Too Much Money and Power to End the Influence of Money and Power
The United States Congress—A Call to College Students
There is little doubt in most people’s minds that the United States Congress is in state of total and perhaps irreconcilable collapse. It simply no longer works as it was constitutionally created to work and a great deal of dithering surrounds the causes, specifically, presumed by both conservatives and liberals to be a stand-off in principle.
That’s utter nonsense. Our 237 year history of legislative function has always been a philosophical battleground in Washington and the nation was shaped by meeting those differences with level-headed negotiation, if not detachment. Negotiation between partisan interests seems to have bailed on us and the question is whether it can be rehabilitated. Lincoln’s ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’ has never been more prescient. Not only is the House divided against itself, but the Senate and, perhaps, the nation as well.
But why? Why now, when America is in turmoil, stricken by joblessness, a shrinking middle class, economic chaos and the fears that each of these difficulties multiply, while our elected representatives stand mute, jaws dropped and caught in the headlights of their own fears? Prior to rehabbing anything, be it a building, a drug addiction or a business, the logical approach is to assess the damage, see where it came from and make a cold-heated judgment of success. Let’s try to do this, together and as clear-eyed as possible under the circumstances.
Liberals (if any survive) blame Conservatives, Conservatives blame debt and taxes, the nation blames
gridlock and the Tea Party blames everyone. For the sake of my argument—and what is an essay, if not an argument?—let’s set aside blame-games and concentrate on the influence of money in Congress.
Certainly that’s a supportable argument, the joint is awash in it and money knows no favorites in either party or philosophy—it’s an equal-opportunity swindle. The upside for me is that both liberals and conservatives may read on, along with a Tea Partier or two. All are invited to the conversation and all opinions are welcome.
The current chaos is of its own making, born and bred in the legislature and racing out of control down to an unknown finish-line. This race will either end in a house that does not stand or a long, tortuous and lonely road to rehab—this is where the college students come in, stay with me.
For context, look back to 1995, the heyday of Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and Tom DeLay, when they hatched the K-Street Project. Its intention was to tie lobby-money to Republicans, offering access in return. Its unintended consequence should have been obvious, but these guys were on a roll and drunk with power.
It all began, if such things have actual beginnings, after the 1994 elections, giving majority control to Republicans. DeLay called all the big-shot Washington lobbyists into his office and pulled the public records of political contributions that they made to Democrats and Republicans from a desk-drawer. According to Texans for Public Justice, "he reminded them that Republicans were in charge and their political giving had better reflect that—or else. The ‘or else’ was a threat to cut off access to the Republican House leadership." (Wikipedia)
Thus was hatched K-Street. Lobbyists just grinned and took the deal, knowing tides come and go, but they were witness to a tsunami. Money began to pour. They had as much as needed and need turned out to be a tsunami as well. The missed unintended consequence was that as House and Senate change hands, money pours both ways and once having made their deal with the Devil, Congress became pawns rather than masters of K-Street.
That was made illegal twelve years later, with the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, banning members of Congress (or staff) from using political power to influence employment decisions of private entities, but the beat went on, regardless. Now disclosure must be made and the only difference is that now we know the numbers. A neat trick, akin to police posting limits, but no tickets issued.
K-Street thrives on fear in Congress. Fear permeates the place beyond the small manageable fears of not getting a proper committee assignment or that almost unknown fear of the voters back home. How low can you go, below a 9% approval rating? It’s morphed into the fear of not stashing enough cash to get re-elected—an almost unsurmountable pile-- averaging $6 million for a Senator and half that for a Representative. That’s an average, some races costing tens of millions. A Senator must raise $20-30,000 a week, just to maintain parity. Not allowed by law to solicit from their offices, they maintain private cubicles across the street in commercial space, where they grind out 2 ½ hours a day, like low-paid workers in a calling center. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners are devoted to attending their own or a fellow Senator’s fundraising events.
But don’t take it from me, read what retired Senator Fritz Hollings has to say, after forty years in the Senate (October 14, 2010):
“Money, a growing cancer in politics, needs to be excised. In my seventh election to the United States Senate in 1998, I had to raise $8.5 million. $8.5 million factors to $30,000 a week, each week, every week, for six years. It's not just raising campaign funds the year ahead of the election any more. In order to raise this sum, you have to travel the country and still depend on Washington assistance. To get that assistance you have to raise money for other Senators who are up during the six years in order to get their assistance when you're up. Thus, the beginning of Washington influence on local elections. Tip O'Neill's rule that: "All politics is local," has changed to "most politics is national." The national media and pundits have taken over campaigns.
