Institutional Corruption and the Influence of Money and Politics on People’s Lives

Fountain Pen and SignThis morning, I was scanning Tweets that came into my Twitter account. One of the Tweets said,

“Why the phrase ‘Supreme Court to hear campaign-finance case’ should scare you.”

It contained a link to an article in the Daily Beast. This article said that the US Supreme Court has decided to take another look at campaign financing in a case from the United States District Court in DC called McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. I read the article.

And yes this case scares me. McCutcheon argues that there should be no limits at all on campaign financing.  It scares me because I believe that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of McCutchen, there will be more influence and therefore more institutional corruption on our public policy.  This will then allow the creation of more holes in the safety net for people’s lives due to the corrupting influence of big money. For clarification, institutional corruption is defined as:

[T]he consequence of an influence within an economy of influence that illegitimately weakens the effectiveness of an institution especially by weakening the public trust of the institution.

Why? Because I do not trust the members of the current Supreme Court to openly and fairly take into account that elected officials need to answer to their constituents and not to the people and companies and lobbyists that influence them by throwing lots of money and offering consulting jobs to these elected officials (a form of “money”) once they leave office.

My mistrust results from their decision in the 2009 Citizens’ United case.  They held that the First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the government from restricting independent political campaign expenditures from corporations and unions.  The aftermath of this decision has been devastating. Immediately after this decision, the DC Circuit Court (which handles cases involving federal regulations) ruled that

“individuals could make unlimited contributions to so-called Super PACs, which supported individual candidates.”

And what did we see?  In the 2010 elections, Super PACs—mostly funded by the mega-rich—assisted conservative Tea Party candidates at all levels of government to win seats that they would not have otherwise been able to win.  This resulted in a lot of gerrymandering around the country for the incumbents’ self-interest.  And in 2012, $6.2 billion was spent on elections; over $10 million of these funds were given to a small number of Super Pacs by a very small number of mega-wealthy individuals—including the Koch brothers—to influence the outcome of the elections.

If this case overturns what few limits on campaign financing are left, the doors for institutional corruption will be thrown wide open.  Candidates will spend even more time chasing money, mostly soliciting funds from large, non-constituent individuals and corporations.  Most of these individuals are heads of corporations whose special interest is their bottom-line profits and not the interests of the “47%.”

Fred Wertheimer is President of Democracy 21. It is a non-partisan group that works to eliminate the undue influence of big money in the public arena.  He agrees with me that big money corrupts our public institutions. In a press statement on February 19, he said that the

“[A]ggregate limit on contributions by individuals is necessary to prevent circumvention of the limits on contributions to candidates and political parties and the prohibition on federal officeholders soliciting huge corrupting contributions.”

And further, if the Supreme Court either completely guts or weakens campaign financing, this decision

“…would open the door to $1 million and $2 million dollar contributions from an individual buying corrupting influence with a powerful officeholder soliciting these contributions, and with the political party and federal candidates benefiting from these seven figure contributions.”

I believe that it is the local constituent who should be influencing their representatives.  Not corporations. Not big money. And not the 1% at the top of the income ladder who do not live or experience the lives of the people who live in each of our communities.

I am one of the 85% of Americans who view Congress unfavorably because of what they have NOT been doing for people’s lives. Like allowing funds for critical domestic programs to be cut due to the budgetary stalling and delays of the Fiscal Cliff and Hurricane Sandy debates and resulting Sequestration that now looks like it will become reality this coming Friday. Like delaying passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) from being reauthorized for over two years (which, may change tomorrow when and if the House FINALLY votes on the Senate-passed VAWA Act of 2013).  Like talking about but not taking any comprehensive action, so far, to deal with violence and gun safety (for more information on this gun safety issue, read my blogs here and here).

No, I don’t trust the US Supreme Court.  And no, I do not trust Congress. All because of the influence of money on the decisions the do and do not make.

Institutional Corruption is a problem.  We need to reduce that corruption.  We need to empower the small donors.  New York City, as well as Los Angeles and San Francisco have done this.  And in a plan put together by Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and Democracy 21, we could do the same thing as well across the country. Look at the plan and then lobby your legislator, even if you don’t trust him or her. Vote for candidates in the future who pledge to listen to their constituents and not to big money.

This will take a long time.  But it is necessary. Then and only then do I believe that we can and will be able to trust our elected officials to truly represent us and our concerns.

For More Information on Institutional Corruption

For more information, watch the video below. In this 2009 presentation, Lawrence Lessig defines institutional corruption.  He then discusses the probable effects of this undue influence of money (broadly defined) not only on elected officials but its effect on other institutions, such as the EPA and medical research.

Fiscal Cliff, Sandy, VAWA and Congress’s Adjournment

Last night, I stayed up to watch the final vote on the Biden-McConnell compromise Fiscal Cliff bill in the US House of Representatives on C-Span. The final vote was 257-167 on the bill. Most of the Republicans voted against the bill and most of the Democrats voted for the bill.

No one on either side of the aisle was particularly happy with this compromise. Yet it was a bipartisan vote, albeit a reluctant one. As economist Joseph LaVorgna of Deustche Bank said after the vote,

“Nothing really has been fixed. There are much bigger philosophical issues that we aren’t even addressing yet.” 

