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Daniel Weeks
Sunday, August 28, 2011

Congress isn’t broken – it’s fixed by special interests

Guest Commentary

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, in calling for a political donor strike, wasn’t the first and won’t be the last in a line of sensible citizens to observe that Washington isn’t working for the American people.

With congressional approval ratings near their lowest point on record, and leaders in both parties stubbornly unable to solve the fiscal crisis and start creating jobs, it’s hard not to want to starve all politicians of campaign cash.

If only We the People could.

Barely 1 percent of our citizens fund campaigns today. In fact, less than a quarter of 1 percent (0.24 percent) provided 90 percent of campaign money in 2010, with lobbyists and special interests in Washington, D.C., alone accounting for more than 32 states combined.

In such a system, it is little surprise that members of Congress spend more time raising money from a wealthy few than working with bipartisan colleagues to solve the nation’s fiscal crisis and start creating jobs for the good of all Americans. Indeed, Washington isn’t broken – it’s fixed.

Americans perfectly understand the principle of private enterprise that you are accountable to your investors. Our children understand when mom and dad pay the bills, they get to call the shots. Yet we consistently fail to apply that same logic to government.

Our problem today is not a broken government but a beholden one: government is more beholden to special-interest shareholders who fund campaigns than it is to ordinary voters. Like any sound investor, the funders seek nothing more and nothing less than a handsome return – deficits be darned – in the form of tax breaks, subsidies and government contracts.

Consider what “broken government” in Washington has meant for those who fund campaigns.

Failure to address the debt crisis means that oil, gas and coal companies will likely continue deducting more than $15 billion a year in government subsidies for royalty relief and a range of tax expenditures that enhance their record profits at taxpayer expense.

Small matter these supports overwhelmingly benefit a small number of foreign oil-producing companies or that renewables receive a fraction of the amount.

The $75 million in campaign contributions and $450 million in Washington lobbying supplied by the fossil fuel industries in 2010 provided an estimated return on investment of 35-1.

Failure to address the debt crisis also means that pharmaceutical companies will likely continue steering clear of bulk purchasing agreements with Medicare (as they have long had to do with Medicaid and Veterans Affairs), thereby protecting monopoly pricing of prescription drugs worth tens of billions per year in company profits.

Or that trial lawyers will continue to enjoy outsized payouts on medical malpractice claims through the prevention of tort reform – an estimated gain of $6 billion per year. The $145 million in campaign contributions and $521 million in lobbying expenditures by the health care sector in 2010 produced an estimated return on investment of 30-1.

And it means the top 2 percent of farming corporations continue cashing in on 60 percent of the nation’s $15 billion in agribusinesses subsidies each year, while 62 percent of American farmers received no subsidy at all.

Small matter that the vast majority of subsidy dollars goes to the production of commodity crops used primarily for animal feed and industry, rather than food, or that agricultural supports were initially conceived as a temporary stop-gap in times of natural disaster.

Some $58 million in campaign contributions from agribusiness and $121 million in Washington lobbying in 2010 provided a handsome return on investment estimated at 39-1.

These reforms, and similar ones in areas like federal employment and defense totaling $200 billion per year, are hardly radical or far-fetched. They have been proposed by respected budget experts across the political spectrum – from the Center for American Progress on the left to the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation on the right.

And they are embraced by large majorities of Americans who see that an investment in Washington influence for those with means is often the best investment money can buy.

To end this conflict of interest once and for all and begin the long walk back to fiscal balance, we must restore “purchasing power” to the American people by replacing special-interest money in campaigns with broad-based small donations and matching public funds. Fiscal and campaign finance reform must go hand-in-hand.

As a recent Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain once observed that special-interest influence in Washington is “nothing less than an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.”

In the great American auction for government influence today, the American people are not the highest bidder.

Daniel Weeks is president of Americans for Campaign Reform, a bipartisan organization chaired by former U.S. Sens. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and Alan Simpson, R-Wyo.