The 1971 and 1973 Congress limited spending in federal campaigns. The vote was bi-partisan and President Richard Nixon signed both measures into law. The Congressional intent was to prohibit the buying of the office. But the Supreme Court in Buckley vs. Valeo, set aside the '73 Act and now requires candidates for office to veritably buy the seat. The Court limited the freedom of speech with money, amending Madison's first amendment to the Constitution. Now, we have Corzine in New Jersey spending $60 million of his own money to be elected to the United States Senate; Bloomberg spending $109 million to be Mayor of New York, and Meg Whitman spending $118 million in the California Governor's primary and the election is not until November. In Citizens United the Supreme Court now has permitted Corporate America to secretly buy the office. All a corporation has to do is to contribute to a 501(c)(4) group and the State has lost its ability to elect its own Congressman or Senator. Last minute out-of-state money elected Brown to the U. S. Senate in Massachusetts; Miller in the Republican primary in Alaska; O'Connell in the Republican primary in Delaware. In "The Secret Election" The New York Times editorializes against corporate takeovers: "...the advocacy committees that are sucking in many millions of anonymous corporate dollars, making this the most secretive election cycle since the Watergate years."
Today, Congress spends most of its time on the needs of the campaign with little time for the needs of the country. When I came to the U. S. Senate in 1966, Mansfield, the Majority Leader, had a vote nine o'clock every Monday morning to ascertain a quorum to do business. And on Friday he kept us in until five o'clock in the afternoon. Now Congress spends Mondays and Fridays out of Washington raising money. In Washington on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays Senators have fund raisers at breakfast, lunch and dinner. A special week each month is reserved for fund raising, with Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays merged to go to California and New York to fund raise. The Republican or Democratic lunches on Tuesdays are mostly to strategize fund raisers for Senators up for re-election. Thursday's policy lunches are now canceled so that Senators can go to the party headquarters in the District for two hours to make calls for money. With committee meetings and floor debates, there is little time left to see constituents, only contributors. Senators of one party seldom work with Senators of the opposite party. It used to be different -- but when Republican Senators on my Commerce Committee had a fund raiser against me in Washington and all except Ted Stevens attended, I had the feeling that, if they wanted to get rid of me, I wanted to get rid of them. This explains the partisanship.
Washington is full of pollster politicians. The first rule of the pollster is: "Never divide the voters. Comment on both sides of an issue and answer you're 'concerned,' you're 'troubled.'" You're taught not to lead -- do nothing, just vote the poll and raise money. The real needs of a country, like a Marshall Plan, are never found in a political poll. This allows the Washington lobbyists with the money to run Congress. For example, Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform obtains a commitment against taxes long before a senator can be elected. Any senator wanting to pay the bill for government is talking to a fixed jury. The cover of a recent issue of Time headlines: "The Best Laws Money Can Buy. $3.5 billion was spent on lobbying last year. Why that's the biggest bargain in town." And rather than covering the issues, the media covers the ups and downs of the parties by covering the money. The headline in USA Today was "Big cash edge for GOP in state bids."
Like a dog chasing its tail, Congress has tried for thirty-five years to control spending in federal elections, only to be thwarted by the Supreme Court, intent on equating speech with money. To return to Madison's freedom of speech, Congress needs to pass a Joint Resolution amending the Constitution "to authorize Congress to limit or control spending in federal elections." I proposed such a Joint Resolution, obtaining bi-partisan approval of the majority of the U. S. Senate, but never the two-thirds required to amend the Constitution. Then Phil Gramm made it a partisan issue, telling me: "When you Democrats give up the unions, we'll give up the money." The Republicans were in control my last three years in the Senate, but they would never call a Joint Resolution for consideration for fear of having to vote on the Hollings amendment limiting spending. Shortly after I introduced my amendment, the Governors’ Conference called asking that money be limited in state elections. My point is that the people would approve such a Joint Resolution in a New York minute. They resent the corruption of money in politics.”
Fear of reprisal reigns as well, from Grover Norquist, the NRA, committee chairmanships, the Republican and Democratic base (however you define that) and being dumped by your own party in an upcoming election. Don’t laugh, it’s happened to some big names. Unlike the banks and Wall Street, the United States Congress is not ‘too big to fail,’ it’s too fearful to function.
The why of it is as old as Congress, old as our American Republic. If you control legislation, you essentially have complete power over whatever large or small part of America that interests you. As an example, since 1994, Grover Norquist has single-handedly controlled the tax debate with his iron-clad pledge by all Republican Senators and Congressmen never to vote to raise taxes—any taxes. A few defied him and those few are no longer in the Congress, as Norquist’s fear-factor operates to gag common sense and responsibility. All right, the point has been made, we’ll leave it there.
The solution is elusive as mercury in the palm of your hand. Certainly Congress hasn’t the backbone to change itself under the present circumstances of privilege and fear.
A Congress that has seen fit to live by the sword of monied political influence is not likely to choose to die by that sword. This (and earlier) Congresses changed the laws to make fraud and corruption legal and thereby have changed the language as well. In other advanced Western nations, fraud and corruption are subject to prison terms. In America they are known as lobbying and perfectly legal ‘political action committees.’ The Congress declared it so and the Supreme Court confirmed their theft of our constitutional right to representative government. We are ‘represented,’ but by money rather than public interest.
