Recently, I was featured in a Leonard Pitts opinion column (Tribune, April 9) regarding campaign finance corruption and our Citizens Congress as a means to combat it. I am commonly asked how and why I got involved in such an arcane issue. The quick answer is that I’ve always been passionately motivated by blatant inequalities. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission was an egregious decision that I, like many others, felt viscerally.
My subconscious motivation probably stems from the stigmatizing blacksheep mantle my father laid on me as a kid. But I’ve learned that your greatest wound is also your greatest gold. From that treasure of gold, I have invested in many issues of inequality. I’ve been a Big Brother for 33 years, for example, and I’ve spent nearly a year in Africa doing self-funded volunteer work to advance conservation, education and economic opportunities in the northwest corner of Namibia.
But whatever your issues are, most likely money in elections is primary. We are led to believe that campaign finance corruption issues are huge and complex and are the province of the powers in Washington. Not ordinary Joes like you and me, right?
Wrong. The fact that we think it’s beyond us is what got us into this mess. Increasingly, since Reagan claimed that “government is the problem” we have apathetically forgotten that our government is “of the people, for the people and by the people.” We collectively — meaning, whoever participates — set the rules that we are governed by. Think of the income gap between the sexes or mandates regarding women’s health in the context of gender representation in Congress: 19 percent women versus 81 percent men. Would those problems still exist if the genders were reversed? To blame the government for our woes is like blaming the referees for losing the game.
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Right now the rules of the game are being deeply influenced by people who can afford to write big checks — on the left and right — to campaigns, candidates or through individual expenditures of support that alter outcomes in money’s favor. Ninety percent of all elections are won by whoever spends the most money.
However, money in elections is not the only influence . Changing rules also requires a constant presence in Washington. The Chamber of Commerce has a four-story building next to the Capitol Mall, for example. Where is your presence? Your elected representative, you say? According to the Congressional Management Foundation, your legislator is spending three of every five workdays raising money for reelection. If legislators spend 60 percent of their time raising money, then that means 60 percent of the time they are an audience for the concerns of people who have money, leaving 40 percent of the time for studying policy and listening to the rest of us. The results of those rule changes over the past 40 years can be empirically shown in the accelerated gains of wealth and favorable legislation for the preferential few. That’s not rocket science. Most of us can and do feel that.
Campaign finance corruption creates inequalities across the entire spectrum of our lives. The problem correcting it is fourfold:
1. In its common form, much of it is not illegal.
2. It seems too obscure of a subject for most people to understand its effects on their daily lives.
3. Corruption known as “bending” is difficult to expose because of the shadowy gray area where ethics struggle and the complicity of both political parties. In fact, it’s systemic.
4. There is a rigorous but, in my opinion, disingenuous first amendment defense.
The members of the Citizens Congress (CC) didn’t care for endless meetings where we felt we were just pushing rope, so we formed for the purpose of a grand gesture to facilitate the first national dialogue June 2 to 5, between interested legislators like our own Rep. Lois Capps; national, nonprofit citizen advocates such as Common Cause and Public Campaign; and academics such as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and former FEC chairman Trevor Potter, to create a national strategy to effect a change in the rules that presently favor a small minority.
The CC will examine the many options that exist — constitutional amendments, legislation, public financing of elections and closing loopholes in the rules of the FEC, Securities and Exchange Commission and IRS that allow too many abuses. We will use roundtable strategies with citizen groups and legislators to distinguish the most comprehensive reforms.
After the CC, in addition to implementing these chosen strategies, until the rules are changed, we need to collectively create safety nets of support for candidates who campaign with higher ethical standards.
You are not powerless. You don’t have to accept these lopsided rules. But you must be willing to do something. Here are four things you can do immediately:
1. Put together a group of 25 or more people and we will come and address your group.
2. Contact us at http://www.citizenscongress2014.org and help us put together the CC.
3. Call and write Rep. Capps, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein and tell them you want reform and want them to come to the CC.
4. Offer donations to rent facilities and lobby our legislators.
William Ostranderis the director of the Citizens Congress and a farmer. In the past he has also worked as an actor, contractor and developer.