Welcome to the Plutocracy

PlutocracyAs you may have heard, the Supreme Court yesterday ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC that wealthy individuals cannot be limited in the overall amount they can give to political candidates. The First Amendment, which last time I checked does not mention money at all, allegedly now bars any limitation on the total amount of moola that rich folks can shovel in the direction of elected officials.

The 5-to-4 decision split along political lines and overturned decades of settled law, as well as many state limits grounded in anti-corruption principles. The majority decision is rife with such broad (and utterly daffy) generalizations about the nature of speech and political life that it also makes clear that the Court is frighteningly likely, in the not-so-distant future, to strike down any kind of contribution limit.

The former aggregate contribution limit of merely $123,000 per federal election was such a drag on my own political giving, as I’m sure it was on yours. I totally had more money than that saved up to spend on every election cycle (I’ve been clipping coupons!), and I’m glad to see that all that green stuff I have laying around in piles can finally go to good use buying influence for my pet projects.

In truth, out of a country of 314 million, only 1,300 people maxed out the prior cap on political contributions in the last election cycle. What a crisis! I can see why the Supremes thought this decision was worth their time.

Of course, some of these large donors may be cursing the outcome, as their phones are already ringing off the hook, and now they won’t be able to escape pols’ persistent dial-a-thons until they’ve dished out $3.2 million, or 30 times the old limit. As Lawrence Lessig put it on Diane Rehm this morning, the decision narrowed the number of people who are at all politically relevant in the money race from the old high of a mere 120,000 people to an even smaller pool of 40,000, or about the number of people in the U.S. named Sheldon.

The Court’s majority opinion is an activist one in the classic sense, yet is oddly disingenuous about its impact on established law. The majority is also not above boot-strapping: yesterday’s decision relies on the secret flow of campaign funds created by Citizens United as a basis for taking down yet more limits, without acknowledging the situation was actually created by the Court.

And in a hypocritical break with oft-hyped principles of constitutional textualism, the Court ignored a key brief filed by Lessig that analyzed the Framer’s uses of the term “corruption,” instead delivering a decision out-of-step with the historical record. Indeed, the case is a harbinger of bad decisions to come because it signals that a key idea — that political money can create an “appearance of corruption” — has evaporated as a matter of law.

Even the dissenters appeared surprised that the Court’s official definition of political corruption now contains only outright bribery. (In fact, the erosion began when then-Solicitor General Elana Kagan threw a key case on appearance of corruption under the bus during the oral argument for Citizens United. Now the damage from abandoning a broader description for political corruption is plain.)

Still, cramped legal arguments aside, the level of cluelessness from the conservative majority about how Washington already more-or-less operates is breathtaking. What we all know in our hearts to be true is actually the case, and not just on House of Cards. To state the painfully obvious: I’ve been in a room in the Congress with a handful of big-money political donors, and seen with my own eyes how their influence is greater than that of 1000 mere voters, even when the money is merely in the background, and not on the table. These are the folks that Roberts thinks need protecting because they are despised — you know, like flag-burners and Nazis.

What he fails to acknowledge is that they are at the heart of the system, not its outskirts. The rich get different meetings, including sometimes in the Oval Office or with committee chairs, and with actual elected officials instead of staff flunkies. They get their phone calls returned, promptly. Meanwhile the rest of us, even those lucky Washingtonians who are officially designated advocates working on issues that a member of Congress or two is supposedly interested in, twiddle our thumbs, waiting around nervously for a return call like a shy schoolgirl from the 1950s.

As a 2012 brilliant TAL episode on the Washington shake-down pointed out, the open secret in Washington is that elected officials need donors more than donors (except, perhaps, the most craven ones) need them. The parties impose fundraising quotas on everyone, including specific levels of money to be raised by new members, committee chairs, and for leadership positions, and every lawmaker also must raise their own dough or look like a sitting duck. The post-Citizens United explosion in Super-PAC spending made this considerably worse — making every candidate more insecure because any one of them could face unknown amounts of last-minute spending by shadowy front groups.

Lifting the aggregate limits, as the Court just did in McCutcheon, may be even more damaging than the inevitable move to eliminate the remaining limits on direct contributions to candidates. Why? Because it substantially raises the potential value of very wealthy donors for larger groups of party electeds. The value of a donor, in the mind of every politician, is their ability to give early and often to the enterprise. Being able to turn-key a political gift to another pol through a joint fund-raising committee or other means is almost as good — and in some cases, might be even better — than collecting it for yourself, because it creates a new ally and obligation while supporting the party. Back-scratching, log-rolling, call it what you will — that’s the actual coin of the realm.

