This December, the public’s approval of Congress hit rock bottom. According to a Gallup poll, only 11 percent of American citizens approve of the job Congress is doing. Today, The Washington Post reported that while the median net worth of an American family has declined “from $20,600 to $20,500 between 1984 to 2009, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan,” the net worth of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives has jumped from $280,000 to $725,000 (and that’s excluding home equity).
As Public Citizen’s Craig Holman has been saying for years and recently talked about on Marketplace, it pays to be a member of Congress, literally. The Washington Post notes that, “Members of Congress have long been wealthier than average Americans, and in recent decades the wealth of the wealthiest Americans has outpaced that of the average.” Take CEO pay in America for example. Everyone knows the gap between executives and the average worker is growing.
And, as our research for a series of financial policy reports documents, Wall Street executives are dead-set on derailing the implementation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, particularly the section that calls for CEO pay to be listed as a ratio of the average worker’s salary of their company. So what does $15.6 million in federal political contributions and the work of 712 financial industry lobbyists get you? Turns out, not much yet, which is exactly what officials at Goldman Sachs and J.P.Morgan want. More than a year after its passage, the majority of provisions of Dodd-Frank have yet to be implemented.
Regardless of any new regulations coming down the pike, we have a government full of officials who are far removed from the economic realities that their constituents face. Part of the problem is that it doesn’t help that the barriers to entry for political candidates become higher each year. The Post reports: “Since 1976, the average amount spent by winning House candidates quadrupled in inflation-adjusted dollars, to $1.4 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.”
Who better to afford the financial chore running for office has become than people who already have significant amounts of money? It’s a heck of a lot easier to come up with $1.4 million when you have money you can funnel into your own campaign and/or rich friends ready to work with political bundlers.
Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor recently made the point that given that only .05 percent of the population max out the congressional campaign giving limits, the 99 percent movement really should be the 99.5 percent movement. Additionally, thanks to the infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) U.S. Supreme Court decision, corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individual people and spending money is now considered a form of “free speech.” Therefore, corporations (run by those CEOs that don’t want you knowing how much they make relative to their employees) can take your pension funds and divert them into shadowy 501(c)(4)s, which in turn can give undisclosed amounts to Super political action committees (PACs), which then can run all the negative misleading attack ads they want! One need only to look to Iowa to see this in action.
It was already hard enough for the concerns of real people to be heard over the call of cash before Citizens United. Now, the barriers to entry into politics for people with good ideas but without deep pockets seem to get higher by the day, and sadly we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg of what is to come in 2012. Elizabeth Warren, who pushed to expose the wrongdoings of Wall Street and should have been head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is up against unregulated cash in her campaign for Senate. Longtime U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, just announced he will retire early after facing a barrage of negative campaign ads by the Karl-Rove backed Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity.
Satisfaction with a Congress elected in such a toxic environment that is increasingly disconnected from the economic realities of the people they serve is unlikely to go up until Congress’ deference to the desires of the .05 percent who fund their campaigns goes down. Fortunately, the American people aren’t unaware. Mother Jones reports, “You didn’t have to spend long at the edge of Zuccotti Park before you heard the phrase Citizens United, as folks who’d come to see the camp from New Jersey, Texas, and Montana began to contemplate the connection between their anemic bank accounts and political decisions that line the pockets of those already most advantaged.”
The key now is to not give up but instead step up. Occupiers paved the way, and it is up to us, the rest of the 99.5 percent, to join them so that the courage they showed in the face of pepper spray and freezing rain is amplified even more. Public Citizen is part of the United for the People coalition, consisting of the major good government-focused nonprofits, environmental organizations, labor and civil justice groups. We aim to raise awareness, assist grassroots organizing efforts and facilitate the legislative momentum necessary to pass a constitutional amendment reversing the Citizens United ruling and the detrimental effects of unrestrained corporate campaign spending. January 21, the two-year anniversary of the Citizens United ruling, is just weeks away, and we hope that everyone who doesn’t believe that government should be “by the rich, for the rich” but “by the people, for the people” will make plans to come out and demonstrate.
Rachel Lewis is a former wonk turned New Media strategist for Public Citizen. She really hopes you’ll mark your calendar for the 21st, sign the petition at www.DemocracyIsForPeople.org, and follow @RuleByUs for the latest information on planning for #J21 and all things related to campaign cash.