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Monday, November 19, 2012

How Did We Get Here?

Just when did the purpose of the federal government become the protection and support of big business, and of the richest among us?  When did the federal government become the Department of Business?  When did the focus of the federal government become the tax rates for the rich rather than a fair tax code for all?  When did the focus shift from caring for the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless, the veteran, the disabled, the widow, the orphan and children to an all-out subsidization of big oil, wall street and big banks?  When did the shift  occur that discredits civil rights and labor rights in favor of breaks for big business, small businesses, hedge funds and CEOs?  Does it matter that it is now unclear as to the basic Purpose and Mission of our federal government?

I think it matters a great deal.  I think it matters that the middle class is experiencing more difficulties in a recession than are the richest 2%, who have seen their income increase while that of the vast majority of those below $250k has remained stagnant.  I think it matters when government attacks the bargaining rights of unions.  I think it matters when health care reform is made into a debate about everything other than heath care: death panels, unelected advisory boards, government takeover, and religious freedom.    I think it matters when education of our children is not given top priority by government at every level.  One program dedicated to “Race to the Top” is an inadequate response to our inadequate public education system. 

After all, as long as we continue to use 19th century categories, symbols and methods, we are failing our 21st century children and youth.  Desks in rows, having to be called upon after raising a hand, not using computers in every room, vacations following an agrarian calendar, teachers acting as proctors and founts of wisdom at the head of a class rather than as enablers and facilitators in the middle of a community of learners and teachers, is not conducive to experiential or long-term learning.  The lack of teamwork in classrooms-- including aides, parents, students and mentors -- is an absolute denial of the way that most institutions function in this century.  On the other hand, the lack of individualized education plans for each student says that group-think and narrow one-size-fits-all grading and class assignment fit our modern needs.  It does not, because it misses the uniqueness and individuality and particular skill set of each individual.  The need for individual attention within a team concept is something our current education model does not even address.   

I think it matters that decisions are being made, particularly in Congress, based on what the power-brokers in the form of lawyers and lobbyists and money-raisers, want for their clients.  And those clients are not primarily non-profit organizations looking for reforms.  They are primarily members of financial institutions, large business interests and associations or coalitions of like-minded or similar interests.  They are not there for broad-based purposes.  They are there to promote their very narrow interests which will enhance their revenue, their power, or their prestige.  Let’s take a look at the top groups spending the most on lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.  In 2012, the top twenty groups included:

Lobbying Client                                            Total
US Chamber of Commerce                      $95,660,000        
National Assn of Realtors                        $25,982,290
Blue Cross/Blue Shield                            $16,238,032
General Electric                                       $15,550,000
Google Inc.                                              $14,390,000
Pharmaceutical Rsrch & Mfrs of America  $14,380,000
AT&T Inc.                                                 $14,030,000
American Hospital Assn                           $13,275,200
National Cable & Telecommuns Assn      $13,010,000
American Medical Assn                            $12,980,000
Northrop Grumman                                 $12,980,000
Comcast Corp                                         $12,420,000
Boeing Co                                               $12,010,000
Verizon Communications                         $11,670,000
Lockheed Martin                                     $11,518,870
National Assn of Broadcasters                $11,220,000
Royal Dutch Shell                                    $10,860,000
Southern Co                                           $10,500,000
Edison Electric Institute                          $10,130,790
Exxon Mobil                                              $9,870,000

Over a longer period, 1998-2012, things didn’t change much, with a very similar list during that longer time:  US Chamber of Commerce,  General Electric,  American Medical Assn.,  American Hospital Assn.,  Pharmaceutical Rsrch. & Mfrs. of America, AARP, National Assn. of Realtors, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Northrop Grumman, Exxon Mobil, Edison Electric Institute, Verizon Communications, Boeing Co., Business Roundtable, Lockheed Martin, AT&T Inc., Southern Co., National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., General Motors, National Assn. of Broadcasters.

The point being this:  our representative form of democratic government is under attack by these special interests and may be too far gone to be retrieved.  This topic was addressed in an article by Paul B. Farrell for Global Research, September 03, 2009.  His assertions were:

-- “Lobbyists now run America, own America, rule America. Forget the 537 politicians you thought we elected to the White House, Senate and Congress to run America for us. No, they’re mere puppets, pawns for the “Happy Conspiracy,” an oligopoly, plutocracy, cabal, monopoly all-in-one — a private club of America’s richest few on Wall Street, in Washington and in Corporate America.”

-- “Voters and elections are irrelevant. Lobbyists decide what’s in the best interests of this elite club”

-- “There’s a huge, highly paid army of mercenary lobbyists in Washington. Registered lobbyists may be 42,000 versus a mere 537 elected officials. American University political scientist James Thurber says there are actually 261,000 members of the “influence-lobbying complex” running your government. Many are former congressmen, senators and staffers. Others are ad hoc mercenaries, like the 350 hired by the GOP just to kill health-care reforms at a cost over a million bucks a day.”

-- “Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans will never hear about all the day-to-day shenanigans: the buying, selling and bartering of sweeteners, earmarks, votes and senatorial seats. Most of the behind-the-scenes deals never cross the radar of Middle America.”

