The Common Good
July-August 1998

Hostile Takeover

by Bill Moyers | July-August 1998

Big Money's assault on democracy is even worse than you think.

Politics today has become an arms race, with money instead of missiles. The 1996 federal elections were the most expensive in history—costing approximately $2.2 billion—and that could be doubled by the year 2000. In an arms race the side with the most missiles wins. In politics the more money you have, the better your chance of election. One side escalates, and the other follows suit. Faster and faster, the spiral has been growing. Today this arms race is undermining our system of self-government.

When asked who really controls Washington, voters overwhelmingly answer special interests, as opposed to either Congress or the president. Nearly everyone thinks contributions affect the voting behavior of members of Congress. In another poll, only 14 percent of the people give members of Congress a high rating for honesty and ethical standards.

Is this what politics has become on the eve of the 21st century—a bunch of self-interested, lying windbags on the take from moneyed, special interests? On the one hand, these polls tell us that Americans are pretty smart and see through the pomp and circumstance that passes for news coverage by most of the media.

On the other hand, there is a terribly important warning here: Americans are disillusioned about politics. They are both alienated and apathetic. Fewer than half of us bother to vote in our presidential elections—compared to 80 percent a century ago—and only about a third in our congressional elections. People will tell you they feel betrayed, sold out by a political class of professional electioneers, big donors, lobbyists, and the media. What happens when so many people drop out of a system they no longer respect and they think no longer represents them?

The great wonder of American democracy is that it has been open to changes in direction. With one exception—the Civil War—we have been able to resolve our differences through democratic means. Women demanded the right to vote, and finally got it. Workers demanded the right to organize, and finally got it. Blacks demanded political and legal equality, and finally got it. It’s true that in each of these cases protest began on the streets, outside the electoral system, and many lives were sacrificed. But ultimately the political system responded. Democracy won out.

What I find troubling today is the possibility that our democracy is losing its flexibility. On some critical issues it is especially unresponsive and intractable. These critical questions—all the more critical because of the growing disparities of wealth in this country—are almost entirely off the screen of public debate. They are not the subject wealthy contributors want their politicians to talk about, and the journalists who work for the corporations that own the mainstream media lack the independence to make such issues the stuff of the news.

I TAKE IT AS AN article of faith that the soul of democracy is "government of, by, and for the people." This enshrines two bedrock ideas that animate our political system. One is representation. We believe our best chance at governing ourselves lies in obtaining the best judgments of those we elect to represent us. Having cast our votes, we expect those officials to weigh the competing interests and decide to the best of their ability what is right for the republic.

The second idea is political equality, which is the notion—as FDR put it in 1936—that "inside the polling booth every American man and woman stands as the equal of every other American man and woman." This political equality in choosing the people who represent us, and our faith in their ability to arrive at what’s good for the nation, enables us to describe democracy as the "rule of the ruled." Americans of all stripes have sacrificed, suffered, and died for the belief that all citizens should have an equal political footing.

But tell that to Roger Tamraz, the oilman who paid $300,000 to the Democratic Party to get a moment at Bill Clinton’s ear. This got him called before the Senate hearings on campaign finance, where his candor made him the star. If you were watching the hearings, you know the senators tried to play it straight. They fumed. They expressed outrage. At one point Sen. Fred Thompson boomed: "Do you think you have a constitutional right to have your business deal considered personally by the president of the United States?" Tamraz looked right back at him and said, "Senator, I go to the outer limits. Why not? You set the rules and we’re following. This is politics as usual."

In a final effort to shake him, one senator asked Tamraz if he had ever voted or registered to vote. No, he replied, "I think [money] is a bit more than a vote." Truer words were never spoken!

These big contributors seem to get what they keep praying—and paying—for. Take the chairman and CEO of Federal Express, who bought his way into the White House for a one-on-one session with President Clinton to discuss a trade issue. Though it was very likely a legitimate issue, even the White House had to concede that individual businessmen pressing such causes are rarely granted exclusive access to the president. Three weeks after the meeting, Federal Express gave $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee.

Richard DeVos, founder of the Amway corporation, gave more than a million dollars to the Republican Party in the last two years. Then Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich slipped a last-minute addition into a recent tax bill that gave a special tax break for two of Amway’s Asian affiliates. Estimated value: $280 million.

