In the 1976 film Network, a distraught newscaster named Howard Beale throws aside his news copy to deliver some truth. He rants and raves about the sorry state of affairs in the world and declares, in what would become Hollywood gospel: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” He becomes an overnight folk hero, a pundit who taps into the vein of public outrage at a time when punditry was unheard of.
In the film, Beale is addressing the rampant corruption, political incompetence, and societal decay witnessed by Americans in the 1970s: Crime was out of control, the Cold War was on, illegal drugs were ruining communities, and the chaos of the 1960s was still fresh in peoples’ memories.
Drugs, now legally distributed in the form of toxic pharmaceuticals, kill thousands more than they did in the 1970s.
Times have changed, but that sentiment still persists. So it begs the question: What has really changed? Drugs, now legally distributed in the form of toxic pharmaceuticals, kill thousands more than they did in the 1970s. Unregulated toxic chemicals continue to kill, cripple, or disfigure middle-class workers. And guns alone are responsible for over 32,000 American deaths each year. The last time the U.S. faced such a mortal threat at the hands of a legal substance was the 1980s, when drunk driving accidents were killing tens of thousands of Americans a year. As a result, our elected officials beefed up drunk driving laws and increased the drinking age to 21, resulting in significantly fewer deaths and injuries.
So why hasn’t Congress done the same for guns, chemicals, and prescription drugs? How could our elected representatives fail so miserably at passing even the most common sense legislation – legislation that could literally save hundreds of thousands of lives?
If These Things Are Killing Us, Why Aren’t They Regulated?
The real issue is how our elected officials behave once they’re in office – whether they fight for the issues and concerns of their constituents, or whether they act on behalf of the private donors, corporations, and lobbyists financing their campaigns – and, by extension, their careers.
Consider the 2012 effort to impose expanded background checks on gun purchases – a measure supported by nearly 90 percent of Americans. The effort failed to pass even one house in Congress. How?
Most people point their fingers at the National Rifle Association (NRA), which routinely challenges incumbent representatives who do not align with their interests by bankrolling candidates with more hardline pro-gun agendas. But the NRA – and lobbying groups like it – is just the symptom of a deeper problem. Billionaire donors, political action committees (super PACs), private corporations, and industry trade groups are all free to openly (or secretly) donate however much money they wish to whatever candidates they wish.This is the law of the land.
As it stands the law creates an environment for corruption to take root; and campaign donors like the NRA are just taking advantage of it. But if that’s true, you may ask yourself, how did we even get here?
The Short Answer: Citizens United
Back in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot prohibit corporations or unions from donating to political campaigns. The ruling, in effect, labeled corporations as people and money as “free speech,” and paved the way for the creation of Super PACs – independent political committees engaged in unlimited spending on campaigns. These organizations cannot donate directly to campaigns, but can advocate on their behalf – and spend as much money as they wish in the process. A more recent ruling from 2014 (McCutcheon v. FEC) expanded the ruling, stating that individual citizens (read: millionaires and billionaires) are free to donate as much money as they want to as many candidates as they want.
Together, these rulings have ballooned spending on U.S. elections. In 2012 alone, parties and their respective candidates received more than $7 Billion in campaign funding, according to the FEC. And that figure is only expected to rise in 2016. With so much of that money coming from individual donors, corporations, and non-profit “political action committees,” the concern is that our elected officials are essentially bought – that they’re indebted to their donors, desperately in need of money for their reelection bids, and therefore willing to legislate on their behalf. It’s as much a problem of ethics as it is corruption; what’s really appalling is that the “corruption,” in this sense, is completely legal. While these recent Supreme Court rulings highlight a persistent dilemma in American politics, the issue of campaign finance actually goes back decades, perhaps even centuries.
The Long Answer: Old-Fashioned Human Greed
References to corruption and campaign finance can be traced back to the constitution and its framers. But the issue didn’t really become a major public concern until the early 20th century, when President Theodore Roosevelt argued that “contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law.” In a message to Congress, Roosevelt added these prophetic words:
“I recommend the enactment of a law directed against bribery and corruption in Federal elections. The details of such a law… should go as far as under the Constitution it is possible to go, and should include severe penalties against him who gives or receives a bribe intended to influence his act or opinion as an elector; and provisions for the publication not only of the expenditures for nominations and elections of all candidates but also of all contributions received and expenditures made by political committees.”
