DIALING FOR DOLLARS
DEPENDENCE CORRUPTION OF CONGRESS
“Whether from the Right or the Left, citizens must agree upon a common charge: that this government is corrupt, and this corruption must end” (Lawrence Lessig, Republic Lost, 2011).
“We have lost something profoundly important to this republic — representative democracy. We must somehow get it back” (Bob Grover, Emporia Gazette, August 17, 2012).
In the summer of 1787, fifty-five “Plain, Honest Men”1 labored mightily to save our toddling nation from dissolution. Through discussion, debate and occasional confrontation they created something never seen before: the Constitution of the United States of America. Embedded forever – or so they thought – in that document was an instruction manual for a government answerable to and “dependent upon the People alone” (James Madison, Federalist 52, 1788).
One of the features of the Constitution of which the Founders were especially proud was the House of Representatives. Election to this chamber of Congress was “dependent upon the People alone” and a two year term assured that Representatives would frequently be held accountable by their constituents. (Prior to 1913, Senators were appointed by their state’s legislature.) Any Representative wanting to remain in office for more than one term had best pay attention to “the People alone”. Campaigning was up close and personal, and the Representative’s views and votes were well known. With the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin, it is unlikely that any of the Founders could have envisioned the telecommunication world of the twenty-first century with its television and radio ads, mass mailings, and robocalls.
All this requires massive amounts of money; without it no candidate’s voice will be heard. Small wonder that in 1976 the Supreme Court decided that money is speech (Buckley v. Valeo). Today we have a Congress that answers not to “the People alone”, but to the moneyed interests that keep Senators and Representatives in office. No, we have not returned to the quid pro quo style corruption of the Gilded Age, when a legislator’s vote could literally be bought. We have created a system in which a candidate for re-election must raise mind-boggling sums of money to run their campaigns, far more than s/he can possibly accumulate from the small-dollar contributions of constituents. Instead of attending to the people’s business, the Representative or Senator spends up to 70% of his/her time listening to and responding to the viewpoints of those able and willing to contribute large sums. Inevitably, perhaps unintentionally, the legislator’s views of bills, resolutions, earmarks and regulations slip ever closer to those of the moneyed interests. In his books Republic Lost2 and One Way Forward3, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig refers to this system as dependence corruption. Its effect is destruction of representative democracy as our Founders designed it. Lessig describes three ways in which this competition between “dependence upon the People alone” and dependence upon the funders corrupts Congress.
Distraction: Turn on C-SPAN and watch any speech in the House chamber, or any Senate committee hearing. Chances are you can count the number of legislators present without taking your shoes off. See your Representative there? Unless s/he’s the one making the speech, s/he’s probably on the phone with a deep pocket contributor (probably not you) or at a fundraising event or meeting with a lobbyist. When the bells and lights signal a vote, s/he will rush to the chamber and cast a vote decided by his/her staff on a bill s/he’s probably never read. About the closest s/he will ever get to sincere consideration of any legislation is listening to his/her staff, and guess who they listen to. This isn’t the life s/he had in mind when s/he ran for office, but it’s the world s/he lives in.
Your congressional representative will of course deny that addiction to campaign cash influences his/her vote in any way, but s/he is ignoring the effectiveness of rewards and punishment familiar to anyone who has ever trained a dog. As one former congressman put it, “I took a contribution as a ‘thank you’ for the position I took … a reward, not a bribe.” What’s the punishment? Vote the wrong way and we will spend lots of money to defeat you in the next election.
