The United States Congress was, at one time, run with an iron fist by political parties. The majority and minority leaders of the institution were individuals who followed the dictates of their respective parties, and insisted that other members do so as well. Sure, Congressional representatives were elected by their constituents, but once in office they “got along by going along,” to use the words of Speaker Sam Rayburn. Without a doubt, there were giant-sized personalities in both houses of Congress who were bigger than life, people like Harry Byrd, Richard Russell, Everett Dirksen, and of course Lyndon Johnson and Rayburn. Yet things got done! That's because the parties had clout. They stood implacably between the members and outside interests. If a member defied his party, he generally didn’t last long.
You may react to this bygone reality with a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness it’s been changed," you may exclaim, "because democracy cannot thrive in an authoritarian atmosphere like that!” Indeed, it was changed in the 1970s, when Congress began "democratizing" itself. The result was that the power of political parties was drastically diminished, and Congress, according to Fareed Zakaria, evolved into “535 independent political entrepreneurs.” A politician now no longer fears the party in the same way he once did, but -- and this is vitally important -- he can also no longer look to it for support during tough times and votes of conscience.
So has the democratization of Congress been a positive development? Or, asked another way, what has been the primary effect of freeing our Congressional representatives from party constraints?
For those who may feel sanguine about this development, my response is the caveat "not so fast." Politicians have a strong survival instinct. They generally desire longevity in office. They now realize that they are one step removed from defeat, especially when they face the electorate without a powerful party behind them.
Power never tolerates a vacuum for long. With the wings of political parties clipped, fund raisers, pollsters, and activists of every shape and size have assumed a new significance in the world of American politics. In order to survive in national public office nowadays, a politician has to spend huge amounts of time raising money, monitoring public opinion, and satisfying special interests. That is the name of the game.
“Special interests” is a term that may not be fully understood. Who do you think these interests are? The National Rifle Association is one, and the National Organization of Women is another. Still another is the Business Roundtable, composed of corporate chief executive officers in charge of companies with over $7 trillion in annual revenues and 16 million employees. This is an organization founded with the goal of influencing public policy, from economic development to foreign relations. And, bless Pete, it does precisely that!
Let’s assume that an idealistic young woman has been elected to Congress and possesses a passionate resolve to improve life in her district. Further assume that she desires to keep jobs at home and to sanction corporations who move them to other countries in order to gain the benefit of inexpensive labor. If this representative’s ideas should ever gain traction in the House (an improbability in itself), do you think for one moment that she will not be under intense fire from corporate America for her proposals? Be assured that corporate money will deluge the political arena in order to defeat her for re-election.
Former Senator Dale Bumpers from Arkansas reminds us that conducting all Congressional business in public has crippled its work, as special interest groups have developed very harsh methods of dealing with those who cross them on any vote, even one in subcommittee. The political pressure is intense and intimidating. For this reason, he says, "Congress began to finesse the tough issues and tended to straddle every fence it couldn't burrow under. . . . It isn't that these [special interest] groups don't have a legitimate interest but they distort the process by wrangling over the smallest issues, leaving Congress paralyzed, the public disgusted, and the outcome a crapshoot."
The road to Hell is often paved with the best intentions. The sunshine laws, which were intended to open Congress up and to free it from the clutches of political parties, unwittingly gave monied interests access to this governmental body like they never had before. Money of course translates into power, and big global corporations are willing to spend whatever is necessary to get and to keep politicians under their control.
Do you wonder why jobs have been and are being outsourced from America by the hundreds of thousands? Do you think it curious that elite corporate executives always seem to land vital positions in the highest tiers of “public service”? Are you troubled by the fact that the rich are becoming richer and the poor poorer? Are you perplexed about why there is checkered enforcement of immigration laws, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border and why our overall immigration policy is in shambles? Do you ever ask yourself which interests have profited most from such an immigration policy or from America’s waging one improvident war after another overseas? It doesn’t take a genius to answer these questions. What is good for big business is not necessarily good for the American people. The “profit motive” is not the only criterion according to which public policy ought to be formulated. It is not the only consideration in sound public decisionmaking.
What we must do is to lessen the influence of corporations upon American policymaking. I don’t mean that business interests should be ignored; far from it! But neither should they predominate over all other interests. At this point in time, the political playing field is far from level. Rich corporate executives have a voice that most other people never will have. Greedy CEOs are directing the play in this country, and that should be stopped.
Corporations have been keenly responsive to America’s best interests during various times in the past. (World War II is an example.) They can be so again. But they won’t be properly regulated without laws in place to do so. That includes judge-made law as well as statutory law. The American people must become empowered again and demand this of their government. Such empowerment involves thoughtfulness, education, common morality, and pride in one's country. Considering the current debilitated state of the citizenry, this is a tall order, but not an impossible one.
May 12, 2013