Rotten to the Core

LATE LAST YEAR, President Obama made a pilgrimage of sorts to the sleepy town of Osawatomie, Kansas, to talk about the economy. He went there because it’s where, in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt gave one of his most famous speeches, called “The New Nationalism,” which was, in part, an attempt to unite his party around a common vision of a well-managed economy.

Obama’s mission was similar, although more focused on philosophically framing up the 2012 elections. The White House communications staff had built up expectations about the speech, and the president delivered, movingly describing how America can better encourage innovation, shore up the middle class, and expand opportunity. For the most part, the media were aglow.

A few minutes in, he quoted from Roosevelt’s speech: “‘Our country,’” Obama said, “‘means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy ... of an economic system under which each [person] shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him [or her].’”

But, notice those ellipses. What he omitted was an important phrase from the original quote: “the triumph of popular government.” Five words may not seem like much. Perhaps the president felt as if “real democracy” said enough, or perhaps his speechwriters felt as if it wouldn’t be politically prudent for him to speak so highly of government. But the omission also points to a larger exclusion, not just in Obama’s speech, but in his presidency and, most significantly, in our country’s priorities.

Here’s how Roosevelt defined such priorities in his Osawatomie speech: “At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the [people] who possess more than they have earned and the [people] who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen [and women] to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.”

Roosevelt knew that what stood in the way of his goals—his vision of America—was the control of Washington by the lobbyists and the economic elite, and that to “advance humanity” we first had to regain “the right of self-government.” As all history students know, he sure did fight to regain that right. In fact, by 1910 Roosevelt could have been resting on his reform laurels—three years earlier, he had forced the passage of the Tillman Act, which, as the first major piece of campaign finance reform legislation in history, banned corporate contributions to campaigns.

While the problem of money in politics was bad in Roosevelt’s day, it’s much worse today. Two years ago the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision empowered corporations’ involvement in politics in unprecedented ways. But it’s unclear if President Obama understands as clearly as Roosevelt did that the fight for a better America begins with the fight to “gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests.”

I make this comparison not for the sake of parsing presidencies, but to question how we sequence change in the coming years—what we first need to accomplish if we want to accomplish our other goals. We face colossal challenges—from rebuilding the middle class to solving the energy crisis to reining in wasteful government spending to achieving genuine financial and health-care reform. To tackle them we first have to significantly reduce the power that well-financed interests have over our political system. Otherwise, as we saw with the health-care and financial reform battles, we’ll end up with mediocre solutions.

Here are some of the dimensions of the money-in-politics problem:

  • This year’s election cycle is expected to cost more than $6 billion—the most expensive in history. The Koch brothers alone have pledged $400 million to their political allies.
  • In election years, members of Congress spend roughly 40 to 70 percent of their time fundraising, which leaves them little time for legislating.
  • One-quarter of 1 percent of Americans provided two-thirds of all the campaign cash spent in the 2010 elections. Especially because of super PACs, that trend will likely get worse.
  • Some 13,000 registered lobbyists work in Washington—24 for every member of the House and Senate. This number is deceptively low because weakened regulations allow influence peddlers to lobby without actually registering. Remember, Newt Gingrich was a “historian” when collecting his $1.65 million from Freddie Mac, not a “lobbyist.”
  • After years of fundraising from lobbyists, most members of Congress leave Capitol Hill to lobby. As Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig documents in his fantastic book Republic, Lost, around 50 percent of retiring members become lobbyists these days. In the 1970s that number was around 3 percent.

Of course, all of these circumstances have been made significantly worse because of the twisted logic of Citizens United. By declaring limits on spending unconstitutional, and significantly empowering corporations to “speak” in elections, the Court opened the way to a new era of political promiscuity. Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote that the decision is “thoroughly corrupting.”

By corrupting, he doesn’t mean the kind of corruption that lands people in jail, as it did Jack Abramoff. What he means is that the excessive influence awarded to corporations by the Court bends lawmaking toward the interests and needs of a well-heeled and well-connected few. Or, as Roosevelt said, toward those “who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.”

In a groundbreaking 2004 study titled “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness: Who Gets What They Want from Government,” Princeton University professor Martin Gilens was among the first to attempt to scientifically document this twisting effect. He examined more than 2,000 survey questions about public policy, dating from 1981 to 2002, the purpose of which was to assess “whose preferences are the most influential in shaping policy decisions.” His conclusion: “When Americans with different income levels differ in their policy preferences, actual policy outcomes strongly reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle-income Americans. The vast discrepancy I find in government responsiveness to citizens with different incomes stands in stark contrast to the ideal of political equality that Americans hold dear.” It also stands in stark contrast to the aspirations of economic opportunity Obama holds dear.

Of course, the public doesn’t have to read Gilens’ paper to understand the basics of his assertion. The Occupy movement ranks campaign finance reform as one of its central causes. Huge factions of the tea party want to end corruption in Washington, D.C. According to a Rasmussen poll, 48 percent of Americans think most members of Congress are corrupt. And in a recent poll by Stan Greenberg, conducted on behalf of the reform group Public Campaign, 57 percent of respondents (and 67 percent of independents) said that reducing the influence of money in politics will be one of the most important factors in deciding for whom to vote.

