In the 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Jimmy Stewart played an honest man who went to Washington as a newly elected senator from his state. Smith (Stewart) went to Washington full of idealism and energy only to encounter monied interests who were about to plunder the state for their own selfish ends. While entertaining, the movie was a commentary on how well-connected wealthy interests were able to sway the votes of congress to do their bidding. This was nothing new, even then, but it seems today we are faced with a crisis of the same sort.
In today’s Boston Globe (August 3, 2012), there is a story about the “Super-PACs” and their power. To my surprise, and disgust, it was revealed that a majority of the funding of these PACs comes from a mere 10 people. No, that unfortunately is not a typo on my part, the number is 10. It goes on to say that about 98% of all funding of these PACs comes from just over 1000 individuals. This should be abhorrent to any thinking individual.
It is said that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it, and so it has come to pass. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the PACs of that era, then known as “trusts” combined to set prices, levy high taxes on imports, and restrict the amount of government regulation upon their industry. Americans, finally fed up with this behavior, passed the Sherman Anti-trust Act, the minimum wage law, and child-labor laws. That era, known as the Populist Era, passed quickly, by around 1915, and America quickly reverted to some of its old ways. The result was the great stock market crash of 1929. This time, however, it was the financial interests who had leveraged Congress to allow them carte blanch in their affairs. Because of the nation’s crisis, FDR was able to enact a host of laws that both allowed free enterprise to flourish but had the government keep a watchful eye on exactly how business went about doing so.
But once Ronald Reagan was elected to office, he set about reversing many of the regulations, weakening oversight, and assuring large business that the government would no longer be “meddling” in their affairs.
This led to the rise of special interest groups in Washington who enticed members of congress to acquiesce to their desires. But that helped bring about campaign finance reform which, briefly, worked. But Americans are both smart and industrious, and it was not long before monied interests found all the loopholes in those laws and, of course, found a way to circumvent the law. They will tell you, correctly, that they are acting entirely within the law. But of course, they are entirely out of line with the “spirit” of the law. The most egregious of these is the present-day “attack ad.” Both conservative and liberal groups address only their party’s platform in either supporting their candidate or attacking the opposition. They do not mention who they are supporting so such ads are not viewed, or counted, as contributions to the election of any particular candidate. But the result, of course, is the same.
In the movie, Mr. Smith discovers that the power behind the vote is not the senator who has the vote, but the man who finances the senator. This, unfortunately, is still going on in Washington, probably more so now than at any time in our history. And if it is not stopped, it will spell the death of our vaunted political system. The power of the ballot will cease to exist in the individual American, but will reside in the hands of the few who hold sway over powerful interests who do business in Washington.
The solution, in part, is a very simple one; cap the amount any person, any corporation, any organization can give to any political cause in any one year to $5000. A PAC would simply be unable to accept any gift larger than $5000 from any single source during a calendar year.
But we as Americans are responsible for holding our elected officials to a high standard. We must insist upon transparency of their actions. We should know who in power is whispering in their ears. We should demand of them the highest standard of ethical behavior. It should not be corporate America that elects our officials, as I fear happens only too often today, but the individual voter. We should have the knowledge that those running for office have not allowed facts to be spun so heavily as to defy good logic, a fairness of presentation, and the simple truth. Next time a politician declares he is for or against something, look for the man behind the curtain. Look for the secret agenda, and ask yourself if it is indeed in the best interest of those affected, and not just to line the pockets of those who are well-connected and wealthy.
Want to know how much the super-PACs take in and who they endorse? Follow this link