The Senate is equally culpable in this desecration of the Founders’ intent. Listen to former Senator Fritz Hollings: “I had to collect $30,000 a week, each and every week, for six years. … During every break Congress took, I had to be out hustling money. And when I was in Washington, or back home, my mind was still on money.”5
Distortion: What’s really important to you? What are the problems facing our country that Congress should be focused on? Jobs? National security? Global climate change? Immigration? Tax policy? Good luck with that! Your Senators and Representatives dance to the tune of moneyed interests. Lessig illustrates with the following example. In the spring of 2011 our country was immersed in two wars, the economy was still in the tank, and there were ongoing battles over health care, taxes, the national debt, global warming, the budget, etc. What issue engaged the attention of Congress more than any of these? Swipe fees, the amount banks charge customers for the use of debit cards!6 Who cares about that? Can you spell “b-a-n-k-e-r-s”? “Who has the time to deal with jobs, or poverty, or unemployment, or a simpler tax code? Where is the money in that?”7 You might think the voters would be outraged at this distortion of the purpose for which they elected these people to represent them. They probably would be if they knew, but the public sees very little of what actually goes on in Congress. Every bill introduced in the House or the Senate must survive a gauntlet of assignment to committee, committee meetings, hearings, and votes before it reaches the floor of the chamber; most bills die en route. Every step of this process is an opportunity for the moneyed interests to defeat the bill. One Senator can effectively block consideration of any bill or appointment just by threatening to filibuster against it. Compared to the latest mass murder or scandal in Hollywood, this is not news. What happens in Washington stays in Washington.
Trust: Once upon a time (in 1958), 70% of Americans believed they could trust their federal government to do the right thing for the country “almost always or most of the time”. Forty-two years later in 2010, only 3% of citizens trusted their government “almost always” and 19% “most of the time”.8 In 2008 nearly 92% of American agreed strongly or somewhat strongly that corruption is a major problem in Washington, and nearly 82% agreed that political corruption played a major role in the financial crisis.9 “The vast majority of Americans believe that it is money that is buying results. Whether or not that’s true, that is what we believe.”10
The Founders thought they had created a system of government that would be dependent “upon the People alone”, that would engage every citizen in the selection of those who would represent the interests of all the people. The funders have created a system that will represent their interests above the people. Is it any wonder that vast numbers of Americans have lost interest and abandoned participation in electoral politics? When you believe that it doesn’t matter who gets elected, that his/her attention goes to where the money is, why would you spend any of your precious time getting involved? How can you explain to your child that you can’t attend his/her school event because you have to go campaign for someone who will ignore him/her after the election?
Distrust of and disrespect for our political system takes the greatest toll on the middle of the political spectrum. If you believe that it doesn’t matter who wins, why should you bother to vote? Every election cycle the raging hard core, right and left alike, will emerge from their foxholes with bayonets fixed. Count on it. No matter who wins, you lose. Thus “… our belief is producing a world where the vast majority of us disengage. Or at least the vast majority of you in the middle, the moderate core of America disengage. Leaving the henhouse guarded by us polarized extremist foxes.”11
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Can we just fix this mess by making government again “dependent upon the People alone”? Can we have laws that regulate campaign financing, that prevent obscene amounts of money spent on campaigns and end dependence corruption? No. Says who? The Supreme Court. In a series of decisions made over more than a century, the Supreme Court ruled that according to the Constitution, corporations are people and money is speech. (See for example “Extra! Extra!” on this site.) As long as these two pillars of dependence corruption stand, campaign finance laws are moot. But we don’t have to accept this status quo! We can amend the Constitution to make clear that constitutional rights are for natural persons only and governments can rightfully regulate campaign financing. We can do this by starting right here in our own communities.
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1. Beeman, Richard, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, Random House, New York, 2009.
2. Lessig, Lawrence, Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – And a Plan to Stop It, Twelve, Hatchette Book Group, New York, 2011.
3. Lessig, Lawrence, One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic, Byliner, San Francisco, 2012.
4. Lessig, 2011, p. 134.
5. Hollings, Ernest, Stop the Money Chase, Washington Post, February 19, 2006.
6. Lessig, 2011, p. 164.
7. Ibid. p. 165.
8. Pew Research Center, 2010.
9. Judicial Watch, 2008.
10. Lessig, 2011, p. 167.
11. Ibid. p. 169
[Bob Grover, Dependence Corruption in Congress, Emporia Gazette, August 17, 2012], 2009
Edition. Lessig, Lawrence (2012-02-12). One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic (Kindle Single) (Kindle Location 737). Byliner Inc.. Kindle
Judicial Watch, October 21, 2008, available at http://www.judicialwatch.org/press-room/press-releases/new-judicial-watch-zogby-poll-82-7-american-say-political-corruption-played-major-role/