These factors also explain the inherent limits in the power of small donors under the current set of operating rules. And while the growth in smaller donors has been significant in Presidential elections, smaller gifts are harder to collect in less-publicized races. Even the recent efforts to organize smaller donations would have been unlikely to take root without many of the very reforms being struck down by the Court, reforms that, for a brief time, required political parties to look elsewhere besides to the rich and powerful for funds.

The major push for collecting political money emanates from and around Washington, not from individuals clamoring in the marketplace of ideas to be heard, as Roberts and his ilk conjure up in the opinion. When I was, briefly, a legislative director for an organization with a small PAC, I suddenly started getting voicemails from elected officials on my personal cell phone. “Hi, I’m Representative So-and-so,” they would say. “I would really love to talk with you about coming to my event next week.” After a decade of working around Washington advocating on important issues of public health, it was gratifying that actual members of Congress were now so keenly interested in my “political speech”!

I actually don’t fault politicians: it’s currently impossible to know who is really in Congress for the right reasons, because this is how we define their job. But the notion that this kind of routine exchange between two functionaries — sickening, undignified, and clearly self-interested in the narrowest sense — is about anybody’s First Amendment freedom is ludicrous. It’s a classic shake-down, often loathed by both sides, and legalized by an elaborate tap-dance that keeps everyone, barely, on the right side of what otherwise might look a lot like bribery.

Thankfully, in our own dear country (unlike in many places around the world) there is no shortage of political speech, either through money or the more traditional act of actually speaking. If anything, we talk our problems to death, until the solutions expire of boredom and inaction. Instead, the problem with the ineffectiveness of our politics has been, to mangle George Orwell, that some folks’ speech is more equal than others’.

Those who oppose change are often the ones who have the most to gain from stasis. So it makes sense that amassed wealth is inherently anti-reform, both because money represents a victory under the current rules of the game, and because the wealthy have the most — quite literally — to lose. When lawmakers’ livelihoods are roped inextricably to the continued success of the wealthy donors they must court to stay in office and keep their standing in Congress, there is little doubt that democracy has been replaced with something else, and that real change, no matter how justified, will be far harder to achieve.

It’s hard to see why a democracy captured by a few billionaires would care about the callousness of auto companies that fail to repair a defect that would have cost 90 cents per vehicle to fix and cost at least 13 people their lives, as in the recent case of the Chevy Cobalt. Or begin to address the pending catastrophe of climate change, or enact meaningful chemical reform, or do a thousand other difficult things that need to be done but impose real costs on the current economic winners in our system as it is.

Already in America, rich folks live more than a decade longer than the poor. While Roberts is waxing poetic about the First Amendment needing to pad further protections around the wealthiest .0004 percent (or 1300 out of 314 million), we must be building a movement for real and lasting change.

Although I’d been a skeptic on this strategy prior to this moment, I’m now hoping that the Court’s latest boneheaded decision will be enough to jump-start a social movement for a Constitutional Amendment clarifying that corporations really are not people and that the First Amendment doesn’t mean “freedom of money” when it clearly just says “freedom of speech.”

Without these eminently reasonable clarifications, we’ll have a Constitution and a Congress that only work for corporations and the very, very rich. While it’s a long haul to get an Amendment passed, where the Court is headed is clear. We can start to fight today, or lose our country as we know it someday soon.

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Hot Reads: CA Takes Back Its Dumb Rule, Chemical Reform Under Contemplation, and More

Wicker Picnic Basket Grass 6-1-09 1

(Photo credit: stevendepolo)

Kick up your feet: this couch won’t bite!

Fantastic news from California! It looks like beginning this winter, furniture makers will be able to jettison toxic flame retardants from their products. Currently, manufacturers use these chemicals to comply with a stupid CA state law, even though the flame retardants are linked to learning deficits, cancer, lowered IQ and other issues and do little to protect against fires.

