Shut Door on Plutocracy

The Supreme Court opened the door to plutocracy — rule by the rich — with its Jan. 21 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. A narrow right-wing majority on the court set aside a century of laws and court precedents to allow unlimited corporate spending in elections and grant corporations the same free-speech rights as individuals.

Big corporations and right-wing donors have anted up $300 million for groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads to slime Democratic candidates before the midterm elections.

In reaction, MoveOn.org is leading an effort to get candidates for Congress to endorse a three-part “Fight Washington Corruption” agenda that includes:

• Overturning the Court’s Citizens United decision through an amendment to the Constitution.

• Passing the Fair Elections Now Act in Congress, which would allow people of modest means to run for office by offering public matching funds for candidates who agree to limit their fundraising to small individual donations. The bill would allow lawmakers to do their jobs without having to constantly beg for campaign contributions.

• Enacting tough new laws cracking down on the revolving door between government officials and lobbyists. It would prohibit individuals form switching from corporate lobbying to government service, or vice versa, within a three-year period; stop corporate lobbyists from providing gifts and free travel to government officials; and post online the attendees and content of all meetings between lobbyists and government officials.

More than 13,000 lobbyists prowl Capitol Hill on behalf of corporate interests at a cost of $3.47 billion last year, and not much of that is in the public interest.

As we went to press, more than 500,000 people had signed the MoveOn petition (they hope for a million by election day) and 158 candidates and members of Congress had pledged to support the agenda, but the powers that be in Washington and Wall Street won’t give up their leverage easily.

The Fair Elections Now Act, which is modeled after similar systems operating on the state level in Arizona, Connecticut, Maine and North Carolina, has the best chance of passing the House, with 160 co-sponsors, but it has yet to get a committee hearing and its chances in the Senate are even more remote, with 25 senators signed on. As much as lawmakers profess to hate the constant chase of campaign contributions, they did manage to win office under that system and many incumbents are unwilling to support legislation that would make it easier for challengers to fund a campaign against them.

A legislative stopgap, the DISCLOSE Act would require most political groups to list their donors and identify themselves in ads before the election. (The bill exempts several large nationwide organizations, including the National Rifle Association.) It also bars spending on political campaigns by corporations that have $10 million or more in government contracts, as well as American corporations that are controlled by foreign nationals. It passed the House in June but Republicans united to stop the bill from coming up in the Senate in another misuse of the filibuster rule.

The longest shot is the constitutional amendment, which requires passage by two-thirds majorities of the House and Senate and ratification by three-quarters of state legislatures. The wording of the amendment is undetermined, but most likely it would affirm that civil rights extend only to human persons. Neither the original framers of the Constitution nor the authors of the 14th Amendment intended for the Bill of Rights to apply to corporations, but judges in the 1880s stretched the definition of “person” in the Constitution to cover corporations such as railroads that were throwing their weight around in the “Robber Baron” era.

It won’t be easy to close the door on the plutocrats because organized money likes the system the way it is and politicians need money to get re-elected. After all the damage Wall Street banks have done to the national economy over the past few years, the bankers’ lobbyists still managed to water down the financial reform bill, and it wasn’t because they have winning smiles.

It’s not too late to reclaim democracy, but it will take united citizens to overturn Citizens United.

Prove the Pollsters Wrong

With Labor Day behind us and the campaign heading for the home stretch, Democrats are facing long odds in holding onto one or both chambers of Congress. Americans are deeply frustrated with the lack of economic progress, but unfortunately they are more likely to blame the Dems, who have succeeded in stabilizing the economy, instead of the Repubs, who have been working to sabotage the recovery.

Much of the Democrats’ problem can be attributed to an “enthusiasm gap.” Republicans can’t wait to vote Democrats out of office while Democrats aren’t sure they’ll bother to vote. And independents who are dissatisfied with the economic progress are leaning toward giving the Republicans another shot.

Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling wrote Sept. 2 that if the folks planning to turn out this November matched the general electorate, Dems Alex Sink running for governor in Florida and Alexi Giannoulias running for the Senate in Illinois would have double-digit leads. Elaine Marshall running for the Senate in North Carolina and Pat Quinn running for governor in Illinois would have small leads instead of trailing their Republican rivals. And Ted Strickland running for governor in Ohio, Lee Fisher running for Senate in Ohio, Joe Sestak running for Senate in Pennsylvania and Robin Carnahan running for Senate in Missouri would all be within 3 points rather than trailing by 7-10 as they do now. “This year isn’t getting away from the Democrats because voters are moving toward the Republicans en masse. But the enthusiasm gap is turning races that would otherwise be lean Democratic into toss ups, turning toss ups into leaning Republican, and turning leaning Republican into solid Republican,” Jensen wrote at publicpolicypolling.blogspot.com.

Most reputable polls show Democrats and Republicans roughly tied among registered voters but Republicans lead among “likely” voters. Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal noted that the NBC/WSJ poll released Sept. 7 shows there are still enough pro-Democrat, pro-Obama voters to help the party head off disaster — but only if they can be persuaded to show up and vote. “In the survey, those who expressed the very highest levels of interest in this year’s election preferred a Republican Congress by a margin of 53% to 35%. Among all other, less interested voters, Democrats are preferred by a 20-point margin,” Seib wrote.

One of the problems for polls is predicting who is likely to vote, but it is pointless to argue that the polls are wrong. If Democrats are going to beat the pundits’ expectations and hold onto the House and/or the Senate, it will be because they persuade the base to show up to vote. That will take not only more speeches like Obama’s performance in Milwaukee on Labor Day, but also a strong effort by labor unions and others in the “professional left” who are held in contempt by the Washington establishment and some in the Obama White House.

Obama tried to work with health insurance executives and the Wall Street bankers to pass moderate reform bills and all it got him was a 9.6% unemployment rate, a deflated base and accusations from the right that he was a socialist. “They talk about me like a dog,” Obama said in Milwaukee. He has two months to pump the base back up. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2010


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