The Millionaires' Congress vs. The People

by Jim Hightower

The rich truly are different from you and me — they tend to hold seats in Congress.

Our nation purports to be a representative democracy, yet you don't find many plumbers, mineworkers, dirt farmers, Wal-Mart associates, roofers, beauty parlor operators, taxi drivers, or other "get-the-job-done" Americans among the 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate.

What you do find is an over-supply of lawmakers drawn from a very thin strata of America's population: Millionaires. In fact, the Center for Responsive Politics reports that last year — for the first time in history — more than half of our senators and House members are in the Millionaires Club. Indeed, the average net worth (the value of what they own minus what they owe) for all lawmakers now totals more than $7 million.

In short, the world in which our "representatives" live is light years from where the majority of people live, and the divide between the governors and the governees is especially stark for the 40 percent of people whose net worth is zero (or, technically, less than zero, since their income and other assets are far exceeded by their debts). This widening chasm is not just a matter of wealth, but most significantly a literal separation of the privileged few from the experiences, needs and aspirations of the many who're struggling to make ends meet and worried that opportunities for their children to get ahead are no longer available to them.

The harsh reality is that most Americans are no longer represented in Washington. Chances are that their own members of Congress don't know any struggling and worried people, share nothing in common with them and can't relate to their real-life needs. Thus, Congress is content to play ideological games with such basics as health care, minimum wage, joblessness, food stamps and Social Security.

Mark Twain once said, "I'm opposed to millionaires, but it would be dangerous to offer me the position."

One danger that such wealth brings is that many who have it become blinded to those who don't. So, the news that most of our congress critters are now in the millionaire class speaks volumes about why this institution of American democracy is so undemocratic. It has been striving ceaselessly to provide more government giveaways to Wall Street bankers, corporate chieftains and other super-wealthy elites, while striving just as mightily to enact government takeaways to harm middle-class and poor families.

Take, for example, Rep. Darrell Issa, with a net worth of $464 million last year. A far-right-wing California Republican, he has used his chairmanship of the powerful oversight committee to pound Obamacare's effort to provide health coverage for Americans who have been shut out of the system, even as he tried to unravel the new restraints to keep Wall Street bankers from wrecking our economy again. Issa and his ilk are proof that a lawmaker's net worth is strictly a financial measure, not any indication at all of one's actual value or "worthiness."

I hasten to note that many millionaires in American have been able to rise above their financial handicap, serving the public interest rather than self or special interests. For example, when Rep. Chellie Pingree was elected to Congress in 2009, she was an organic farmer and innkeeper in rural Maine. Definitely not a millionaire, she was a stalwart fighter for such progressive policies as getting corporate money out of politics, enacting Medicare for all and reigning in Wall Street greed. But in 2011, Pingree married — of all people — a Wall Street financier and was suddenly vaulted into the ranks of the 1-percenters. So, naturally, her legislative positions changed ... not one whit.

See, even in Congress, being a millionaire is no excuse for being a narcissistic jerk.

© 2014 Creators
http://www.creators.com/opinion/jim-hightower/the-millionaires-congress-...

National radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the book, Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow, Jim Hightower has spent three decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be - consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks.

First Things First: Why the US Need a Pro-Democracy Movement

Until we fix our democracy problem, it's hard to fix any problem.

by Marge Baker

In the four years since the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United v. FEC ruling, two things have become abundantly clear.

Though the problem of money in politics can feel overwhelming, there are a number of workable solutions being considered federally and implemented in the states.

First, we have a major democracy problem. Citizens United paved the way for unlimited corporate spending to distort our elections. Staggering amounts of money have poured into our political system since the Court handed down that decision.

Second, and just as importantly, it’s become clear that until we fix that democracy problem, it’s hard to fix any problem. In other words, until we fix the funding of our political campaigns, we can’t fix the individual issues that matter most to everyday Americans.

This has proven true across the board. Whether the issue you’re most concerned about is making your community safer, guaranteeing that your family has access to clean water, or ensuring that workers get a fair minimum wage, when wealthy special interests can buy their way into the hearts, minds, and votes of elected officials, progress on these issues will continue to stall.

Clearly, when moneyed interests can spend virtually without limitation to influence our elections, they can set the political agenda.

The Citizens United ruling gutted the ability of Congress and the states to put common-sense limits on this runaway spending, and the effects haven’t been subtle. In the wake of these campaign finance changes, outside political spending by Super PACs and other channels has reached an all-time high of $1 billion, the Associated Press found.

And now, a case currently being considered by the Supreme Court, McCutcheon v. FEC, could could allow even more money to flood our political system.

This isn’t the kind of “democracy” Americans of any political background want. A recent poll shows that more than nine in ten Americans think it’s important for elected officials to reduce the influence of money in our elections.

Though the problem of money in politics can feel overwhelming, there are a number of workable solutions being considered federally and implemented in the states.

Small-donor legislation is one good option. This type of law provides matching funds for small donations at a multiple ratio (such as 5:1 or 10:1). It also amplifies the effect of small donations, providing a way for them to carry real weight in political campaigns. That encourages political participation by people who may have felt before that their contributions didn’t matter.

For candidates, small-donor public financing provides an alternative for those who don’t want to be reliant on, and beholden to, wealthy special interests to fund their campaigns.

Another is the mandatory disclosure of political spending. Although Congress isn’t likely to pass disclosure legislation anytime soon, many states are responding to the post-Citizens United spending bonanza by closing loopholes so that big, special interest donors can’t hide behind “dark money” groups in elections.

Additionally, the year after Citizens United, a group of law professors asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending to their shareholders and the public. Despite the proposal’s immense popularity, the SEC recently took the corporate political disclosure rule (SEC File No 4-637) off its agenda. That agenda, however, isn’t binding, and the SEC could — and should — still adopt the rule right away.

But most importantly, to fix our democracy problem, we have to be able to enact common-sense regulations on political spending. To fix the root problem — in the absence of a change in who’s on the Supreme Court – we must amend the Constitution to undo the damage of Citizens United and other cases that have handed huge power to Wall Street and giant corporations.

City by city and state by state, the people are taking that power back. Sixteen states and more than 500 cities and towns have called on Congress to pass an amendment overturning Citizens United and related cases.

All of these solutions are steps toward a larger goal: putting our democracy back in the hands of “we the people,” and fighting for a more transparent, vibrant democratic system responsive to the needs of everyday Americans.

 

Marge Baker is executive vice president of People For the American Way.

 

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