FLORIDA, May 20, 2013 — This is a highly polarized period in American politics. Not so long ago, finding consensus on challenging issues was not such a partisan ordeal. Have special interests played a large role in political polarization?
Due to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, millions of Americans have become nervous about the influence of money on politics. How has Citizens United actually affected the political process? Is the DISCLOSE Act a necessary and effective remedy to Citizens United? Is political corruption inevitable regardless of Citizens United and corrective legislation?
Josh Silver is the director of Represent.Us, an advocacy group with an ambitious mission: to curtail the power of special interest groups as well as the corrupting influence of lobbyists. In order to accomplish this, the group proposes grand-scale reforms of America’s political scene.
In this first part of our discussion, Silver discusses polarization in the age of Citizens United.
Joseph F. Cotto: This is surely one of the most polarized eras in American politics. Not so long ago, finding consensus on challenging issues was not such a partisan ordeal. In your opinion, have special interests played a large role in political polarization?
Josh Silver: Absolutely. When federal elections cost over $6 billion, politicians from both major parties become dependent on donors instead of everyday Americans. As disgraced superlobbyist Jack Abramoff says, “Contributions from lobbyists and special interests to public servants are bribes.”
These bribes cause politicians to advance policies that are great for those interests and very bad for the vast majority of Americans. The politics of obstruction and polarization become their only option: accuse the other party of being radical and destructive in order to distract and confuse the public. The irony is that both Republican and Democrat leaders are selling out the public every day while attacking the other party, all while majorities of Americans are suffering.
Cotto: Due to the Citizens United ruling, millions of Americans have become nervous about the influence money has on politics. Do you share these concerns?
Silver: Yes. It isn’t just corrupt transactions that wreck the legislative process. It is the culture of common understanding by both major parties that identifies organized money as the most important form of power. At the beginning of every significant policy debate in Congress, the first set of questions is not about the right answer; it is about which moneyed forces will take what positions and how that will impact the effort.
This is where the parameters of “what is possible” are set. This set of assumptions are powerfully reinforced by the mainstream political media because they simply repeat what Washington says and fill their news-holes with interviews with Washington influentials. Though there are 535 members of Congress and thousands of “senior officials” across the executive branch – the truth is that a much smaller number of people control the real levers of power in Washington.
They set the agenda. They determine the realm of the possible for everyone else to work within. They rotate out of elected office into lobby shops and law firms. They move in and out of political campaigns. They rotate through corporate C suites to the White House and offices of Cabinet secretaries. They live in the same neighborhoods. They hang out at the same restaurants. And their shared assumptions accepts that moneyed political power is the most important form of political power.
Once you have been in this culture for a while, you become desensitized to things that neutral observers might call corruption ― campaign contribution breakfasts hosted by rings of lobbyists; special favors for your old friends who happen to be lobbyists; and accepting and repeating the arguments you hear regularly in your social circles ― even though they are filled with lobbyists and carry the water for special interests. Over time, you become distanced from what you thought before, the ideals that brought you to Washington in the first place.
It is within this culture that politicians routinely sell out the American people, and it why we launched the Represent.Us campaign to pass the American Anti-Corruption Act. Every issue is stuck or losing ground because of the culture of corruption: tax reform, environment, government waste, health care, financial oversight, poverty, media ― no matter what issue you care about, you are going to ultimately lose if money-in-politics corruption is not fixed.
Cotto: From your perspective, what has been the most important aspect of Citizens United’s legacy?
Silver: The court decision has dramatically increased public awareness of the money in politics problem, and created a window of opportunity for reform efforts like ours to finally get traction. Importantly, it has finally convinced leaders of myriad issue groups that they must finally walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, work on their issue while actively engaging in money-in-politics reform.
Cotto: Many politicians support the DISCLOSE Act as a remedy to Citizens United. What are your views on the DISCLOSE Act?
Silver: The DISCLOSE Act is a solid proposal, and would address ten percent of the problem. Even if you disclose all political money, status quo political bribery would continue to thrive. The only way to truly fix the problem is to pass a comprehensive set of campaign finance, lobbying and yes, transparency laws. The American Anti-Corruption Act includes the DISCLOSE Act provisions, plus additional measures.
Cotto: Regardless of whatever legislation is set forth to regulate lobbying practices, do you believe that government corruption is inevitable?
Silver: Yes, corruption is inevitable, but the real problem is that it is currently legal, because modern American democracy is following a badly outdated and weakened rulebook. The foxes have been in charge of writing the rules to protect the henhouse, and the American people are the chickens.
We need to put up stronger fences — we need strict, clear rules of the road that politicians must abide by or go to jail. We need the current quid pro quo bribery and the revolving door between Congress and K Street to become illegal, rather than statusquo.
Like children, Congress needs strict rules and boundaries or they will break them.
Far-left? Far-right? Get real: Read more from “The Conscience of a Realist” by Joseph F. Cotto
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