As you can tell, such a bill never made it through Congress. Over the following decades, however, a series of laws were passed to restrict private financing of elections and mandate disclosure of political expenditures. Most of these acts lacked proper enforcement methods, and in some cases they were outright ignored by the Justice Department.
The 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) helped establish a blueprint for regulating federal elections by setting limits on donations and advertising, and the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) went a step further. But in 2006 the Supreme Court ruled that a Vermont law setting limits on campaign spending was unconstitutional. This led to the 2010 Citizens United case, which all but undid most of the last century of campaign finance reform. The ruling, which was opposed by a stunning 80 percent of Americans, even attracted the rage of Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who lamented that “campaign finance reform is dead.”
Private interests – namely, the will of corporations and the billionaires who run them – were granted more…
But was Citizens United truly the nail in the coffin, or was it merely the face of a deeper issue? According to Dr. Michael Johnston, a political scientist at Colgate University who has been researching corruption since the 1970s, the process of loosening parameters on political spending has been going on for years. Court decisions like Randall v. Sorrell and FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life had been chipping away at the BCRA for years.
“Citizens United was a big deal but it was the culmination… of seven or eight court cases that began being handed down in 2003 or so,” Johnston explains. “They basically took away the ability to restrain various kinds of independent expenditures in politics.”In that sense, they were a victory for human greed. Private interests – namely, the will of corporations and the billionaires who run them – were granted more political influence than the public. That means there are fewer elected officials legislating on behalf of Americans who don’t want to live in fear of the very air they breathe.
We’re at a point where corporations are dumping toxic waste into groundwater supplies, dispersing carcinogens across communities, and peddling lethal pharmaceutical drugs to desperate patients. With so much at stake, we can’t afford to have our elected officials in the pockets of the very people who are poisoning us.
Guns, Chemicals, & Killer Drugs
It’s clear that campaign finance laws are weak and useless, but how is this corrupting the political process?
For one, it’s preventing meaningful legislation aimed at saving lives and protecting citizens from the destructive side-effects of free enterprise. And the corporate lobby that is the Republican Party is all too willing to forgo the very fabric of democracy for the sake of their donors’ bottom lines.
That’s not hyperbole. Some politicians may find this offensive, but that’s only because they need to sleep at night. The fact that they’re free to solicit money from private corporations directly compromises the goals of a functional democracy. It undermines their ability to represent their constituents, many of whom face life-threatening diseases as a result of corporate negligence and greed.
Consider the legal status of asbestos – a toxic mineral that is banned by almost every developed country other than the U.S. Attempts to outlaw the carcinogen have failed because corporate interests successfully invoked their grievance that it would be “too burdensome.”
Just last week, the House of Representatives passed the FACT Act. Like most corporate-sponsored legislation it features an unobjectionable premise: reduce fraud in asbestos compensation claims. (It actually stands for “Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency.”) It’s only when you read the fine print and trace where the yay votes are coming from that you find a truly despicable scheme. All 19 members of the Republican Party who pledged support for the bill have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the likes of Koch Industries, Honeywell, DuPont, and 3M – all companies who knowingly and carelessly manufactured asbestos-containing products for years. These organizations flat out refuse to accept responsibility for exposing innocent Americans to asbestos. They would rather bribe politicians into rewriting the very law that should have been created to stop them. If signed, the FACT Act would delay, deny, and challenge victims’ ability to receive compensation from these corporations, and the Republican-controlled House just passed the bill without hesitation.
But it doesn’t end there. Another bill, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA), was designed to modernize the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. It sounds productive on the surface, but according to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) the bill was written by the American Chemical Council (ACC) — the chemical industry’s largest lobbying association. If passed, it would allow for the “assessment” of a mere 25 chemicals. According to the EPA, more than 84,000 chemicals are registered for use in the U.S., but among them only 200 have been tested. A mere 5 have actually been banned. Meanwhile, workplace exposure to hazardous chemicals is the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S., leading to more than 40,000 premature deaths each year, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
And that’s just chemicals. The pharmaceutical industry is perhaps even more powerful and the products they distribute even more in need of oversight. In 2014, more than 25,000 Americans died as a result of prescription drug overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That’s 8,000 more than the number of deaths caused by illicit drug use.
The CDC reports that prescription opiates alone kill more than 40 Americans every day, and the number of prescription painkillers sold in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled since 1999.