A proposed rule allows manufacturers to discontinue the use of flame retardant chemicals in January 2014, with all manufacturers required to achieve full compliance by January 2015. This is an issue that has been driving me crazy for some time, and I’ve written about it obsessively a lot. I’m looking forward to the day when we can all breathe a sigh of relief, lie down on our couches, and take a long, peaceful nap.

Be aware that whatever the final implementation date, manufacturers will still need to change their supply chains, which may take a while. In the meantime, here’s my FAQ on flame retardants, here’s some options I found, and here’ s a handy-dandy cheat sheet of purchase options from the folks at Green Science Policy Institute, which also has their own FAQ.

It’s about time: A Quick Take on Last Week’s Chemical Reform hearing

In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). It was a joke almost from the get-go: while it purported to assure the safety of thousands of chemicals in common household products, in reality the chemical industry got the government to give tens of thousands of them a free pass. Since then, the number of chemicals in our live has gotten larger but government regulation covers only a fraction of a percent of them. A key example: asbestos, which we know causes mesothelioma and a host of other health problems, cannot be banned under the law!

Finally, after 37 years, Congress is considering updating chemical safeguards, thanks in part to the incredible leadership of the late Senator from New Jersey, the Honorable Frank Lautenberg. This should have been done a long time ago, but the gathering momentum and discussion of a proposed new bill, called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA), offers some (limited) hope, following a marathon Senate Environment and Public Works hearing last week.

Sadly, as the testimony from panel after panel made clear, the new proposal is not as strong as it should be. Given the persistent gridlock in Congress, I was cheered to hear Senators from both sides of the aisle agreeing on something essential: that there is a pressing need to reform the chemical oversight law. Some lawmakers floated the notion that they are willing to work together, which is a refreshing change, and gives me hope that the bill can actually be fixed.

More cynically, I see it as a clear signal that the chemical industry is ready to deal, and that they have finally decided that some rules to reassure the public of the safety of their products may be better than the Wild West. In the current environment, companies are never sure about whether a product is going to land them in some scary headlines and tick off moms like me. In addition, most multinationals are already complying with stricter laws in Europe, so perhaps uniformity has advantages in terms of costs for them. Ominously, there was a not-so-subtle suggestion from a few GOP lawmakers that the current proposal is the best that will be offered, which would be a crying shame, given that none of the many environmental and public health organizations on the panel supports the current version.

What are the flaws and omissions in the proposal? Sadly, there is still lots of work to be done. Many witnesses raised the important issue of the need to provide protections for state laws that are already on the books and to ensure that whatever federal standards are developed do not over-ride the state provisions. This issue — called preemption by lawyers — is needed because the states have stepped into the breach during the long winter of federal inaction on chemicals and many have their own rules that should remain in force.

In addition, nothing in the proposed law provides specific protections for vulnerable people, such as children, or pregnant and nursing moms. But we know that exposure to chemicals cannot be judged on an average basis, because there are simply windows of time in our lives when exposure to even a relatively small amount of chemicals may have devastating health effects. That’s why advocates have been so concerned about findings of chemicals in umbilical cords and cord-blood of brand-new babies: this is such an intense period of cellular development that the impact of chemicals can be far greater than it would be for an adult. In addition, environmental justice concerns about how chemical facilities and releases are concentrated in low-income areas means this kind of assessment must be done for basic fairness.

Third, because the name of the game in DC these days is paralysis by analysis, I was excited and cheered to see so many folks raise the need for hard deadlines in the law. There is clearly no stomach for another 37 years of delay. Witnesses also spoke to the importance of developing a clear and simple process for any new rule, and some even called for an assessment by the current regulators of how long, exactly, it would take under the law before the first new standard could get out the door.

The bottom line is that the bill has to be improved before it moves forward. Senator Boxer (D.-CA), the chair of the committee, provided wonderful clarity on this point and definitely seems like she on the case. But she needs our support, so here’s how to help:

Let’s be clear: this is more energy towards real chemical reform than we have seen in years, and a moment that is not be wasted. So let’s all do what we can to keep raising the costs of failure and inaction on this critical public health issue, for your kids and mine.

Water, Water Everywhere

Is your water safe to drink? Maybe, but maybe not. If it passes through PVC pipes it might contain vinyl chloride. And lead is unfortunately still a concern. Check out these tips from Healthy Child Healthy World. They list dangers to watch for and measures you can take to ensure that you and your family are staying hydrated and toxin-free.

Hot Fun in the City? Not so much.

