An Unnecessary Evil

When members of the 99%, Doug Bowen and Kathy Chaiklin, were granted an audience with Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins earlier this year, the pair sat with Senator Collins to discuss campaign financing and the donations she has received from wealthy out-of-state interests. The following exchange was recalled from memory after the meeting:

Doug – Senator [Margaret Chase] Smith stood up to Senator Joe McCarthy when he nearly paralyzed government by accusing officials of being communists. At a great risk to her career she exposed him as a liar, when other members of congress were afraid to. Now, we believe the greatest threat to democracy is unlimited special interest money from corporations and lobbyists and unions that members of Congress rely on to win elections, they are influenced by it. You know that 1% of Americans contribute 99% of all the money members raise to win elections.

Senator – I don’t believe Congress is influenced by campaign contributions. I don’t think large contributions are a problem. Now, the Super PAC money might be a problem, its so huge, the ten million the Adelsons gave to Gingrich’s campaign…..though I don’t think that would influence Newt… Casinos?

Doug – Americans were very concerned about the influence of big money on Congress long before Citizens United. Americans have given Congress like 10% approval ratings for years, 80% think “government is controlled by a few big interests looking out for themselves.” These are polls. What people actually think about Congress is what’s really important, we can’t trust it. What’s a regular person supposed to think when he sees a corporation give huge amounts of money to a Senator, how can he believe there isn’t going to be something in return, I don’t mean passing cash, but like favors returned over time –

Senator – No its not like that. I am not influenced. At all. Most in Congress are not. (vigorous shaking of head).

I’ve often wondered how a person in Senator Collins position could make this type of statement, a statement so clearly out of sync with prevailing public sentiments, and still feel as if the statement was an honest one. What rationalization would have to take place to allow the Senator a clear conscience with regard to the funds ALL Congresspeople must collect in our present broken and unfair campaign finance system to compete in elections? The following episode from a recent This American Life broadcast might supply an answer.

The episode is called Take the Money and Run for Office. In it both senators and congress members describe the process they must use to collect needed campaign donations to stay competitive. The twist, though, for those that have in mind narrow-interest corporate lobbyists dangling campaign funds in front of hapless or easily influenced Congress members is in the fact that Congress members and their campaign staff are often the ones soliciting campaign funds, and an audience with a Senator or Congress person is more easily attained when the lubricant of campaign donations is present or at least promised. (Money is certainly not the only avenue to catch the ear of a senator or congress member, but it certainly helps.) A lobbyist’s office hasn’t returned funding raising phone calls from a Senator’s or Congress member’s office? Why should that senator or member make time in their busy schedules to hear what that particular lobbying firm has to say?

If Senator Collins’ office initiates the fund raising call, and couples face-time with her to the success or failure of her outreach efforts does her influence over those she seeks funds from preclude or overshadow their influence over her decisions? Is this the rationalization that threads a twisted path through the thicket of influence buying and influence peddling that to the public seems obvious, pernicious, very suspect?

Bundlers for candidates are given more easy access to successful candidates because through their fund raising efforts they become players, often seeking appointments to the many political appointment positions that successful candidates make upon winning office. You pay to play, or you watch from the sidelines. For the vast majority of people watching from the sidelines it is difficult to tell who is trying to buy influence and who is peddling influence. Take the Money and Run for Office captures some of how this system works and why it needs to be changed.


Economic Inequality and Political Representation (pdf), Larry M. Bartels, Department of Politics and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, August 2005.

(MP3 audio file of Take the Money and Run for Office will be available after 7pm, April 1, 2012.)

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The Disingenuous Mr. Romney Comes to Portland

I confess. I was a bad boy at the Romney event last Friday evening at Portland Yacht Services. I openly challenged some of Romney’s disingenuous assertions and after a time the police, at the request of the owner, asked that I leave which I voluntarily did. I have a video clip of my peaceful exchange with the officer. When I inquired who requested my leaving I was given to understand by the police sergeant who escorted me to the exit that it was Phineas Sprague, local business man and host of the event.

I’d like to ask why a campaign event such as this would be publicized as “open to the public” but in fact not be a public event when it comes to the subject of speech. I understood open to the public to mean that anyone from the public was welcomed, regardless of political persuasion. That is what I have always thought “public event” meant. And as a public gathering I naturally thought my speech, particularly my political speech, could arguably be protected. Private ownership of the property on which an advertised “public event” was taking place was used in this case to trump public speech. Had I repeatedly shouted, “fire,” it would have been entirely appropriate for the nearest fifty people to clamor onto my back and shut me up. However, stifling me for challenging Mr. Romney’s thin assertions hardly rises to the level of “fire.”

A fellow that was not even allowed entry into the event and instead stood outside the door listening said nothing whatsoever. His appearance disqualified him. He had the appearance of a fisherman, wore cargo shorts to his mid-calf, had longish hair and a beard, and wore a beret with a non-descript insignia on the front. He described himself as a conservative, actually as an acquaintance of Mr. Sprague. As soon as he entered the event police were signaled by someone inside to remove him. Open to the public, indeed.

I didn’t shout “fire,” at least not in the literal sense. By addressing the platitudes and thin veneer of Mr. Romney’s rhetoric I was calling out the shallowness of the spectacle. A 1%-er put up a private stage for this other 1%-er to shower the crowd with feel good bromides — “When I am President I will create jobs…” “When I am President I will fix the economy…” – saying nothing, really, about how that would be accomplished in any meaningful way. After all it has been over three years since Mr. Romney’s party have openly admitted to on principle opposing every Obama policy and yet the economy improves, albeit slowly but still. It is meaningful that he loves his country, as he offered (I’m sure he does, he has done extremely well here, and in the Caymans…), but the platitude that by bestowing more favors on the 1% he will create jobs and balance the budget is as light as gossamer.

I would have Mr. Romney comment on the fact that one of the last times strong measures were taken to balance the federal budget, by Andrew Jackson, a 75-month depression occurred. These hollow notions are what the 1%-ers — him on the stage and him staging the event — use to whip up support for policies that benefit the 1% more than anyone else. There is a reason why the US Census Bureau citing 2010 census data states one in three Americans is poor or near poor. It is no coincidence major corporations are reporting record profits quarter after quarter, or that a very small minority holds the vast wealth of the country. The wealth of this nation has been systematically redistributed upward through preferential tax treatment and special services that only the wealthiest have access to, among other mechanisms. It’s no coincidence the national conversation shifted to this inequality when Occupiers occupied Wall St, the engine feeding this inequality. The truth of this resonates far and wide.

The Maine Revenue Service recently affirmed that if Maine’s wealthiest citizens were taxed at the same level that most other Mainers are, the 65,000 Maine people threatened to be thrown out of MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program, would not fear for their health, their housing, nor their place in society. The politics of the corporation and the 1% does not make for a government of, by, and for the people.

With my challenges I am taking back my little piece of ground and occupying it. There is a fire in our republic and I will cry fire.

I have a great deal of respect for the Portland Police, or I should really say, police in general. They do an incredibly difficult job policing our cities and towns. They deal with situations most of us would balk at, some of which put their very lives at risk or in danger of severe harm. They are required to make careful sometimes life changing split-second decisions that are expected to be blameless. Not just anyone possesses the courage to face such a job so organic to the proper functioning of our society. I have a great deal of respect for those that aspire to do so. (On the other hand, I have little respect for the militarization of local police under a dubious banner of national security. This is a slippery slope we have slid way too far down already.)

The police, as far as politeness and respect for my person were concerned, carried out Mr. Sprague’s bidding in an entirely appropriate manner. The space was his and I admit he had the prerogative. My speech obviously upset Sprague and by instructing the police to ask me to leave, he obviously did not think my speech was protected speech. I think really, though, we never even approached that question. My challenges to Mr. Romney were not part of the script for the evening and that may have been what upset him.

I respectfully followed the officer’s polite request that I leave Mr. Sprague’s property. The officer is part of the 99% and I respect that his unions are under attack by people like Mitt Romney, and those that provide stages for Mr. Romney to deliver the 1%’s song and dance routine. Think of me as someone throwing a metaphorical rotten tomato at a lousy performer.