But America’s opiate epidemic isn’t the only gripe citizens should have with the pharmaceutical industry – not by a longshot. Hundreds of other drugs and medical devices are harming the American people by the thousands. When opiates are included, the death toll balloons: 270 Americans die each day from prescription drugs, or 100,000 Americans per year. While this number is certainly staggering, even more people are suffering from costly and irreversible bodily damages – whether it be strokes, heart attacks, crippling joint infections, or even perforation of vital organs.
And in nearly all cases, the drug companies knew of the potential dangers of their products and pills, but shirked off responsibility by looking the other way or blatantly hiding documents before federal regulators could see them. These despicable and untrustworthy business decisions? Cold-hearted, plain and simple – and made all in the name of profit.
270 Americans die each day from prescription drug overdose, or 100,000 Americans per year.
More than any other nation by far, depression affects 19 million Americans, or 8% of the entire adult U.S. population. With anti-depressants being Big Pharma’s largest profit generators, it’s no wonder these billion-dollar corporations – Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Otsuka, and Bayer, to name a few – have a vested interest in not only advertising their products aggressively, but in keeping all of their anti-depressants on the market, even when their drugs are undeniably connected to life-threatening health issues.Scores of anti-depressants – Cymbalta®, Effexor®, Abilify®, Zoloft®, and Prozac® – are causing potentially fatal side-effects, and many of these drugs have been linked to birth defects when used by pregnant women. But because these anti-depressants are Big Pharma’s greatest profit-turners, they keep getting pushed to patients.
And then there’s the firearms industry, which has performed perhaps the most successful hijacking of the political process in U.S. history, leading to tens of thousands of deaths each year.
“[The gun lobby has] a lot of money to spend by comparison to their opponents,” says Johnston. “But what they also do is they work within the party system to, in effect, keep people in line by threatening to finance a primary election challenger.”
Congress’s failure to expand background checks on gun purchases – a measure supported by nearly 90 percent of Americans – was made all the more loathsome and pathetic by the fact that it occurred mere months after the murder of 20 schoolchildren by a deranged man who had open access to firearms.
It’s obvious: Money is corrupting the U.S. political process. The issue is deciding how to move forward. The tried-and-true method of advocating reform on behalf of our elected representatives is a zero-sum game, because our elected officials have a career-driven interest in maintaining the status quo. As Johnston explains:
“There’s an accepted myth that corruption is sort of like cancer or disease: If a country has corruption long enough it’s going to fall apart. It turns out, of course, that corruption can be a very convenient way for the ‘haves’ to keep themselves on top, and to keep poor people poor.”
Johnston has advocated a somewhat counter-intuitive solution: Make campaign contributions fully anonymous. Specifically, any entity that wants to donate money to a candidate would first have to give it to the FEC, and the FEC would then pass it on to the campaign – all anonymously. The idea is that donors would not be able to prove to candidates that they gave money to a campaign.
“It’s not so much to make it secret as unverifiable,” Johnston says. While the idea has failed to gain traction in the U.S., he argues that it is certainly worth discussing.
There are other more grassroots efforts like Represent.Us, which aims to stem corruption by tackling political expenditures at the municipal, rather than state or federal level. The presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) is also taking a novel approach to modern campaign finance. He has refused to associate with super PACs and has rejected donations from corporate entities. Despite the lack of huge donors, Sanders has received more than 2 million individual campaign contributions.
It’s time to call a spade a spade. Serious problems related to pollution, environmental degradation, and public safety continue to plague society, and yet they’re being ignored by careerist politicians who are more interested in financing the longevity of their political careers than saving American lives. And with recent Supreme Court cases reinforcing the legality of buying politicians, the problem is only getting worse. This is an outrageous feat of civic cynicism and legislative failure.
Our “leaders” are bought by the drug companies, chemical producers, firearms manufacturers, and lobbyists who finance their campaigns.
As it stands, our “leaders” value the right to pollute and destroy over the right to be safe from cancer, violence, or pollution, and they do so only because they’re bought and owned by private enterprise. They’re bought by the drug companies, chemical producers, firearms manufacturers, and lobbyists who finance their campaigns. And they’re willing to spin criticism of the status quo as an attack on freedom itself.
On the rare occasion that a common sense law meant to control the distribution of lethal substances actually reaches Congress, the bill must endure years of legislative pussyfooting until it’s been watered down to a feckless shadow of its original purpose.
It’s time to stop referring to the practice of bribing and financing politicians as “lobbying” or “free speech.” Let’s call it what it is: corruption.