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#426 - Big-picture Organizing, Part 6: Money In Politics, 25-Jan-1995

Nearly a decade ago, most grass-roots environmental activists stopped
trying to pass new laws. From a grass-roots perspective, legislatures
seem to be controlled by wealthy polluters who aren't about to pass
tough laws to curb pollution.

Dumping pollution into the environment means using nature as a toilet,
and nature's toilet is free. The polluter does not have to pay for the
resulting breast cancer, asthma, diabetes, lupus, reduced IQ in
children, diminished sperm count in men, and so forth. Cause-and-effect
is nearly impossible to establish in cases of individual illness;
therefore, the burden falls on specific individuals and on the
taxpaying public to pay the inevitable costs of pollution, thus
subsidizing the polluters, who bank their ill-gotten gains. Under these
circumstances, polluters and their elected representatives in
legislatures have no real incentive to pass laws to curb pollution. In
sum, grass-roots activists have quit trying to pass new laws because
they see it as a waste of time.

The more traditional Washington-based environmental movement won an
early victory for pollution prevention in 1976 when Congress killed the
supersonic transport [SST] airplane proposal, in order to protect the
earth's upper atmosphere. For nearly 20 years the Washington-based
enviros have been trying to reproduce that early pollution-prevention
victory, without success. Now things have gotten so bad that the 15
largest Washington-based environmental groups jointly issued a cry for
help last summer, saying, "Even during the Reagan/Watt/Gorsuch years,
we have never faced such a serious threat to our environmental laws in
Congress. Polluters have blocked virtually all of our efforts to
strengthen environmental laws, but still they are not satisfied. Now,
they are mounting an all-out effort to WEAKEN our most important
environmental laws."[1] Since that time, the situation has deteriorated
further; with Mr. Gingrich strutting his stuff, there seems to be no
hope of passing effective new pollution prevention laws in Washington.

Some people translate these harsh realities into "all government is
hopeless." They thus join hands with the Libertarians who seek to
diminish all government as a matter of principle. (The polluters can
only celebrate this response; it eases their public-relations task as
it swells their treasuries.)

Most people, however, still recognize that there are some legitimate
purposes for government. Even people who are completely committed to
the "free market" can see that the market encourages polluters to dump
toxic "externalities" into nature's free toilet. (If the free market
encouraged pollution reduction, the market would have solved the
pollution problem long before 1948 when Congress passed the first
pollution control law.)[2] The victims of pollution (those who get
cancer, asthma, multiple chemical sensitivity, lupus, etc.) need
government to protect them and their children from these glaring free-
market failures.

How big does government need to be? Only big enough to protect against
the pollution hazards created by market failures. When corporate
polluters amass assets measured in trillions or quadrillions of
dollars, operate on a global scale, and dump hundreds of billions of
pounds of toxins into nature's free toilet each year, government needs
to be very large indeed. (As pollution diminishes, so can government.)
Who will protect the earth and its inhabitants against market failures
if not the people organized into governments?

Liberty is not the absence of government. Liberty is self-government.
And that is what we have lost during the past 100 years. Slowly and
invisibly, government at all levels has been taken over by a tiny
minority of people who have organized themselves in the corporate form
and who have thus become far wealthier and more powerful than the
average.[3] Such people tend not to represent all of us in their
decisions. They tend to represent their own narrow interests. In a
nutshell, this is why ordinary people find themselves unable to pass
laws to curb pollution. The polluters and their money are out of

It is time for everyone who opposes pollution --grass-roots activists,
workers, the chemically sensitive and the chemically injured,
environmentalists in Washington, and anyone favoring reduced taxes and
reduced health-care costs --to confront this problem head on. It is
time to campaign to get money out of politics. (It is also time for a
national debate on what to do about the real root of these problems --
the corporate form --but we leave that discussion for another day.)

A new pamphlet, just published, clearly describes the problem of money
in politics, and offers real, affordable solutions.[4] THE WEALTH
that money is now so influential in elections that it deprives ordinary
citizens of a voice in government and thus violates the principles of
one-person-one-vote, popular election, and meaningful political
equality that make up American constitutional democracy. Further, THE
WEALTH PRIMARY argues persuasively that the present system violates the
equal protection clause of the constitution and is thus illegal. A
lawsuit has been filed in the state of New York on these grounds[5] --
the opening salvo in a legal and political struggle that may take a
decade or more, but which seems essential to win if we are to take back
our democracy from the polluters.

Plainly put, here is the problem: The current electoral system is
rigged for the benefit of wealthy candidates or those who can raise
money from the wealthy, leaving us without candidates who really
represent the middle class, working people, and the poor.

