now, that decision is going to be used as a smokescreen to avoid making the only change which counts – divorcing lobbying from campaign funding. If that change was made, this decision would be irrelevant.

We need to know the sources of the money which the Chamber and Karl Rove poured into the 2010 mid-terms, so that’s why there is so much discussion right now about “transparency”. But transparency is also a distraction. Before the Supreme Court’s decision, there was plenty of transparency. Did it previously stop special interest money pouring into members’ campaign funds? It did not. Did we hear an outcry before Citizens United that members’ votes were, in effect, for sale? We did not.

Inside the Beltway, there’s a cozy pretense that, yes, members do take campaign money from corporations, but that doesn’t influence their votes. Really? With the transparency we already have – which enables us to correlate individual members’ receipt of campaign finance with their votes – we know that, for example, in the House vote in July on the new regulations for the financial services industry, members who voted against the bill – as Wall Street wanted – received 41 percent more campaign money from Wall Street, than senators voting in favor of it. So much for transparency as a restraint on special interests’ power over our elected representatives.

The amount of money spent by lobbyists more than doubled in the past decade, from $1.44 billion to $3.49 billion. Research done by Maplight.org has shown that the overwhelming majority of campaign contributions for all 435 Members of the House came not from voters, but from outside their districts – most of it from K Street lobbyists.

Lobbyists are now so powerful, wielding their corporate checkbooks, that they are even able get specific clauses, favoring their clients, inserted into the actual legislation.

The value of our right to vote, the defining principle of any democratic system, has been steadily eroded until voters now have little chance against special interests.

Equally corrupting, the dominance of lobbying and its links to campaigns has opened up an entirely new career path for members: from the people’s representative – to the corporations’ representative. Since the beginning of 2009, the financial services sector hired 70 former members of Congress as lobbyists, including two former Senate majority leaders, Trent Lott and Bob Dole, two former House majority leaders, Dick Gephardt and Dick Armey, plus the former House speaker, Dennis Hastert.

It’s virtually impossible to get elected in the current system with campaign contributions from voters – all candidates must take money from lobbyists. The pressure to raise money is irresistible; on any new Members’ first day in Congress, they will meet their caucus and be told the date of their first fund-raiser. It will be the next day!

This is a bi-partisan issue, corrupting all members equally. Many of them dislike this situation, indeed, many lobbyists dislike it. But members are the only ones who can vote to change the system, and currently they have no incentive to do so.

Some D.C. insiders assert that special interests can’t compete with voters’ interests. Well, they certainly can, and they do, and indeed, they frequently outweigh them – because voters don’t know what’s going on in D.C. or in their state capitals. We’ve all seen how easy it is to convince voters of falsehoods for which there isn’t a shred of evidence: for example, that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. Similarly, a 30 second commercial can effectively distort a member’s voting record; although the record of their voting history is readily available, most voters will be unfamiliar with it.

We need a grass-roots movement like the Tea Party to inform voters of what goes on in Washington, to arouse their indignation and indeed, anger. We need a national debate to re-think election campaigns and face the fact that public funding is the only barrier to prevent the very process of voting itself from drifting into an irrelevant ritual.

This will be a very hard sell. We will be battling expediency all the way. After all, Barack Obama always declared that he was in favor of public funding, but he dealt the very concept of public funding a blow in 2008 when he rejected it for his presidential campaign. He knew that he could out-raise John McCain, but most of his funding came from corporations.

Did the Founding Fathers really intend the First Amendment as a license for special interests to buy members’ votes, bend the Congress to its will, and marginalize voters? I don’t think so.

Francis Megahy is the director of the feature length documentary “The Best Government Money Can Buy,” which has just been released nationwide on DVD by Cinema Libre Studio

 

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