Concerns that were raised by the progressive Democrats who voted against the bill include:

This deal mostly focused on tax cuts, leaving the issue of spending cuts to be handled about two months from now.  This will lead to another fiscal cliff as we butt up against the debt ceiling just like did in August 2011 as well as the sequestration fight that was put off because of this vote.

  1. This deal mostly focused on tax cuts, leaving the issue of spending cuts to be handled about two months from now.  This will lead to another fiscal cliff as we butt up against the debt ceiling just like did in August 2011 as well as the sequestration fight that was put off because of this vote.
    1. The debt ceiling fight will likely occur as early as February when we hit the $16.4 trillion federal borrowing limit so the government can keep paying its bills.
    2. The sequestration battle will occur in March as a direct result of the three-month delay of dealing with spending cuts that was written into the Biden-McConnell bill.
  2. Tax cuts were made permanent while funding for unemployment, a delay in cutbacks on Medicare payments, and an extension of the Farm bill that stopped the price of milk from automatically doubling are only temporary.  As Rep. Rosa DeLuca (D-CT) said on the floor, this bill did not do enough to benefit working families.
  3. Only those making above $400,000 ($450,000 for federally recognized marriages) rather than those making above $250,000 will see an increase in their marginal tax rate. This reduces the amount of additional revenue for balancing the budget. As Senator Tom Harkin said during the Senate debate, the billions lost by raising the threshold to $400,000 will come out of the pockets of grandparents and working families across the nation.”
  4. As a result of this bill, now law, even more draconian cuts to government-sponsored programs will ultimately be seen.  This includes funding for programs like education for our children, job training, and other critical supports for the middle class. And more funds for emergencies are likely to disappear or will be quashed as with what happened with the Sandy relief bill immediately after the fiscal cliff vote.

Philosophical questions about what the federal government should or ought to be paying for can be seen, for example, in two issues of concern to families across the country. Both of these issues failed to be addressed by the House of Representatives before they adjourned just after midnight this morning. They must now start negotiations all over again when the new 2013-2014 Congressional session begins on Thursday, January 4, 2013.

The first issue the House failed to fully address was the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA is the law that provides funding to the Office of Violence against Women (OVW), to law enforcement, and to the judicial system to deal with all forms of interpersonal violence such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. VAWA was originally created in 1995. The bill must be reauthorized every 5 years. This means that the last reauthorization should have occurred in 2010! The hold back? Rather than improving the bill, many members of Congress, particularly Republicans in the US House of Representatives called for both cutbacks in funding and in who will be covered.

Over a belief that any person experiencing interpersonal violence be protected, the US Senate stood firm and refused to consider the exclusionary House VAWA bill that eliminated coverage of college students, immigrants, Native Americans, and LGBTQ people. Since the House refused to take up the Senate bill, reauthorizing VAWA will now have to start all over again in both houses when the new Congress convenes. Meanwhile victims and survivors of interpersonal violence are surviving on a temporary funding basis through March 2013 to cover anti-violence programs to save and improve their lives. Additionally, with the new “fiscal cliff,” – i.e. sequestration – will result in nearly 200,000 fewer victims receiving lifesaving and cost-effective services if both VAWA and sequestration are not resolved by March.

The second issue that the House failed to address was emergency appropriations to assist the victims of last October’s Super Storm Sandy. The vote on the fiscal cliff bill occurred at about 11:45 pm last night. Immediately after that, the Presiding Chair of the House, Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR), called for one-minute speeches. The second speaker was Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD). He announced that Speaker of the House John Boehner had pulled the bill and that as a result there would be no emergency funding for the victims of Hurricane Sandy forthcoming from this session of Congress.

At that point, Representatives from both parties from across the country began speaking out in anger and frustration that the people who were victimized by this natural disaster would not receive the emergency funding desperately needed to put food and warm housing over their heads at this winter time. Here are some of the comments made some of the Representatives of both parties on the floor and again this morning:

“This Congress is apparently leaving town without responding to [the Sandy] emergency. I am deeply disappointed … and the people who have been damaged by Sandy, including Gov. [Chris] Christie, a Republican, and Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo, a Democrat, should be deeply disappointed, and yes, angry, that this Congress would adjourn without addressing the pain of our fellow citizens.” – Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in his opening comment.

“To those who say FEMA has not yet disbursed all the funds it has to assist families and businesses, I would tell them, they deeply underestimate the damage in these areas and the wide range of assistance required to alleviate the pain and suffering.” – Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in a comment made about nine hours later in response to Rep. Eric Canter’s (R-VA) remark that funds weren’t urgently needed.

“I can’t imagine that type of indifference, that type of disregard, that cavalier attitude being shown to any other part of the country.” – Peter King (R-NY)

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry as I am tonight. For us in the Northeast to be treated this way is absolutely unconscionable. Tonight I am ashamed. Shame on you, Mr. Speaker.”Eliot Engel (D-NY)

“It is with an extremely heavy heart that I stand here, almost in disbelief and somewhat ashamed. It’s inexcusable. And I am here tonight saying to myself, for the first time, that I’m not proud of the decision my team has made.”Michael Grimm (R-NY)

For more comments from other representatives and a video of what happened, check out the ABC News article and video.

Adjournment without dealing with pressing issues of our citizenry. Philosophical differences resulting in gridlock and endangerment to people across the country. We need to stop throwing people under the bus. Shame on the 112th Congress!

We need to have a Congress that cares. Hopefully the new 113th Congress will be more willing to see and work on the concerns and needs of our country.

That’s my wish for the New Year.