Trying to find bipartisanship these days on any political issue is virtually impossible. So when I see a poll where there is strong agreement between Democrats, Republicans and Independents, I take note. What do eighty percent of very polarized Americans agree on? They agree the recent Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission sucks. Moreover, Americans are as mad as hell with the decision. In the 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said that corporations and unions could spend as much as they wanted on political campaigns, overturning long-standing regulations that limited this spending for individual candidates within a few months of an election. According to The Washington Post poll, eighty five percent of Democrats disagree with the Supreme Court, as well as 76 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Independents.
The only ones who seem to disagree, not surprisingly, are congressional Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he plans to oppose any legislation that would attempt to blunt the impact of this ruling. Americans of all stripes though understand what is really going on. Just like in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, some animals are more equal than others. With this Supreme Court decision, it’s official.
Most Americans understand what happens when one group of well moneyed interests can outspend and out organize us ordinary citizens. The result is clear in Congress: a strong resistance to change in any form and a tendency to serve the interests of those with the money. Nowhere was this more evident than in the recent health care debate. By throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into lobbying efforts, the health care industry gummed up the process rather effectively. Clearly, the status quo works fine for the health care industry, as evidenced by record health insurance company profits and exploding health care costs in general. How does it work for the rest of us who aren’t self financed multimillionaires like Rush Limbaugh? Not so well, as evidenced by outrages like 39% premium increases on some Anthem Blue Cross plans in California and the growing percentage of Americans who simply cannot afford health insurance.
Health care reform is the issue of the day but the same can be said about most of the problems that Americans care about that are affecting this country. If we were happy with the status quo, there wouldn’t be historically high levels of unhappiness with Congress in the polls. However, it’s not easy to throw the bums out and elect new bums, particularly now that the Supreme Court has given the green light to corporations and unions to spend as much as they want to elect their preferred candidates. All this does it raise the bar even higher for those of us who have less money to convince our fellow voters to vote for this other guy (or gal). And we happen to be actual breathing U.S. citizens.
Of course it also doesn’t help that most states carefully draw congressional districts to ensure they are either highly Republican or highly Democratic (generally, depending on the party in power at the time the district boundaries are drawn). The effect of this practice is to disenfranchise anyone who is not among the highly partisan wing of the predominant party of their congressional district. It also inflames partisanship in Congress and creates very safe districts for incumbents. Once elected, these incumbents can create large war chests that discourage challengers. Even with a challenger, their war chests allow them to dominate the media prior to Election Day. Not that they have to worry much about losing anyhow because their districts are specifically drawn to make it likely they will be reelected.
The effect of this policy is to reduce the influence of ordinary citizens for those who have influence money. Republicans in Democratic districts feel disenfranchised, as do Democrats in Republican districts. My congressman is Frank Wolf, who first won election to Congress in 1980. That means he has spent thirty years in Congress. Part of his district is in Fairfax County, Virginia where I live, which is principally Democratic. A much larger part of it is in safe Republican counties like Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William. It seems likely that when Virginia redraws congressional boundaries after the census, his district will somehow manage to remain predominantly Republican. Frankly, Congressman Wolf is more likely to die in office than retire from it.
Who is funding his campaign? According to OpenSecrets.org, it’s a lot of the usual suspects. In the 2008 elections, organizations representing retirees gave him the most (about $180,000), so don’t expect him to be voting to cut Medicare or Social Security just because both are tending toward insolvency. Next were real estate ($171,000), lawyers ($99,000), Republicans and fellow conservatives ($65,000) and various Israeli lobbies ($48,000). As for the health care industry, they came in at sixth at $48,000. Needless to say, he voted against the health care reform bill in Congress.
The effect of all this extreme gerrymandering is to end up with a congress that is more deeply polarized than it would be if congressional districts were drawn up impartially. At the same time, because they are fed by well moneyed special interests, we get a Congress that is resistant to change. This is turn means that current problems like deficit spending and entitlement reform are less likely to be solved, thus making problems that much more chronic. This ultimately is what is bankrupting the country, not Bush tax cuts or prolific spending on social welfare programs.
Really, even Glenn Beck and Arianna Huffington should be able to find common ground here. Last week at the odious CPAC convention in Washington, Glenn Beck was railing about the need to elect true Conservatives instead of Republicans. Arianna Huffington is one of many liberals, like me, feeling disenfranchised by supposed “Democrats” in Congress. Beck is frustrated because he cannot get rid of the welfare state. Why? Because Republicans will ultimately do the bidding of those who give them money. There are plenty of Republicans, like Congressman Wolf, who take heaps of money from senior citizens lobbies, so don’t expect him to vote to kill Medicare. Huffington meanwhile is in a huff because Democrats like North Dakota Senator Ben Nelson vote for the interests of Blue Cross instead of supporting a public option health care plan. Why? It is because Nelson gets a ton of money from the health insurance industry. Yet it’s not only the extremes that are upset, but also those in the middle whose interests are also not being served. That’s why hardly anyone is happy with the status quo. That’s why eighty percent of Americans are irate about the Citizens United decision while also realizing it is just more evidence of who really is running the country. It sure is not the people! Conservatives and liberals should come together to kill off corporate lobbying simply so they can actually advance their agendas!
It’s the system that is providing disincentives to pragmatically solve current problems. Congress gives highest priority to those who give them the most money. Otherwise, partisanship triumphs. For those few issues that are non-partisan and which there is no vested industry with their hand in the public till, we may get bipartisanship. Consequently, the two biggest things we can do to end our national dysfunction become easy to identify.
First, and probably the hardest thing to get Congress to do, is to change the process by which Congressional districts are drawn. We have an opportunity because the 2010 census is underway. A law that required states to have an impartial commission or judges draw up congressional districts would make it possible for more moderates to be elected. Moderates tend toward being pragmatic rather than idealistic. This would have the tendency to better balance Congress so that bipartisanship is more likely.
Secondly, the power of corporations and unions to influence elections must be checked. At the Washington Post poll demonstrates, there is overwhelming support for restricting the amount of money that these institutions can contribute. Congress could probably succeed in passing a law reforming the most egregious abuses, but this is one of those cases where a constitutional amendment really is needed to settle the issue of corporate “personhood” once and for all. Nowhere in our founding documents does it say that corporations are entitled to the same rights of citizens. This was due to an earlier Supreme Court interpretation that it has now effectively codified to mean without any restraints. If an amendment could pass Congress (a tough hurdle), it is likely to be easily ratified by the various states.
If these two systemic problems could be addressed, we might actually get a government representative of its people again. Consequently, government would be more likely to do the bidding of a majority of its citizens. We might as a result still find ourselves polarized, but it won’t be because of special interests or gerrymandering. Whether America swings to the left or the right as a result is really not as important as restoring a fully representative democracy. The truth is that these days our republican form of government is at best 30-50 percent representative of the people.
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