In an interesting section of the article, Farrell lists 16 principles by which these lobbyists operate.  A few more compelling of these, include:

Lobbyists must nudge voters to elect “friendly” politicians. Lobbyists must invest millions to elect officials favorable to special interests.
Lobbyists protect special interests using taxpayer money. The wealthy will have ready access to the assets and credits of the Treasury.
Lobbyists amass extra capital anticipating a new meltdown. Plan ahead for the next recession by stockpiling benefits for your clients.
Lobbyists hire new blood directly from inside government. The contacts of senators and congressmen are worth millions to clients.
Lobbyists reward politicians, treat them like co-lobbyists. Everyone in Washington wants to get rich off big government, help them.
Lobbyists must defeat programs unfavorable to clients. Programs that weaken the power of the rich must be aggressively defeated.
Lobbyist clients’ interests come before public interest. Principles of fiduciary duty mean clients take precedence over public needs.”

So, the answer to the question -- when did the purpose of government change from protecting the rights and lives of all of us to the subsidizing and enhancing of the rich and of large corporations? -- must probably go without an exact in-depth answer.  Special interests have been active in lobbying and influencing the operations of government since the very beginning of this nation.  However, according to Farrell:  “modern lobbying actually began in the mid-1970s with the innovative ‘earmarked appropriations,’ federal funds directed by Congress to private institutions when no federal agency had proposed spending the money.”

The important question is more pointed: how do we get money out of politics?  In reality, we can’t.  But we can begin to limit the money allowed to influence elections and legislation.  Public funding of all elections, limits on total expenditures for every office and strict limitations (or abolishment) of PACs and super-PACs are all appropriate ways to limit the influence of special interest money.  It would help to reform elections and government tremendously if the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision was overturned by a constitutional amendment.  Within that amendment would need to be the abolishment of PACs and Super-PACs, and all third party advertisements.  Then we would need to move to allowing “equal time” -- free rebuttal to on-air attacks on one’s person or character.  Hopefully this would help to reduce the acceptance of scurrilous ads in the first place by TV and radio stations.

Next, we must put limits on terms of office for legislators, clearly limit lobbyists’ access to congress and the executive branch, and demand that lobbyists identify their clients. We must do this on the basis of the concept that unfettered access is equivalent to the diminution of free speech on the part of the rest of us.  Next, we must turn to the “revolving door” and prevent congressional members and their staffs from taking a lobbying job within 12 years of leaving office.  In fact, Congress has become a training ground for future careers in lobbying and in other businesses where legislators have been actively involved.  This using of public office for future personal gain is a travesty of “public service.”

Finally, we must eliminate all “earmark” legislation by constitutional amendment. We must set in stone penalties for “insider trading” based on knowledge received through the legislative or oversight processes, and for “conflicts of interest” through appointment to committees that conflict with individual interests and investments.  Penalties must be attached to all actions that abrogate rules and ethics of the Congress or other branches of government, and be strictly enforced.  We do not have time to allow delay on these reforms.  We are too close to the destruction of our form of representative government to allow any intransigence or blocking of these reforms to occur.

How did we get to this point?  We got here through a series of  missteps that went unheeded.  We got here because the citizenry failed to keep tabs on its representatives.  We got here because the public was too trusting that its representatives were trustworthy, instead of recognizing the potential of every human being for flawed actions.  We got here because the people failed to find ways to oversee their own elections process and the process of governance.  We got here because government manipulation for profit became the standard practice of too many powerful individuals, associations and corporations.  We got here through legislative practices like earmarks, and failures such as lack of election reform, that flew under the radar of the voting public.  We got here through neglect, and apathy, and cynicism and greed.  We got here because of our insistence that public schools not be required to prepare students for their role as citizens.  We got here through inattention to the vital role of “the people” as the source of governmental power. 

We got here through an inability to sort out facts from myths and illusions.  What does that mean, you may ask?  We have allowed to be created certain myths that keep us from acting decisively on behalf of our best interests as citizens.  Here are just a few:

1)    that elected officials have some sort of wisdom, experience or expertise that sets them apart, resulting in less scrutiny by us, and the acquisition of power and special privilege by them;
2)    that “the American People” speak with one voice usually through the official speaking at the moment, which leads to illusory and manipulated thinking on the part of the electorate;
3)    that “compromise” is always in our best interest when the truth is that compromise is often a watering-down of principles and needed solutions;
4)    that a “two-party system” is best for our country, when we know that narrow opinions and options often lead to ineffective or minimalist solutions and actions;
5)    that a “strong military” is indispensable, leading to all kinds of abuses and over-reaching in terms of letting of contracts, wasteful spending, bellicose policies and armed conflicts;
6)    that “religion” is indispensable to government, leading to all kinds of attempts to force upon individual citizens the particular views of a religion or denomination, resulting in conflicts over doctrines or practices that have no place in political legislation, i.e. to force one view of abortion or contraception upon the citizenry through legislation or constitutional amendment is abhorrent in a government that was founded to protect religious liberty for all and to prevent the establishment within this nation of one particular religious viewpoint or practice;
7)    that corporations are equivalent to individual citizens, and that their monetary support of political entities must not be abridged, because it is a form of (free) speech protected by the constitution, leading to the horrendous abuse of the political system evident in the 2012 election., during which the secret contributions of a small number of millionaires attempted to influence the outcome of numerous elections through scurrilous negative advertisements. 
8)    that our election system is “open and free”; it is neither, and recent attempts by over half of the state governments to suppress the votes of minorities, women, young people, and inner city residents is a testament to the inadequacies of our electoral process; as is voting on a Tuesday.  If ever a situation demanded a national set of guidelines and practices, this is the one.

The list of myths and illusions is much longer, but the time for getting beyond them is growing short.  We cannot nurture our great republic without the reforms that must be made to salvage our democratic ideals.  In every generation or so, there must be attention to the elemental principles of our system of government.  The change in purpose and mission that has occurred in our federal and state governments is but a symptom of the fact that reform is imperative.  This is that time, and we must be the catalysts.