Luckily, this rejection of our current system isn’t just showing up in public-opinion polls. It’s starting to appear in real-world action, too. Some highlights:

  • In a head-turning 5-2 decision last December, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that—despite Citizens United—the state’s ban on corporate political expenditures dating back to 1912 would stand.
  • In the last seven months, the city councils of both New York and Los Angeles passed strong resolutions that completely repudiated Citizens United. More than 40 towns have followed suit, and dozens of groups—including my own—are working on getting hundreds of similar resolutions passed before the end of the year.
  • More than a dozen constitutional amendments have been proposed by various organizations and members of Congress to establish that corporations are not people and that money in politics should not be viewed by the courts solely as speech.

YES, WE THE PEOPLE are fed up. We want this problem fixed. And many of us increasingly believe that doing so is possibly the great unfinished work of American democracy.

But what does fixing it mean?

Imagine a roof that has been springing leaks for a century. Every 30 years or so, the homeowners patch a hole, but not all holes, so others keep forming and the leaks keep occurring. That’s essentially what the history of campaign finance reform looks like. And after 100 years of water damage, the entire structure of the roof is now rotten. It’s beyond the point of being patched one more time. We have to move beyond incremental reforms and, instead, replace the roof.

Two components are necessary for doing so: Changing the way the courts think about money in politics and passing truly comprehensive reform legislation.

There are three fundamental ways of dealing with the courts. The first is to amend the Constitution. The second is to replace a justice on the Supreme Court, which would tip the balance away from Chief Justice Roberts and the current anti-reform majority. And the third is to alter the nature of jurisprudence itself by creating a new intellectual climate in legal circles and bringing public opinion to bear (justices are, after all, Americans like the rest of us, and therefore evolve along with conventional wisdom).

All three of these methods are equally necessary in the fight ahead. Amending the Constitution is receiving the most attention right now and is stirring action in the other two realms by generating new conversations about the makeup of the courts and what it would take to create a new jurisprudence.

But even if we were able to satisfactorily deal with the court problem, we still would have to legislate—enact new laws that remake the way money exerts pressure on politics. My organization, United Republic, has been convening some of the best legal scholars and public-interest champions to think through what such legislation would look like. We’ve done so with the assumption that we don’t have time to wait on changing the courts—that we need to act now, that we can accomplish a lot, despite the courts, and that we need to go big.

The results of those conversations—with more than 60 people, from tea party leaders to D.C. wonks—is a piece of model legislation. The lead drafter is Trevor Potter, John McCain’s former general counsel and, perhaps more famously, the legal brain behind Stephen Colbert’s super PAC. Also involved is former lobbyist, and newborn reformer, Jack Abramoff—who better to help fix Washington than the man who once exploited its corrupt ways?

This model legislation has nine basic elements, which focus on the three major parts of the problem: 1) lobbying 2) campaign financing and 3) lack of transparency. We wish that the Act could be simpler, but this is not a simple problem, and the impulse of reformers in the past to target merely one aspect of the problem (as opposed to all at once) is what has enabled the roof to keep leaking.

The basic elements include: stopping lobbyist graft; eliminating lawmakers’ conflicts of interest; getting everyone who lobbies to register as lobbyists; closing the revolving door (that allows politicians and their staff to leave Capitol Hill and become lobbyists); establishing new ways of funding campaigns; clamping down on super PACs; assigning individual responsibility for political funding; enhancing the transparency of fundraising activity; and strengthening the enforcement of laws.

Yes, it’s an audacious agenda. But it’s also what it will take to finally replace the leaky and rotten roof.

To enact such an agenda, we will have to create the kind of coalition that has rarely been created before—one that is made up of patriotic Americans of all political stripes—and muster the kind of resources necessary to win. Some estimate that the fight to win passage of McCain-Feingold, which in 2002 banned unlimited contributions to political parties, cost around $100 million. This fight will cost more than that because, most assuredly, there will be more significant resistance and opposition.

But we are seeing the beginnings of a strange-bedfellows army. People from all walks of life recognize that, while they will never agree on everything, they agree that our collective American right to self-government is slipping away. That’s why we’re finding common cause with everyone from corporate executives who are anti-cronyism to leaders of Occupy who see this as step one in creating a better democracy to tea party members who stand against government waste to religious leaders who believe that fighting corruption is a divine mandate.

But, most of all, we will need to mobilize those tens of millions of Americans who want to rebuild an economy focused on expansive job opportunities and a strong middle class. Who want to end the era, as professor Gilens put it, in which “policy outcomes strongly reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle-income Americans.”

Like those folks in Osawatomie.

Or Teddy Roosevelt.

Or President Obama?

Nick Penniman is president of United Republic, a new national nonpartisan organization working to eliminate the undue influence of special interests in American politics.

[Text amended from print edition.]


Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Rotten to the Core"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines