As Americans, few things make us prouder than our democracy. It could barely be more heavily ingrained in our historical identity, and many other countries have drawn inspiration for their own constitutional democracies from ours. One of the basic principles behind democracy is a government that answers to its people. An incumbent must make policy decisions that appeal to his or her constituents or face removal from office. However, with the current state of campaign funding laws, climaxing with the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010 equating money with free speech (which strikes me as unconstitutional, as those with more money inherently get to have more “speech” than others), it seems our elected officials’ accountability is being shifted from ordinary citizens to a select financially-backed few.
It is no secret that our representatives take in huge sums of money from relatively few sources. But the questions remain: why are we ok with this, and what effect does it have on our government’s policy?
Take the Keystone XL pipeline example. Last December, 234 House representatives voted in favor of shortening the review period for the pipeline, with 193 against. According to Oil Change International, representatives who voted yea had taken an average of $177,000 in funding from fossil fuel companies, while the nays averaged $87,000, less than half as much. So, rather than looking at this issue objectively, weighing actual costs and benefits, our congressmen, who claim to represent our interests, weighed their wallets. As Bill McKibben of Middlebury College argues, allowing congressmen to take such vast amounts of money from corporations, who have a lot to gain or lose based on legislation, is little different than allowing teams to pay off referees at a football game.
Clearly, corporate money can have a vast influence on voting trends of congressmen. There was a time, peaking in the middle of the 20th century, when both labor unions and corporations represented the main sources of funding for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. However with the decline of powerful unions, who historically fought for middle and working classes, the Democrats have had to turn towards the same source of funding as their conservative counterparts. And a growing wealth disparity and environmentally threatening legislation result.
It should all seem very obvious to the objective observer that this system needs to change. Corporations shutter at the thought, and politicians are petrified of losing their financial backing. In December, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart hosted Professor Lawrence Lessig of Harvard Law School, who argues that money doesn’t necessarily buy results, such as the Keystone XL Pipeline, but rather access. Congress chooses legislation based on how it will affect those interested in campaign funding, not what is in the public interest. So, he suggests a scheme of publicly funded campaigns, at $50 per voter that can be applied to any candidate of the voter’s choice. Additionally, private contributions would be limited to $100 per voter per candidate. According to Lessig, this would result in $7 billion in campaign funds, three times the total amount of 2010. But much more importantly, it would make politicians accountable to individual citizens, not corporations.
Unfortunately, in this political climate it seems our current system will never change, short of amending the constitution. However, one can hope for a democratic system in which the government answers to all of the people, not a few rich corporations.
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