For more on the disingenuous Mr. Romney, Brad Delong offers:

Mitt Romney Rises to Amazing Heights of Incoherence in Michigan

AN OPEN LETTER TO MAINE’S SENATORS AND REPRESENTATIVES

Dear Senators Collins and Snowe and Representatives Michaud and Pingree,

I am writing you to express my concern that big money contributions from special interests such as corporations, political action committees, single-issue groups, lobbyists, lawyers, and unions are destroying our democracy. Our political system no longer relies on the will of “the People Alone,” as the Founding Fathers intended, but on the funders of campaigns. 1% of Americans finance almost 99% of the cost of political campaigns in America, so it’s no surprise that our government responds most to their needs.

You participate in a political system that is deeply corrupt. Your job is to legislate primarily on behalf of Mainers. The job of special interests is to get you to legislate on their behalf. This is a conflict of interest. When a Mainer contributes $25 to you, she wants to elect you to represent her in Congress. When a lobbyist or corporation contributes $50,000 to you, it wants to make sure you win so it can gain special access unavailable to the rest of us. Small contributions from Mainers just get lost in a sea of money.

How much money are we talking about? I researched campaign contribution data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, available on Open Secrets.org. Here are the top 4 out of 13 contributor categories and the amounts you have received over your careers.

For you, Senator Snowe:

Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate industries          $2,452,000.

Health related industries                                            $1,117,000.

Ideological/Single Issue groups                         $1,075,000.

Lawyers and Lobbyists                                               $846,000.

Your top contributor, at $300,000, was MBNA, Maryland-based credit card services company.

 

For you, Senator Collins:

Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate Industries             $2,436,000.

Ideological/Single Issue groups                         $1,342,000.

Health related industries                                            $1,199,000.

Lawyers and Lobbyists                                            $1,120,000.

Your top contributor, at $154,000 was also MBNA.

 

For you, Rep. Michaud:

Labor Unions                                                              $1,441,000.

Ideological/Single Issue Groups                                    $502,000.

Finance, Insurance and Real Estate Industries              $410,000.

Lawyers and Lobbyists                                                  $379,000.

Your top contributor, at $61,000 is the National Association of Credit Unions.

 

For you, Rep. Pingree:

Ideological/Single Issue Groups                                    $942,000.

Finance, Insurance and Real Estate industries               $640,000.

Lawyers and Lobbyists                                                  $521,000.

Labor Unions                                                                 $441,000.

Your top contributor, at $145,000 is Paloma Partners, an investment holding company.

None of the top contributors for any of you is headquartered in Maine. In fact, two-thirds of what you raised in your last elections came from out of state (it’s about two-fifths for Congressman Michaud). Washington DC, California, Massachusetts and New York City (Wall St) funneled the most money into Maine. A recent New York Times headline, “Democrats and Republicans Scramble for Wall St. Dollars” sums up how Wall St. money has equally captured both parties. Do you actually believe most Mainers would approve of these sources of your campaign money?

Our common sense tells us these lobbyists, corporations and other special interests intend to influence you. Our gut warns us that corporations don’t hand out free money to politicians – strings are bound to be attached. Because you keep secret the arrangements you and your funders make, it’s reasonable to conclude that their funding does come with strings or “understandings.” How can we trust the assertions you make that special interest funding does not influence you? When you depend on large sums of special interest money in order to win elections, you drive a wedge of corporate cash between yourselves and ordinary Mainers.

At the heart of the political dishonesty we see across the country today is the claim made by nearly all politicians that special interest funding influences neither their views nor their votes. This is the Big Lie used to justify and protect a system of politics run by money.

Modern history shows that once a member of Congress wins several terms in Maine, he becomes a Senator or Representative for life. The more terms you serve, the more likely it is that you will win the next election too, as you keep building connections with deep-pocketed funders. We lose our chance to fully participate in democracy when your strategy is to accumulate so much special interest money that you deter anyone wanting to make a serious run against you from even trying, much less winning. With the big funders on your side, who actually chooses you: Wall St. or Maine voters?

Only this political system could embrace the pretense that corporations are persons who have free speech rights. You have already raised far more special interest money early on in your campaigns than ever before. It looks like you are preparing to defend yourselves from an onslaught of corporate free speech attack ads by potent new Super PACs. Big money politics wants no limits. Soon, special interests will likely fund nearly 100% of campaigns and ordinary voters will realize it’s become pointless for them to continue contributing.

