Quick! What’s the biggest problem in American politics today?
Now you might find it odd, with all of America’s problems, I can come up with one single word that stands out above all other problems. But my reasoning is simple: all the other problems spring from this one.
The NRA’s money has blocked expanded background checks before people can buy guns. Big money watered down banking reform in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and has hindered any and all legislation that could potentially help the majority of Americans, if it might in any way harm the finances of the super-rich.
Both parties put campaign contributors at the top of their “listen-to” lists, paying donors back with tax breaks, subsidies, and other ear-marks. Congress reps and senators spend more time wooing money than they do pass laws to help the country. No one wants to lose the lavish perks that come with lush campaigning, let alone lose an election.
I’m not naïve. I know there’s been money in politics for as long as there’s been politics, and it’s been a problem for every system. The Romans may have had a Republic, but only “citizens” were allowed to vote. Denying a voice to the slaves and former slaves (and of course women) tilted the playing field heavily towards those with money. Aristocratic, monarchical systems naturally restricted political power to those with economic power as well. The early 19th-century U.S. government had its inherently-corrupt spoils system, and the late-19th-century Grant Administration was legendary for the influence that Big Money wielded.
As corporations have grown in size and sway in the 20th century, so too has the clout they’ve had in Washington. Half-hearted efforts have been made here and there to curtail the influence of the affluent, but it’s been nothing more than symbolic and has barely slowed the march of monetary power in politics.
The Citizens United case, though, raised the influence of money to an entirely new level. Campaign finance laws, however weak, mean nothing when there are no limits to corporate spending on “issues”. Equating “money” with “free speech” gives the rich Constitutional protection.
The problem is that Congress is never going to vote to give themselves a massive pay cut, which is what meaningful campaign finance reform would amount to.
Never, that is, unless we force them to.
The only way we’re going to reduce the influence of money in American politics – and the only way we’re going to be able to solve the myriad other problems we face – is by screaming our heads off at our State and Federal representatives, and letting them know beyond any shadow of doubt that we’re not going to take it any more.
Tell them in no uncertain terms that getting Big Money out of the political system is Priority Number One. That’s it’s one person, one vote, not one dollar, one vote. That we’re not going to stand still while they reap millions in legal kickbacks in return for sponsoring special interest legislation.
Specifics? For starters, ban Congress members from taking cushy “consultant” jobs as influence-peddler – excuse me, “lobbyists” – for 10 years after leaving office. That’s one of the chief ways wealth special interests reward lawmakers who do their bidding, and it’s one of the easiest reforms to put in place.
Overturning Citizens United is something that we’ll have to leave up to the Supreme Court. Let’s hope that the existing members will either come to their senses, or else future Presidents and Congressional members will have the sense to appoint sane Justices in the future.
Down the road, government funding of all campaigning is the only answer. Have the federal government provide the same amount of campaign money to all qualified candidates. That not only will level the political playing field between rich and poor, but it will cut down on the number of annoying and counter-productive political ads and robocalls.
The last national election saw literally billions in campaign spending, much of it on misleading, distorted, negative campaign ads. Did all that additional money get a better government? No. All it did was divide Americans even more, and make our political representatives all the more beholden to special interests.
The time is long past for meaningful campaign finance reform. Start screaming now.