Sunscreen, plastic pitchers of lemonade, insect repellant and a red-and-white-checkered vinyl tablecloth. Sounds like a great picnic, right? Sadly, no. All of these products contain dangerous toxins, so before you fire up the grill for a couple end-of-summer barbecues, do a little research to make sure you aren’t unwittingly exposing yourself to harmful chemicals. To help you avoid toxin-tainted products as the summer wraps up, the folks at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families have put together an informative graphic and released startling new test results on a bevy of summertime fun products.

There are more offenders than you might think, in places you might not suspect. Check it out and chuck the plastic and folding chairs, so that you are chilling in the dwindling days of summer in a toxin-free environment. And while you’re picnicking, please contemplate the nuttiness of a world in which the red-checked tablecloth is poison, and the blue-checked one is fine. Another reason we need that federal reform law!

Don’t Spank Your Toddler. Full stop.

Given my recent post on respectful communication with a child and developing resilience through trust, I was shocked to learn this week that 94 percent of toddlers are spanked and fifty percent are spanked three or more times a week. Really, what lesson does spanking teach? What does it demonstrate to children except that physical violence is appropriate behavior? And what effects does it have on the relationship between a parent and a child?

StopSpanking.org put together this incredible video about their efforts to ban spanking. The video is proposal for a full-length documentary, and funds are being solicited to produce it. Watch the video. It’s eye-opening.

Childhood obesity: down?

Good news for once: recent studies actually show a drop in childhood obesity. Hello! Let’s figure out why please, and do more of that.

The tragic costs of regulatory resistance

I wrote last week about the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a train carrying crude oil exploded and killed 47 people. Now the victims’ families will suffer more. When the costs associated with the crash were estimated at $200 million this week, the company responsible for the disaster—Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway—filed for bankruptcy because it was carrying only $25 million in insurance coverage. Appalling.

Extra! Extra!

The week began with a bombshell: Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, made arrangements to purchase The Washington Post. At first glance, the story had all the trappings of a modern-day tragedy. A man who made his fortune on the internet was buying a newspaper that owed its demise to that very same cornerstone of the digital age.

But the more I read about Bezos, the more I wondered about his motives and what they might suggest for the future of the paper. The Post, like much of print journalism, has seen better days. Its revenue has fallen 44 percent over the past six years and in 2012 its operating loss topped $50 million.

So why did Bezos, a calculating businessman, fork over a quarter of a billion dollars for it? Was it a vanity purchase to raise his intellectual cachet? Was it a hobby buy to feed a love of letters? An act of philanthropy? An ego move to show he could succeed where others failed? Or an attempt to purchase a mouthpiece on federal policy and influence federal lawmakers in support of his left-libertarian views? Only time will tell.

And that’s a wrap for this week. Hope you are having a lovely August!

For Shame: A Farm Bill that Would Leave Millions of Children Hungry

English: Snap Hill above South Heighton Black ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given what we’ve learned over the past few weeks about government snooping and the quiet, untimely demise of our tattered right to privacy, it cheered me today to see the Obama White House announce it was actually drawing a line in defense of hungry children, by threatening a veto of the bloated (and much bloviated-over) Farm Bill to be voted on this week in the House of Representatives.

The Farm Bill is always a subsidy-laden Christmas tree for agribusiness, bedecked with the promise of government largesse for commodity crops like the cheap corn that fuels high-fructose corn syrup, thus ensuring that gallon jugs of soda are cheaper than milk. It rolls through DC every five years or so like an obese Mafia don, demanding ever more “respect” with each persistent shake-down. Much of the money in the bill, for example in the form of crop insurance, goes straight into the pockets of big agribusiness, and smaller farms barely see a penny.

This year, however, the slash-and-burn tactics of the Republican leadership have ensured that the bill is even more shameful than usual, because while it leaves in place, and even increases in some places, payments to agri-business, it also cruelly decimates the food stamp program that today provides a skeletal safety net to the poorest people in America. Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, children with almost nothing but the hunger in their bellies. The pittance permitted by the food stamps program, with its meager allowance of $132 per month, gives them only slightly more than nothing.

