A Litmus Test for Elected Officials

Brian Klepper and David C. Kibbe

Six months ago, who could have imagined that a large percentage of rank-and-file Americans would support the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) against special interests’ rigging of the American dream? So why not go to the next step? Why not pointedly ask political candidates, “Will you take money from lobbyists?” and “If elected, what will you do to stop special interest influence?”

Most Americans are deeply disturbed by this issue. In a recent Time Magazine poll of people familiar with the OWS protests, 86 percent thought that “Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington.” Gallup found that 68 percent of Americans think corporations should have less political influence.

These trends didn’t just happen. They resulted from special interests’ vigilant attention to legislative possibility, lubricated by the exchange of money for votes. Influence peddling is now so accepted in American politics that the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) has established a lobbying data base, Open Secrets. But making lobbying contributions transparent hasn’t slowed the torrent of money that re-shapes law and wealth distribution.

Since 1952, the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) represented by corporate taxes has plummeted from 6.1 to 1.0 percent, while the percentage represented by employment taxes has skyrocketed from 1.8 to 6.3 percent. Meanwhile, a just released Congressional Budget Office study confirmed that the top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation’s after tax income over the last 30 years.

CRP’s numbers show that 13,000 lobbyists contributed $3.5 billion in Congress in 2010.  Considering that Congress influences the flow and distribution of a $15 trillion national economy, these investments promote unfair advantages extremely cost-effectively. Politicians from both parties fund their campaigns with the money, shrug off the system’s financial conflicts, and apparently avoid thinking too hard about the consequences.

The intensifying ability of the powerful to buy America’s lawmakers’ votes is the greatest threat to the America that most of us grew up believing in. It is why the rich have gotten much richer, why large, profitable corporations pay no taxes, why health care costs have continued to explode, and why Americans’ social mobility is at an historic low. America has many difficult problems, but lobbying and the way we finance elections are among the deepest, facilitating many others.

Voters can facilitate rapid change by holding their representatives accountable. Asking our political candidates who they think they’re working for would be a simple but powerful way to bring America back into balance.

Brian Klepper, PhD is a health care analyst and the Chief Development Officer for WeCare TLC Onsite Clinic. David C. Kibbe, MD, MBA is Senior Advisor to the American Academy of Family Physicians and an industry advisor on health information technologies.

2 thoughts on “A Litmus Test for Elected Officials

  1. Pitch perfect topic – and great timing heading into 2012. Lawrence Lessig was just on The Daily Show last night plugging his new book on this exact topic: Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – And A Plan To Stop It. ($13 Kindle version on Amazon: http://amzn.to/uX2AKY ), and you can see the extended interview here: http://www.thedailyshow.com

    He argues (well) that transparency alone isn’t enough. We need a new mechanism to change this – and his idea around vouchers is pretty compelling. In essence – the first $50 of everyone’s taxes is rebated in the form of a voucher – that can then be used to fund the candidate of their choice.

    The point is – the $’s are sufficiently big in aggregate to fund the campaigns – it’s far more representative – and it’s a small enough amount to have zero individual influence. Brilliant solution as a way to end the cycle of corruption between the wealthy and their candidates.

    He makes another really interesting point. Turns out the marketing of OWS is off by a significant amount. The current pitch is that are the 99% when in fact it’s really more like 99.95%. It’s that 0.05% that has the most financial influence in Washington around Congressional elections. In effect, Congress is funded and controlled by about 160,000 very wealthy people.

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