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Obama's Missing Democracy Reform Agenda

Liz Kennedy

In the State of the Union address the President sketched out a blueprint that would reduce economic inequality, demanding that wealthy play by the same rules as ordinary Americans. What we didn't hear, though, was a blueprint for attacking political inequality so that the voices of the wealthy stop overpowering those of everyone else here in the world's oldest democracy. 

The President decried “the corrosive influence of money in politics” and noted that most Americans think that nothing will get done “because Washington is broken.” But he missed the opportunity to point out that much of the economic pain felt across the country is linked to how the wealthy and corporations pressure government to skew the rules in their favor. For example, a recent USPIRG report showed that 30 corporations spend more money lobbying than they pay in taxes, and we all now know that both Warren Buffett and Mitt Romney pay lower tax rates than Mr. Buffett’s secretary. That’s not a tax system that works for working people. This pressure is applied through relationships of access and influence that special interests can cultivate through campaign spending, but which is out of reach of ordinary Americans. There is a danger that Americans will grow so cynical about their government, and it how doesn’t serve their interests, that they will participate in the democratic process at even lower rates than they do currently.

Forty percent of Americans say reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups in Washington is a top priority. The President did propose lobbying reforms to“make sure people who bundle campaign contributions for Congress can’t lobby Congress, and vice versa,” which the American Bar Association’s task force on lobbying recommended last year.

This step would help to break the link between those who seek to influence government policy and those who are able to bankroll campaigns. After all, a lobbyist’s persuasive power should reflect the merits of his arguments, not the size of his (or his corporate client’s) wallet or the depth of his friends’ pockets. Similarly, the extent to which an elected official supports a lobbyist’s position should comport with her best judgment and her constituents’ best interests, not a fear that she’ll get swamped by negative spending or won’t be able to campaign because donations have dried up for her next race.

The President pointed to problems with gridlock and the tenor of Washington, and urged badly needed filibuster reforms. But he did not assail the threats to the integrity of our elections, where the viability of a candidate’s campaign can be determined not by voter preference or a large network of small financial supporters, but instead through the largesse of one political patron. And he did not decry the veritable money laundering practices which have led to the rise in secret spending.

Of course, President Obama is hardly without his own wealthy backers, but that only increases the imperative for him to take stronger steps to fight what he identifies as the corrosive influence of money in politics. These reforms by President Obama could help improve the health of our democracy immediately:

  • Issue the long-delayed Executive Order to require government contractors to disclose their political spending. This would guard against political favoritism by making sure that any attempt to curry favor with decision makers happens in the light of day.
  • Demand stronger enforcement by the Federal Election Commission on everything from disclosure to coordination rules.
  • Ask the Securities and Exchange Commission to issue a rule requiring the disclosure of corporate political spending to protect investors and the market.
  • Demand that Congress pass legislation bringing transparency and accountability to political spending. This type of disclosure legislation, which passed the House and failed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate by only one vote in 2010, will be introduced in the next few weeks, and deserves the administration’s strong support.

We need and deserve rules for money in politics that protect the political sphere from domination by winners in the economic sphere so as to ensure political equality and prevent government corruption. The President missed a chance to lead on this issue in the State of the Union. As the electoral season continues we hope the administration will take stronger steps to demand transparency and accountability for money in politics so our elections result in a government responsive to, and governing for, the common good.