Long before the political parties select their nominees and voters cast
their ballots, long before the vast majority of citizens have focused
on upcoming elections, candidates compete in a critically important
phase of the modern electoral process: THE WEALTH PRIMARY. The person
who collects the most money --the "winner" of the wealth primary --
almost always captures his or her party's nomination. Then, in the
election, the person who raises the most money wins nearly 90% of the
time. In 1992, 86% of U.S. Senate candidates who outspent their
opponents in the wealth primary went on to win the election. In the
U.S. House of Representatives, 89% of the wealth primary winners went
on to victory at the ballot box.

There are four kinds of participants in the wealth primary: 1)
incumbents (people already holding elected office); 2) millionaire
challengers; 3) challengers not wealthy enough to bankroll their own
campaigns but financially secure enough to campaign full-time for
private contributions from others; and 4) non-affluent citizens who
cannot afford to subsidize their own campaigns or to campaign full-

Incumbents are subsidized by taxpayers and thus are given a tremendous
advantage over challengers. In the first place, U.S. Senators and
Representatives are paid $133,600 each year; on top of that, each
member of Congress receives more than a million dollars for mailing
expenses, newsletters, telephone, computer systems, fax machines,
legislative and administrative assistants, interns, press secretaries,
and travel budgets. Many members who chair committees end up with
millions more that they can spend on their own re-election campaigns.

During an election, the average House member spends more than $170,000
on postage (free, courtesy of the American taxpayer), most of it spent
mailing out newsletters that trumpet the members' accomplishments.
Between 1991 and 1992, the average House member spent more on mailing
to constituents than the challenger was able to spend on his or her
ENTIRE CAMPAIGN. Thus the system unfairly subsidizes those who already
hold office.

Incumbents are in a position to influence legislation now, and they are
very likely to be returned to power. So private money, seeking
influence, flows into their campaign coffers. In 1992, the average
House incumbent had $692,000 to spend, compared to $155,000 for their

This is the crux of the problem: Congress is elected with money raised
from wealthy people. As a result, Congress is far more responsive to
the political interests of the wealthy and often acts to the detriment
of those left out of the wealth primary. As political campaign costs
and expenditures have soared in the last two decades, the non-affluent
majority has steadily lost economic ground, while wealthy individuals
and corporations have been greatly enriched. A government drenched in
campaign cash has allowed working people to sink. (See REHW #409, #419,
#421, #422.)

The solution to these problems is public financing of election
campaigns, to level the playing field and allow political candidates to
compete on the merits of their ideas, not on their ability to raise
money from the wealthy. Public financing of elections would cost each
taxpayer between $5 and $10 per year. This seems a small price to pay
for regaining control of our democracy. Those who think it is too
expensive should remember that Congress voted to bail out the savings
and loan industry with taxpayer funds to the tune of $500 billion. That
is enough money to finance all federal elections for more than 1000

As we have seen, incumbents already have their re-election campaigns
publicly financed by taxpayer subsidies. The question is, how can
challengers be publicly financed as well, so no one has to depend upon
wealthy people to run an election campaign? There are at least 3 ways
that public financing of elections could occur. We'll describe in
detail them next week.

In the meantime, Ellen Miller, director of the Center for Responsive
Politics, says this about campaign finance reform: "It is the reform
that makes all other reforms possible." If you seek pollution control
or prevention, you first need to pay attention to the way elections are
financed. There's a powerful reason why your elected officials don't
listen to you. That reason is money. We have to get money out of

--Peter Montague


[1] See REHW #407.

[2] For a history of federal environmental laws, see Chapter 2 in
Sheldon Novick and others, editors, LAW OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION
Vol. I (New York: Clark Boardman Callaghan, 1994).

[3] See Richard L. Grossman, "To the arenas of self-government...," an
unpublished draft paper dated January 6, 1995. We cannot distribute
this draft, so please do not request copies. Mr. Grossman can be
reached at: P.O. Box 806, Cambridge, MA 02140.

[4] Jamin B. Raskin and John Bonifaz, THE WEALTH PRIMARY (Washington,
D.C.: Center for Responsive Politics, 1994). Available for $10.00 from
Center for Responsive Politics, 1320 19th Street, N.W., Washington, DC
20036); telephone (202) 857-0044..

[5] The case, known as Albanese, et. al. v. FEC, Susan Molinari, and
Committee to Re-Elect Susan Molinari, CV 94-3299, is currently pending
in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Descriptor terms: elections; law making; legislative process; money in
politics; human health; supersonic transport; victories; pollution
prevention; libertarians; corporations;

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