But even that bare-bones allotment to stave off starvation is evidently too much for this Congress, which would literally take the food out of children’s mouths. I’ve been gratified, in this era of the post-sequester, to see people from Paul Krugman to Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand (D-NY) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) raising the alarm on this and drawing a line in the sand. Thirty Democratic Members of Congress, some of whom were recipients of “public assistance” when they needed it, took a pledge to spend the same as food stamp recipients for a week. It appears that Republicans need reminding that there is a social contract, and that robbing the poorest American children to keep giving money to Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto ain’t it.

Here’s a few more facts about the food stamp program (called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) from our friends at Mom’s Rising:

As Krugman explains in his column where he gets justifiably teed off about this sorry state of affairs, we should care about food stamps from both an economic and a parenting-slash-human perspective:

Estimates from the consulting firm Moody’s Analytics suggest that each dollar spent on food stamps in a depressed economy raises G.D.P. by about $1.70 — which means, by the way, that much of the money laid out to help families in need actually comes right back to the government in the form of higher revenue.

Wait, we’re not done yet. Food stamps greatly reduce food insecurity among low-income children, which, in turn, greatly enhances their chances of doing well in school and growing up to be successful, productive adults. So food stamps are in a very real sense an investment in the nation’s future — an investment that in the long run almost surely reduces the budget deficit, because tomorrow’s adults will also be tomorrow’s taxpayers.

The upshot? While some of us, and by that I mean me, are futzing about the glass-bottle organic milk our children drink, in many households here in the rich old US of A, children are not getting enough food of any kind. And Congress is about to make this sad situation much, much worse. In a bill about the food system that shovels billions of taxpayer dollars in the direction of some of the biggest, most appalling companies perched atop our industrial food system.

And the Republican leaders who brought us this revealing debate? Well, as it turns out (with a bow towards the intrepid Environmental Working Group’s research), two of the GOP’s Agriculture Committee members have been, well, shall we call them, “takers”?

Reps. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) and Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) both cited the Bible last week to argue that while individual Christians have a responsibility to feed the poor, the federal government does not. “We’re all here on this committee making decisions about other people’s money,” Fincher said. LaMalfa said that while it’s nice for politicians to boast about how they’ve helped their constituents, “That’s all someone else’s money.”

Yet both men’s farms have received millions in federal assistance, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that advocates for more conservation and fewer subsidies. LaMalfa’s family rice farm has received more than $5 million in commodity subsidies since 1995, according to the group’s analysis of data from the U.S. Agriculture Department. Fincher’s farm has received more than $3 million in that time. Last year alone, Fincher’s farm received $70,574 and LaMalfa’s got $188,570.

I’ll have a sprinkling of sanctimony with that hypocrisy, thanks very much. And pass the plate of malarkey.

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Teed off like Krugman? Here’s how to complain to Congress, courtesy of Mom’s Rising.

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Update:

Of course, as you’ve likely heard by now, the forces of righteousness won this round. The farm bill failed in the House, shocking the hardened political elite who had assumed that hurting poor people utterly lacks political consequences. The measure’s fate is now up in the air, but watch for the return of cuts to SNAP:

Its failure came as a surprise last month, when most Democrats and conservative Republican members voted against the bill; Democrats thought the food stamp assistance in the bill was being cut too much, and the right wing thought these cuts weren’t big enough. Now, it’s unclear whether leadership will try to split off the food and nutrition portion — most of it is funding for food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP — from the rest of the bill or try to pass it again intact.

Update #2: An Appalling Disregard

So the House did pass a bill. But unlike in years past, they stripped it of funding for the food stamp program (called “SNAP”). This was a break from tradition, to say the least. Since 1973, the Farm Bill has combined funding for food stamps with those for agricultural subsidies. But not this time: instead, the House-passed version of the bill jeopardizes the food security of 47 million low-income Americans while handing out $196 billion in subsidies to behemoth agribusiness firms.

In response to this appalling state of affairs, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) called out 14 Republicans who voted for the SNAP-stripped bill. Collectively, the 14 members of Congress have a net worth of $124.5 million and since 1995 received $7.2 million in agricultural subsidies. To be sure, $7.2 is only a low-end estimate of the largesse they’ve received, as a reporting loophole for crop insurance support makes it impossible to know exactly how much has been doled out. Nonetheless, each has received at least $515,279 on average. One of them, Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), has received nearly $3.5 million in subsidies. This kind of naked self-dealing is brazen even for this particular crop of Congress critters, and deserves the condemnation it has gotten. The ultimate fate of the measure remains unknown.