McCain-Feingold, Citizens United, And Grassroots Activism
February 13, 2010, 01:48 AM
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I have spent much of the past two decades organizing computer professionals. You might call us disorganized labor because, unlikedoctors and lawyers, the gathering together of technical workers is in its infancy.

This experience has brought me close to the way things work in Washington. I tell people that if the general public knew what I knew about our government, the revolution would have already started.

What the public misses is that the real rulers of Washington are a network of lobbyists and PACs. When the public hears about an earmark, they probably think about a bridge in Alaska. When I hear about an earmark, I think of the lobbyists that wrote the legislation and bribed the members of Congress to get it slipped in a bill.

Yes, lobbyists do write legislation. Once you have a little experience reading bills you learn to tell what has been written by legislative services and what has been written by the lobbyists-the latter generally is convoluted and usually carefully crafted to make it difficult to tell what it actually does.

Worse yet, with the bloat of government, much of our law comes in the form of regulations promulgated by unelected bureaucrats. This lawmaking gets little public attention but lobbyists rule there as well

My perspective on McCain-Feingold is maybe different that of most people. When I read the bill, I thought it represented all that is corrupt in Washington. The bill protected the established institutions such as PACs and unions, made political activities by small groups criminal, but did absolutely nothing about money influence.

While the press should have been condemning McCain-Feingold as an example of the institutional corruption, most of the mainstream media was labeling it as "not perfect, but a good start."

Right now much of the media and many commentators are up in arms over the Supreme Court's opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission the struck down parts of McCain-Feingold asunconstitutional restraints on free speech.

Before getting agitated over the Supreme Court's action, raise your hand if you believe corporate influence (or any other special interest) is less or that government corruption has been reduced since McCain-Feingold. Except for the drunk at the end of the bar, no hands. There is general agreement that McCain-Feingold did nothing-just as it was intended to do.

The Chicken-Little cry coming out of the media is that the Supreme Court has opened the doors to corporate influence-but they already run the show. The investment Goldman-Sachs makes through its PAC gets paid back many times over through government bailouts of its investments. The billions in bonus at the firm is a direct product of its millions in campaign cahs.

Let me illustrate how things work under McCain-Feingold. Suppose a corporation wants to increase the value of a property by having a highway connect to it and that highway goes through your neighborhood. To get the road, the Corporation bribes your Congressman with money from its PAC. In response, your neighbors form a group and take up donations. Your group then runs an advertisement close to an election describing how your Congressman's support of the road is going to destroy your neighborhood.

You have committed a felony under McCain-Feingold. The Corporation's bribe in the form of a PAC donation is legal. The Supreme Court's opinion notes that, under McCain-Feingold, the big money interests retain influence but it is the little folks who get cut off.

The undue influence of money interest over Congress is of greater urgency to me that of most Americans. So I applaud the Supreme Court's decision to strike down a statute that is designed to cut the little folks out of the political process.

We need to change the focus of reform from limiting the speech of those who cannot afford to set up PAC to limiting action in response to money. It is time for the public and the media to demand real, specific changes in campaign finance.

I will just give one obvious example here: A prohibition on members accepting contributions from those their committees oversee. If you serve on the Banking Committee, you should not be able to take contributions from bank. All that would take is a rules change-but it will never happen unless the public demands it. The banking committees are plum positions precisely because of the flow of bribes they generate from financial institutions.

Unless the public demands respond change, Congress is going to respond to regular flares up over influence peddling with do nothing legislation like McCain-Feingold.