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 "Public Citizen Lady Liberty"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.

Comments

  • Money’s role in politics is a critical problem… too much is needed and scaling issues distort balance of influence.

    But the basic that underlies that… the fundamental issue is: How do you better balance the forces that influence decision makers?

    And that’s the core question whether its government, corporate management or a group of hunter-gatherers.

    Some are suggesting banning political contribution altogether.

    An attractive idea… but basic drives are not circumvented by such laws. Look to Prohibition and the Drug Wars for a lesson on simplistic solutions.

    Similarly here the design of your approach to solution requires a bit of subtlety and thinking outside of the box. Regulation and transparency are certainly needed (along with overturning Citizen’s United and ending Corporate personhood)…

    But outright bans are not only a sure failure but will produce undesirable side effects…

    Banning it will only push corruption farther underground and leave you no way to respond.

    And while removing corporate dominance of the process is needed… so long as the citizenry remain locked outside of the day-to-day business of governance a void will remain to be filled by narrower interests.

    Self-government requires both an involved citizenry and mechanisms to combat the natural drives of those in power at any given time to inhibit that involvement (see Gerrymandering for a illustrative example).

    I’m convinced there’s a healthier political landscape that CAN be built.

    One (but not the only) element of that needed landscape is the facilitation of your more frequent and meaningful participation in the legislative lobbying process.

    The Pooled-User-Determined Account Network* addresses BOTH problems.

    *There’s a little more to it but think of it like a sort of online cash card enabling certain specialized transactions (and others) especially in politics and other speech-related areas.

    I get email solicitations all the time about supporting this bill or opposing another…

    What if I could click a button on that email or website and give just 25 cents towards some goal I support?… securely and easily?

    This is very doable! (and patented)

    This simple capability is a fundamentally necessary component for scaling representative government.

    Avoid simplistic solutions… try thinking! Money is a store of ‘decision rights’ in its very roots. You won’t change that by pretending you can avoid that fundamental.

    Liberate the networked political micro-contribution. Its really about YOU joining the political landscape. Frankly, proper scaling of influence demands it.

    Could a one-click, secure ‘micro’ contribution make a difference? (25 cents a couple of times a week times 150 million voters equals over $7 Billion per 2/year election cycle… and BTW, other characteristics of this suggested (and needed) neutral network drastically reduce costs while expanding localization potential.

    Frankly this concept needs to be a part of the meta-political discussion.

  • I’d welcome the opportunity to answer any questions or concerns.

    I’m convinced this is a fundamentally needed tool and would hope for your organizations involvement and/or support.

    Here’s a copy of a portion of an email sent to a VC (venture capitalist) I’m to meet with after the Holidays:

    (while I consider this a public utility that leads to a vital ‘virtual’ public platform for civic engagement… it’ll be a long wait if I expect the powers-that-be to put it together… hence it must be self-sustaining and able to attract investment)

    -copy starts-

    Dear _____,

    I’m assuming you already have some understanding of the basic mechanism behind the Pooled-User-Determined-Account but I’ll be happy to answer any questions…. i.e. a sort of online-based cash card making possible a simple, one-click microtransaction(and importantly not only a microtransaction)… especially in the political area (but again importantly not only in the political area).

    These are transactions not now feasible. And it is this (patented) capability that stands at the root of what I suggest is a very valuable (and perhaps inevitable) network.

    (note: With your experience you may be familiar with Clay Shirky’s well considered arguments concerning why he believes Internet micropayments haven’t and won’t gain traction. His arguments are good… but DON’T apply in this context which I’ll also explain if interested)

    I believe its a reasonable expectation that with this capability in place as a neutral utility that sooner-or-later… and for any of a number of possible motives (which I’ll be happy to expand upon)… almost everyone… or at least a very significant percentage… will at some time decide to utilize this account and this network for those dedicated purposes… (and its a capability which will not be available elsewhere).

    Bootstrapping it into existence is obviously a critical question and a central part of the discussion, but from a strict business standpoint I suppose the first question must be: Is it a network or a capability worth building at all?

    First… I believe this leads to a large and importantly… a persistent user-base.
    And because the system can handle other transactions as well I believe it can anchor the user to the system for other Internet transactions.

    This alone makes the patented capability a very valuable commodity… even were it only offered in a licensing situation to an existing pay system that wants to stabilize and enlarge its base of users.

    But while to be considered… this is not the optimal configuration.

    I believe that by orienting itself in its inception as a dedicated account for political and charitable contribution… that a ‘donor network’ can be catalyzed that will capture a significant portion of the charity and campaign services sector (especially in auditing, tax, regulatory compliance, FEC reporting, data-mining and various technical services)… and that it can further capture a significant part of the corporate/charity sponsorship market.

    This network then becomes THE target for a multitude of interests that want to reach it.

    These aren’t the only potential monetization sources but I believe form a strong core.

    There’s another hook which I believe is important… and while at first I suppose it could seem like a negative for an investor… I believe is actually an advantage.

    I’d like to see… from the beginning… and under some suitable formulation… a plan whereby the User-base essentially “owns” 50% of the enterprise with a possible pre-designed exit strategy for founding investors upon maturation of the network via buyout by the user-base. I understand this may be a bit unusual but I think it can cement both the catalyzation of the network and help secure monetization. And, for the excessively ambitious… lead to an ability to undercut other paysystems by taking its monetization OUT of the transaction itself… and so come to dominate the entire Internet transaction landscape. (Might as well think big!)

    Can we do breakfast? (If I’m a fool I’d best hear it soon and would appreciate the feedback).

    P.S. Should the public finance of all or part of elections be considered… it’s best implemented via this network to be dispersed to viable candidates directly via citizens’ individual preferences.

    -end of copy-

    Its been a struggle out here (lost home via foreclosure which is quite a story) and currently living in my sister and brother-in-law’s living room. Fortunately they believe in the concept… as have so many (especially the poor) of the politically active that I’ve had the chance to speak to.

    I very much need a chance for this to get a bit of air!

  • [...] 01 January 2012 06:09By Rachel Lewis, Public Citizen | News [...]

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