Buried in that same tax bill, and unreported at the time, was another tax break worth billions of dollars to just five industries that since 1995 contributed $35 million to various members of Congress. The biggest contributions went to leaders of both parties who decide the winners and losers in every piece of legislation.

The tobacco industry has given more than $13 million in soft money to the Republican Party since 1995. In 1997, with no debate or even an acknowledged sponsor, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott slipped a $50 billion tax credit to the tobacco companies to be used to lower the cost of their pending settlement of all those state lawsuits. Only after it was exposed and there was a vast outcry did Congress rescind the giveaway. But think about it. Because of campaign contributions Congress was going to pass the buck to you for the fines owed the public by some of the richest and most duplicitous corporations in America.

Roger Tamraz was right: Money is a bit more than a vote. And that’s the problem. Organized economic interests have legitimate claims in the public realm and deserve to be heard. No one disputes that right. But democracy depends upon the balance between organized money and organized people—those are the two ways to wield influence in our kind of society. There has never been a nirvana in American history when the elite didn’t marshal their resources to protect their privileges. But what’s different is the one-sidedness of it now, which is overwhelming the political process and leaving people angry and alienated. We need to know what to do about it.

THE MAJORITY OF Americans want a new system of campaign finance. How do I know this? Because every time voters have had a chance to choose a different way, they have spoken loud and clear. There are signs on the horizon of a new citizens’ movement to reclaim democracy. Sixteen states have adopted reforms in the past three years. In every state where a reform initiative was on the ballot in 1996, it passed.

The basic idea is this: If someone’s going to own the politicians, it might as well be us. Candidates who voluntarily agree to raise no private money, abide by spending limits, and can demonstrate that they have a basic level of support in their district can opt to receive "clean money" from a public fund. Clean money campaign reform won’t end the power of organized special interests in Washington, but with it candidates will have a choice about how to finance their campaigns that they do not have now. The money chase, which so many candidates find exhausting, will be tempered. Good people who today choose not to run because they don’t want to get on their knees before big donors will have a fighting chance to run serious campaigns. The inherent conflicts of interest that arise when public servants are privately financed will be eliminated, restoring needed public confidence in the process. At a minimum, voters will finally have a real choice on election day.

It’s estimated that such public financing for elections would only cost about $5 per average taxpayer to cover all congressional elections. That’s a small price to pay for cleaning up our elections, when you consider how we are now literally paying for hundreds of billions of dollars in boondoggles, special tax breaks, targeted subsidies, and unnecessary spending that result from our privately financed campaign system.

It’s no wonder the larger problems facing our nation—increasing job insecurity, declining real wages and income, children living in poverty, inadequate and increasingly costly health insurance, increasing disparity of income and wealth, pollution and environmental degradation—cannot be seriously addressed by our politicians. To do so would offend their bankrollers, the people who pay to play.

The work of democracy—politics if you will—is the tedious, hard, perplexing, messy, and seemingly endless task of working through what kind of people we’re going to be and what kind of com-

munities we will live in. It encompasses practically everything that we can and must do together: how we educate our children, design our communities and neighborhoods, feed ourselves and dispose of our wastes; how we care for the sick, elderly, and poor; how we relate to the natural world; how we entertain and enlighten ourselves; how we defend ourselves, and what values we seek to defend; what roles are chosen for us by virtue of our identity, and what roles we create for ourselves.

These fundamental issues are for all of us to address, as free and equal citizens, through the political process. But politics as a whole is debased when public servants are privately financed. Elections are turned into auctions and access to public officials into a commodity available only to the highest bidders. What if the American people, disgusted by the hollowing out of American democracy and alienated by the performance of both the Republican and Democratic Parties, turn away from democratic politics?

AMERICA IS AN exceptional country, but we are not immune to forces spreading throughout the world. In the last few years, several industrial democracies have seen their ruling party or parties swept aside by voters sick and tired of government mismanagement and corruption. Twice there have been moments when it seemed the tidal wave was hitting the United States—first in the spring of 1992, when for nearly two months an unknown charismatic billionaire named Ross Perot actually led both Bill Clinton and George Bush in the polls for president. There were signs of it happening again in the fall of 1995, when Gen. Colin Powell dallied with an independent campaign for president.

Collectively, these forces all signal the emergence of "anti-politics" as an enduring phenomenon in the world’s democracies. When voters turn to such leaders, they seem to be saying: "Enough of politics. Politics is our problem."

