There's no political issue in this country that isn't tied to money. Think of one. Any one. For some reason, the first thing that comes to mind for me is the horrendous state of roads in Los Angeles – pot holes everywhere.
Now, this is certainly not an issue that's high up on my list of needs-to-get-fixed-for-the-sake-of-humanity. But it's still an issue that can be traced to the corrupting influence of money in politics. LA has the worst roads in the nation, costing drivers an average of $832 in damages a year. As Occupy.com recently showed in this graphic map, Chevron is the top corporate owner of California.
During his gubernatorial campaign, Arnold Schwarzenegger received $1.72 million in big oil and gas money, mostly from Chevron. And here's where it gets interesting: in 2010, Schwarzenegger signed a law raising the state's gas tax to almost 72 cents a gallon, the highest in the country. Part of that gas tax is supposed to go to the upkeep of roads, highways and other infrastructure and public works projects.
Did it? No. Instead it went into a general fund, ignoring the public vote to fund transportation projects with money from the gas tax. Some of the money in the general fund eventually went to opening up new areas of California for both on- and off-shore drilling.
Thank you and you're welcome, Chevron. Signed, Arnie.
This kind of chain of events – from campaign donation to political payback – has become the cornerstone of our money-controlled democracy. Less than 1% of Americans contribute 80% of campaign funds. Yet while campaign contributions are made with private funds, the political payback comes out of the public's money. Whatever We the People feel is most important in our budget has little bearing on where the funds get cut.
Here's a grotesque figure for you: the amount of political payback on a national level hovers somewhere around 40,000 times the original dollar amount given to a campaign.
Our country isn't poor. It's extorted. And since we're teetering on environmental collapse, let's take another example of the way money corrupts politics and threatens our future.
Big Gas, Big Oil
Fracking has risen to the top of many people's list of issues and has gotten considerable pushback from environmentalists across the country. Over 422 cities have passed measures to ban fracking and many more are on their way.
But in spite of tremendous public outcry, many resolutions have been drowned in a corporate-sponsored stew of frack fluid before even making it to a ballot. From Illinois to Colorado to California, Big Oil and Gas companies are funneling millions of dollars into stopping cities and states from banning fracking.
In Colorado, Oil and Gas spent over half a million dollars fighting the state's fracking moratorium. In California, senators opposed to the fracking moratorium – a bill that eventually died in the State Senate in early June – received fourteen times more money from Big Oil than those who supported the ban.
Then there's just good old fashioned crude. In October of 2010, just a few months after the disastrous BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Obama lifted the ban on Gulf Coast oil drilling. Stunning, right? Not really, when you consider that Obama is the “top recipient of BP PAC and individual money over the past 20 years,” raking in over $75,000 from his Senate days to his time in the Oval office.
The Oil and Gas Industry gave almost $80 million in 2012 to various political campaigns and candidates. The top recipient of Oil and Gas funds in the 2013-14 electoral cycle has been Texas Republican John Cornyn, who earned an environmental scorecard of 0% from the League of Conservation Voters. His stances include voting against mercury regulations on oil and gas smokestacks; voting against any factoring of global warming into federal project planning; voting against banning drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and voting against removing oil and gas exploration subsidies.
Pick an Issue, Any Issue
Clean air, drinkable water and a liveable climate are nice. But let's say the environment isn't at the top of your list. Let's say it's healthcare.
The U.S. currently ranks 50th in life expectancy, just behind Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to the CIA. As Dylan Ratigan writes in his book Greedy Bastards, the American Medical Association (AMA) has influenced Congress to keep an “artificial shortage of doctors” for the past century, including closing medical schools and not allowing new ones to open, even with an increase in population and demand.
As Economics 101 teaches us, the greater the demand and the shorter the supply, the higher the price. Fact: Americans will spend about $4 trillion on prescription drugs over the next decade, far more than any developed nation.
Somebody's gaining, and it isn't us. In 2010, the pharmaceutical industry logged $860 billion in sales worldwide. Why, and how, is this disparity between drug producers and drug consumers possible? Again, money in politics.
Open Secrets published statistics in 2009 showing that “last year alone, [Big Pharma] spent more than $234 million – a sum that translates into roughly $125,000 every hour that Congress was actually in session," on lobbying and campaign financing.
"Furthermore, in the first three months of 2009, it spent more than $66.5 million on these politicking efforts – or about $1.2 million a day that Congress has been open for business. And these figures are just a portion of their overall expenditures. They also spend big on advertising, research, polling and other efforts that don’t get classified as lobbying.”
While the Affordable Care Act provides the public with the equivalent of a Bandaid to the nation's health care crisis, research from Forbes suggests that “Obamacare will bring the drug industry $35 billion in profits.” A key person who drafted the ACA, Elizabeth Fowler, was the Vice President for Public Policy and External Affairs at WellPoint, the nation's largest insurance provider, before she took her position as "health policy counsel" under then-Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and consummate corporate Democrat, Max Baucus. Fowler also became Obama's choice to oversee implementation of the ACA, and in late 2012 she headed back through the revolving door into the world of lobbying, taking a senior-level position at Johnson & Johnson's government affairs and policy group.
The List Goes On
How about GMO food labeling? Agribusiness spends an average of $359 million a year lobbying our officials to ensure that genetically modified foods run in a steady stream through the American diet, despite an overwhelming majority of citizens nationwide calling for GMO labeling.
Or take homelessness, an issue that is particularly pervasive in Los Angeles and one that ties in with related crises in healthcare, veteran affairs, foreclosures and unemployment. A 2009 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless showed that 1 in 10 people who are homeless got there because of home foreclosures. Even though homeless rates declined between 2008 and 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that due to budget cuts, 100,000 more people will be ousted from housing and shelter programs in 2014.
Does anyone remember the financial crimes committed by banks and mortgage lenders to provoke the housing bubble? Those same banks and finance industry behemoths give generously to politicians. They also received trillions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in bailouts after the crash.
It's easy to get lost tracking the never-ending volley of donations, pay-backs, back scratches and back door deals. But of the overriding theme is this: We the People have the money to solve our problems. Now we just need to write policies and amend the system to force private and corporate campaign dollars out of the electoral process.
Imagine what we could have done with the $2 trillion that went to the Iraq war. Imagine our improved health if we stopped letting Big Pharma financially pillage us while paying off politicians to enforce a ruinous healthcare policy. Imagine the environmental turnaround that would be possible if we halted campaign and lobbying expenditures by Big Oil and Gas. Imagine if we didn't have a bought government.
That's why the issue of getting money out of politics is the paramount issue of our time. And it's why this week marks the kickoff of a Rolling Rebellion to purge campaign cash from the electoral process once and for all.
Some organizations working to #GetMoneyOut of the political process include: Money Out/Voters In (MOVI), Move to Amend, Common Cause, Rootstrikers, Public Citizen, 99rise, Represent.Us, Center for Media and Democracy, WolfPAC, Free Speech for People, Stamp Stampede and Backbone Campaign.
If you, too, care about this First Issue of issues – ending the corrupting influence of money in politics – join one or more of these groups and get involved. The hardest part is believing that it can be done.