Fee for Service

Money is to our political system as smallpox was to New England in the late 1600s, damaging and deadly to public policy.

And its effect has been on full display during the early days of the Obama administration.

Consider the fate of an amendment proposed by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that would have granted bankruptcy judges the power to rewrite mortgages to help prevent foreclosures. The amendment failed, with 12 Democrats joining 39 Republicans.

The amendment was opposed by the finance industry, which gave nearly $300 million in campaign contributions to Congressional candidates in 2008, more than any other industry contributed during the same election cycle.

Sen. Durbin, in an interview with Bill Moyers on Bill Moyers’ Journal, said the vote showed the dangerous influence of money, the disparity in power it creates between the haves and the have-nots. The bankers, he said, “were working feverishly in the halls of the Senate, going office to office, trying to convince people to vote against Durbin’s bill,” while the “people facing mortgage foreclosure” lack “that kind of political clout.”

“By and large, these are people who are on the skids,” he said. “They’re running into trouble and voting is perhaps, you know, a sacrifice for some of them. Being involved in lobbying is beyond anything that they’d ever done or could consider doing. So I really was trying to speak for some of those people against some pretty powerful political forces.”

Durbin’s amendment is not the only legislation being distorted by campaign cash. Federal energy legislation also is being twisted to meet the needs of corporate donors.

The Washington Independent reports that major recipients of cash from the nuclear and energy industries are “shrugging off opposition from

environmental groups to embrace the industry as a source of low-carbon energy and a job creator in their districts.” Powerful Democrats like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., and House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, D-S.C., each having taken large sums from the nuclear industry.

“The industry can’t build new reactors without unprecedented levels of financial support from the American taxpayer,” Tyson Slocum, the director of Public Citizen’s energy program, told Elana Schor of the Independent. “When your business model is dependent upon the generosity of the American public in the form of subsidies, they try to accomplish that through giving money to politicians.”

It’s a formula used by nearly every industry in the country, which is why Sen. Durbin and Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., are proposing legislation creating a national clean elections program.

The Fair Elections Now Act, introduced March 31, would limit donations to $200 a donor for participating candidates in both the primary and general elections, earning candidates who qualify matching funds. The bill calls for a minimum number of in-state contributions 1,500 for House candidates and 2,000 plus 500 for each congressional district in the state for Senate candidates.

The idea is to take the private money out of the system, provide enough money for an “adequate campaign to bring your message to the voters,” Durbin told Moyers, and let elected officials concentrate on doing the people’s work, without being unduly influenced by fundraising considerations.

“I think that is a good move for our democracy,” he said, “and it’s one which we ought to acknowledge is at the heart of many of the issues we face.”

Durbin said the bill offered a “small investment in financing campaigns, so you know where candidates stand, and not giving away the store when it comes to critical issues and special interests.”

It is a leveling of the playing field, an attempt to offset the power of the “financially articulate” who, too often, “prevail, many times, over the public majority sentiment.”

“[I]t’s true that if you have more money to put into the process, it’s more likely you’ll be heard. But I wouldn’t give up. I really, honestly believe in the bottom line here. I think that if you have the right cause, organize people and give them the chance to do the right thing, ultimately you can prevail.”

Hank Kalet is a poet and the online editor for The Princeton Packet newspaper chain. Email; blog,; Twitter,

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2009

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