A barrage of attack ads aired in our living rooms is the face of politics we’re most likely to see in the months ahead. The corporate creators of these ads do not view us as citizens to be persuaded, but as “marks” to be set up by exploiting our fears. Your use of these tactics to win elections is likely to cause even more of us to turn away from politics in disgust.

Those corporations and other special interests that contribute to your campaigns are among an elite group that has emerged as the winners in our society and economy today. As long as big money controls Congress members and Presidents, the rest of us will never gain a seat at the table of power where the real decisions get made.

Much is rightly made of partisan gridlock in Congress. Corporations and lobbyists help achieve gridlock by disproportionately funding members of Congress who are the most partisan. Their power to block legislation further solidifies their hold on government.

I’ve heard you complain about how partisan Congress is. But you seem to act as if there’s nothing you can do about it. In fact, there’s a great deal you can do. For an inspiring example, consider Margaret Chase Smith, Maine’s greatest Senator. She knew a threat to democracy when she saw it. In 1952 she exposed Senator Joseph McCarthy as a liar. Nearly all politicians were afraid to stand up to him. He had ruined the careers of hundreds of army officers, government officials, writers and movie actors by accusing them of being Communists. Senator Smith stood up to him even though his people smeared her by calling her “Moscow Maggie.” She risked losing her career when he ran someone against her. But her own integrity and courage, as well as the wisdom of Maine voters, enabled her to survive this challenge. McCarthy and his tactics of intimidation were discredited.

Today, corruption of our political system by special interest money is an even bigger threat to democracy. You have the same choices about how to respond that Senator Margaret Chase Smith did back then. I ask you to show the same wisdom and courage she did and break big money’s hold on politics in Maine and the nation.

How? Refuse all special interest money. Accept only contributions from individual Mainers limited to a maximum of several hundred dollars. Let’s make it an election by Mainers, not a selection by outsiders. Also, support constitutional amendments that will end corporate personhood and put in place a publicly financed election system without loopholes. I’m well aware that people in positions of power rarely relinquish any aspect of their power voluntarily. However, you do have a choice.

This is a good time politically for you to risk taking this history making action. You all won last time by good margins. You are respected by many Mainers, who will embrace you all the more for standing up against special interest domination of politics. Try working together (bipartisanship) to make it happen.

If you don’t act, we will. Thomas Jefferson warned us long ago that corporations would try to use their financial power to gain control of government. It is our job now to abolish their hold on government and return to the Founding Fathers’ intent: a government of, by, and for the People.

Doug Bowen, Porter, Maine   diannes.dougb@gmail.com

 

From a full page ad to be published in the Portland Press Herald on friday, February 3, 2012, paid for by members and friends of Occupy Wall Street/Maine. For more information about Occupy Maine and its goal of freeing democracy from the corruption of money, contact them at 221-5899.

Let Mitt Show You How It’s Done: The Bain Capital Film, or, One Way the 1% do it to the Middle Class.

(Disclaimer: This is not an endorsement of Barak Obama. I didn’t vote for Barak Obama, and while I may have to this November as the lesser of two evils, thanks to our broken electoral system, I would almost prefer to sit out the whole macabre, money-soaked spectacle were it not so important to participate.)

When Mitt Romney Came to Town is, as advertised, a devastating expose of the business ethic behind this major presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. But it is much more than that. Former associate of Romney’s top strategists, Jason Killian Meath, produced the film and as the very effective former ad man for George W. Bush, is much, much less a populous advocate for the middle class as he is a political opportunist who trolled among Romney’s opponent’s campaigns looking for someone, anyone, to take up this film.

The failing Gingrich campaign reportedly paid top dollar for the rights as it now disingenuously turns to strong populous rhetoric trying to present a populous message to America’s failing middle class and regain some of the campaign’s former traction. But the import of this film is more than just an attack by an opportunistic former insider,  this is a how-to film exposing the ways the 1% have put it to, and continue to put it to, the American middle class.  Mitt is just a symptom of this much larger disease.

“We don’t have middle class people no more; rich and poor, that is it.”

The 2010 Census: One in three Americans is poor, or near poor…

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