Nation prepares for what will hopefully be final election

Election Day 2012

Election Day 2012

Oh man: we’re just 36 hours away from the thrilling conclusion of the 2014 campaign season, when the voters of America will once again exercise total control over their governments. On an unrelated note, I enjoyed this article about the First Tuesday Luncheon Series, in which Republicans members of The Financial Service Committee meet “lobbyists from banks and insurance companies” for a monthly book club. One member of the committee picks the book, and everyone who shows up to discuss it donates to his campaign fund. Remember to vote tomorrow, so that the members of The Financial Services Committee do what you want. Otherwise, they’ll have to fall back on the paid lobbyists with whom they formed a book club.

Voters who find it inconvenient to take lunch in DC might not be blamed for losing faith in this system. Tomorrow’s election will probably determine which party controls the US Senate, although maybe not for several weeks. That’s exciting, but events of the last few years suggest that it doesn’t really matter.

Thanks to guaranteed filibustering of bills and presidential appointments, you need 60 votes to do anything in the Senate now, including but not limited to repealing health care laws that narrowly avoided filibuster four years ago. It so happens that our most recent Congress was the least productive in American history. Putting a few more Republicans in the Senate to thwart a lame-duck president does not seem like it will jump start the legislature, even if it changes the Majority Leader.

With the legislative branch paralyzed, the executive branch has necessarily become more powerful, continuing the security-state surveillance and constant military interventions of the W Bush administration. The defense and intelligence communities increasingly drive US policy, which is a bummer because those people aren’t really elected. The president is elected, and he appoints such people when the Senate allows him, but there’s reason to believe that policy bubbles up from the executive branch rather than filtering down. Vote all you want, says Michael Glennon of Tufts; the secret government won’t change.

You may notice that some of the biggest issues in American government today—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, universal domestic surveillance, even an increase to the minimum wage—are things we don’t get to vote on. The first two are things even our representatives in Congress didn’t get to vote on, except in their capacity as rubber stamps. A cynical interpretation of this moment in history might conclude that the legislative branch refuses to do anything and the executive branch refuses to consult us.

Thank the sweet, ironized Lord we still have an independent judiciary. In 2010, when partisan politics started to get really dysfunctional, the Supreme Court decided to allow corporations operatively unlimited spending on elections. Four years later, PAC spending on judicial campaigns often exceeds spending by the candidates themselves. Most of these offices are ostensibly nonpartisan, but many of the PACs are openly aligned with one or the other major party. The rest are good old-fashioned industrial interests.

It’s almost as if the Supremes increased the power of money relative to votes at a moment when an inordinate number of voters felt disconnected from the political process and, coincidentally, broke. Say what you will about the motivations of the Supremes; they obliterated campaign finance law during a historically unprecedented transfer of wealth from the middle class to the richest 1% of Americans. Maybe Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC are leading to oligarchy in US government, or maybe they just reflect it.

To recap: Congress is empirically less important to the US government than it has ever been. Judicial campaigns are demonstrably more influenced by corporations and the national parties than by candidates for the judiciary. And the executive branch—under control of the guy who campaigned on closing military prisons, restoring civil liberties, and extricating us from the Middle East—plans to continue the secret policies it was treason to tell us about.

So be sure to do your civic duty and vote. Otherwise, we would have no choice but to accept that Americans have lost control of our government. Most of us have, anyway. The wealthiest 1% seem to find it easier than ever to bend the US government to their will, making modern-day America one of the most selective aristocracies in history.

It’s too bad I’m not incorporated as a 501(c)4 organization, or I could join that book club. I probably wouldn’t even have to read any books:

The chatter in the room sometimes moves away from literary topics, lobbyists who have attended the lunches said, switching to the effort to roll back the Dodd-Frank Act, the regulatory overhaul passed in response to the financial crisis.

Ah, yes: the effort by financial industry lobbyists and the Financial Services Committee, whom they pay to hang out with, to roll back regulation of finance. If you started asking random voters about the most pressing problems facing the United States, I bet 99% of them would not say “excessive regulation of the financial industry.” And there’s your problem: you’re asking the wrong people.

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  1. Its not clear how you can read an article which describes the systematic incentives to grow the national security apparatus as a problem “of smart, hard-working, public-spirited people acting in good faith who are responding to systemic incentives” but get angsty whenever you talk about Citizen’s United. It is almost like you expect the Court to be an arbiter of policy, to have foreseen the increase in spending it would cause and determine, based on whichever political parties or interests that benefit (evil corporations/the citizens of Montana), how to rule. If that’s the Court’s process, I understand your frustration with their choice and thereby the Supremes that currently compose the Court. However, the Court’s job is to interpret, based on existing law, the meaning of various words and phrases. They are discouraged from trying to weight the costs and benefits of their decision and are selected for their ability to analytically support different distinctions. I say this not to conjure some deterministic fantasy of judicial reasoning, but to emphasize what criticism of the Courth is appropriate.

    As it were, the Citizen’s United decision was based on the First Amendment’s lack of language which allows us to deny speech to corporations. It appears, based on a line of interpretation, to protect individuals and groups of individuals (corporations). And, since money is integral to disseminating speech, you’re free to spend to express your opinion in elections. Even if you are a corporation. This may cause you to conclude the Court moribund by past decisions, but even so, means Citizen’s United does not belong in a recitation of how democracy is ending, it belongs to a narrative of how money is always power and even the highest Courts in the land cannot change more immutable laws.

    As for the pernicious influence of lobbying, I recommend Baumgartner, F. R., Berry, J. M., Hojnacki, M., Kimball, D. C., & Leech, B. L. (2009). Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why. University Of Chicago Press.
    and this convenient summary of it here. As always, the demonstration of evidence through a monograph is more impactful than a summary on the web, but perhaps some baby steps are appropriate on the path to understanding lobbying as an unhelpful consequence of democracy rather than a cancer that needs to be extricated. “Across the board for the 98 issues [over 4 years], the side with more lobbyists, more PAC donations, bigger organizational budgets and more members won only half the time.” That financial services book club exploits the moneyed interests more than the public, probably.

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