Actually, the Congress wishes it otherwise as well, a return to simpler times, but they boxed themselves in and now must live in that box, while they and the nation twist in the wind.
Ten Percent of the Senate chose to ride off into the sunset with Fritz Hollings, rather than run again under present circumstances; Max Baucus, D-Mont., (6 terms), Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., (2 terms), Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, (5 terms), Mike Johanns, R-Neb., (1 term), Tim Johnson, D-S.D., (3 terms), Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., (5 terms), Carl Levin, D-Mich., (6 terms), Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., (5 terms), Jim DeMint, R-S.C., (2 terms) and John Kerry, D-Mass., off to be Secretary of State, (5 terms).
180 years of combined experience gone, disappearing over the horizon, as guys like Jon Corzine spend over $62 million to sit in their chair. It’s been a long time since Mr. Smith went to Washington.
But the dilemma must be solved or the very fabric of the Republic, already frayed and torn, will fall to pieces at our feet. We are too good for that, too inventive, robust, multi-cultural, hard-working and free to allow such a thing to happen to our treasured Republic. It is common for argument to haul out a Thomas Jefferson quote, polish it up a bit and present it like a mouse dropped at the feet. But two are useful to this discussion:
“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.”
Certainly the laws the Congress has drawn to protect and conserve itself are tyrannical and in direct conflict to our rights as citizens.
“I place economy among the first and most important republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared. To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt.”
‘Economy’ is no longer in our lexicon. A self-serving and feckless Congress replaced problem-solving with borrowed money, to kick the cans of incredible problems here at home down the road. Inattention, disinterest and self-interest all combined to shackle the nation to the oars of perpetual debt.
If not this, then what? Presuming the Congress incapable of curing its own disease, only two directions are possible--rehabilitation or collapse.
Collapse of the financial system and its attendant social breakdown is a closer reality than when markets faltered in 2008. That’s a whole different discussion but, should it occur, we (along with the rest of the world) will be brought to our knees and forced to begin again, crafting a more equitable and sustainable form of capitalism. That’s a solution in itself, but the pain to nearly all classes of Americans is almost too brutal to contemplate. We have been there before and survived. We will again survive as a nation and as a culture, having learned bitter lessons and moving forward, no doubt the stronger for it. No nation in the world is better at overcoming the overwhelming. Which brings me to the only other apparent possibility (to me, at least).
Rehabilitation will require the young, the strong, the brightest and best.
Students must take to the streets in a quiet, coordinated and relentless campaign against a Congress that willingly and self-servingly gave over the will of the people to the will of America’s monied interests.
Every time Harry Reid or any Democrat shows his face, quiet demonstrations must attend, dogging Harry, questioning the $25 million he raised for re-election, where he got it and how he voted in his benefactors’ favor. Same for Mitch McConnell. Every single member of Congress has to get the same treatment, shamed individually on every possible occasion, made to scurry like cockroaches, exposed to the light and delight of the evening news cameras.
Write articles, blog, hand out flyers (our nation was born on the printed hand-out), poster your neighborhood, speak on campus and flash-mob as often as you find a reason and a target. Go to jail if you must, but go to the college campus nearby and organize. Be relentless, this is far more important work than the Occupy Movement.
Over 50% of college graduates are currently jobless. The million and a half students, who can’t find work, have to take over where I and my generation failed to do our part. Students are scattered all over the nation, a flash-mobber’s dream. They don’t need to hitch a ride to DC to demonstrate. They can be seen and heard in coordinated groups across the country and who is better at flash-mobs than students? They got out the vote for Barack Obama and it’s time for politicians to realize those votes can be withdrawn. Scare the hell out of them, including the President. Martin Luther King, Jr. got civil rights by demonstrating civil rights.
Student loans just eclipsed the $1 trillion mark. A thousand-billion dollar indebtedness so that 53% of graduates couldn’t find a job. That’s more than the total of all American credit-card debt and it’s held by our children, simply to educate themselves for a workforce that has no place for them. Harvard sits on a $30 billion endowment, Yale $19 billion, Stanford $17 billion, MIT $10 billion and their graduates sit on impossible debt.
Here’s a job for you, while you live with mom and dad and waiter to help out. Hound the Representative from your district. He’s near enough to hound. If he won’t show, picket his office. Your average representative spent $1,770,000 to get himself elected in 2012. Where did he get the dough? How has he voted? All that information is available at OpenSecrets.org and other tracking sites. Ask him.
Get out and do it, college grads. Do it for yourself, your country, your future and for me as well, because I didn’t do it—not when I should have and so it falls to you. I’m sorry for that, but sorrow doesn’t change things and your voices are strong, your energy, resources, organizational skills and skin-in-the-game impossible to ignore.