The leaders of both parties—Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Bill Clinton, Al Gore—reached the pinnacles of power in large measure because they were their parties’ best fund-raisers. At the same time, money may also be the most important ingredient in their downfall—except for one thing. When it comes time for accountability, neither side really wants to get to the bottom of the other’s money scandal because they know it will burn them too. Both the Democrats and Republicans are in a slow-motion collapse, where the main thing keeping them standing is the fact that they are falling into each other, like two drunkards holding each other up as they stumble down the street.

I see no way to stop this trend without ending the "arms race" and establishing a system of campaign financing that reflects the soul of democracy, values of fairness, political equality, and government accountability. Only then can we protect democracy and return it to the people. It won’t be easy. The defenders of the present system will fight hard to hold on to their privilege, and they write the rules. Nothing short of an aroused public will change this system. Nothing less than democracy is at stake.

Money Pollution

In Utah Valley near Provo, a researcher from Brigham Young University studied hospital admissions for a several year period during which a local steel mill closed and then reopened. This is an area where, due to the influence of the Mormon Church, very few people smoke. The steel mill was the source of nearly all the small particles in the local atmosphere. The studies found that the opening of the mill coincided with a doubling and even a tripling (depending on the time of year) in hospital admissions for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis, and asthma, especially among young people.

Despite this kind of evidence, people associated with the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, the American Petroleum Institute, the American Electric Power Company, the National Mining Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers argue that we have already done enough to improve the nation’s air. The coalition fighting the EPA’s new air standards is reported to have $30 million in its war chest. The American Lung Association, by comparison, doesn’t even have a political action committee. Do you think the playing field’s level where this debate occurs in Washington?

Here we have a very clear illustration of how money is corrupting politics. In the House of Representatives, 192 members have signed on to legislation to force the EPA to delay the new standards for at least four years. These 192 members of Congress have received nearly three times as much in campaign contributions from big air polluters than members who have not signed on to the bill. According to the Environmental Working Group, the more money a House member receives from major air polluters, the more likely that politician is to support anti-clean air legislation. Representing constituents who live in a heavily polluted area does not necessary lead a House member to oppose the bill. The money matters more. As one Washington journalist put it, "Soot and smog are not the only pollutants in the air of Capitol Hill. There is also money. So much, you can almost breathe it."

Citizens Fight Back

While the political class scoffs at the notion that ordinary citizens really care, across the country a different story is unfolding. In 1996, voters in Maine broke the mold of what activists thought was possible, becoming the first in the nation to enact "clean money" financing of state elections.

In June 1997, Vermont lawmakers proved that such reform could be enacted legislatively, with broad bipartisan support. Last October, some 2,000 citizen activists fanned out across the state of Massachusetts carrying petitions seeking to put "The Massachusetts Clean Elections Law" on the ballot before the voters next year. By the end of the day, despite a cold, driving rainstorm, they had collected more than 50,000 signatures—close to the total needed to qualify for the ballot.

But this isn’t just a New England phenomenon. In addition to Massachusetts, initiative campaigns aimed at the 1998 ballot are also gaining ground in Arizona, Idaho, Missouri, New York City, and Washington state. Recent polls in these places show strong support across the political spectrum. Legislatures in Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia are currently considering similar bills, and movements are under way in more than a dozen other states.

Friends in High Places

A horde of corporations opposed to paying any taxes at all succeeded in getting Congress to eliminate the alternative minimum tax for most companies. The alternative minimum tax was created by Congress in 1986 to stop profitable companies from avoiding income taxes altogether. Until then, many successful businesses like Dow Chemical and Texaco took advantage of so many tax deductions and loopholes that they paid no taxes whatsoever.

The prime beneficiaries of Washington’s newly found generosity will include the oil, gas, and mining companies, the airlines, heavy manufacturers, and insurance companies. This group alone, which was active in seeking the repeal of the alternative minimum tax, gave members of Congress more than $13 million since 1995. Officially, Congress estimates that this will reduce federal revenues by $20 billion in the next 10 years, but independent groups believe the real amount of corporate tax dodging that results could be three times as much. From $20 to $60 billion in tax relief for an investment of $13 million in campaign contributions: Wouldn’t it be nice if we all could pursue similar investments?

BILL MOYERS, a journalist and producer, is founder of Public Affairs Television Inc. and president of The Florence and John Schumann Foundation. This article is adapted from a speech he gave in San Francisco in December 1997.

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