Ryan Napoli challenges the importance of the upcoming midterm elections in the United States. Napoli contends that corporate and special interests have compromised American democracy and explains how the existence of a two-party party system and policies such as earmarking have removed the taxpayers’ voice in their government. In Napoli’s opinion, regardless of which party triumphs, the future of democracy in America will be at stake unless the people take the government back for themselves.
Ryan C. Napoli is a public interest lawyer at MFY Legal Services based in New York City. He has represented indigent individuals and groups in a wide range of cases including housing, civil rights, poverty law, family law and immigration. Napoli is an advocate of a vast array of social justice issues including having represented post-9/11 detainees. He has also worked for the Grameen Foundation implementing micro credit in the Americas and drafting legislation on Capitol Hill.
IN THE UNITED STATES VOTERS are gearing up for what is considered to be important mid-term elections in November.
After six years of Republic dominance in all three branches of the US government, Republican grasp of both the House and Senate are at stake for the first time since the Republican Revolution of 1994. As a result, both parties are spending billions of dollars on campaigns across the country. But, for what?
If the Democrats regain control of all or part of Congress, will that eliminate the institutional political corruption and greed that is ever-present and increasing in American politics? Will the lobbyists of the likes of Jack Abramoff, and politicians like Bob Ney and Tom DeLay disappear? Will taxpayers have a say in their government? Hardly.
The Democrats are just as guilty of selling their electorate out to corporate and special interests as the Republicans. Campaign finance, the two-party system and laws such as earmarking have crippled American democracy. These policies have led to a political environment where there is no real challenge to those in power. In 2004, more than 98 percent of incumbents won their way back to Washington.
WHOSE INTERESTS DO ELECTED OFFICIALS REPRESENT?
Increasingly, neither party represents the people. Some argue that the parties represent the haves and the have-mores; however, the situation is much worse. American politics has reached the point where a term like constituency means corporate and special interest lobbyists and the industries and groups behind them, such as energy, banking, media, the Christian right and the trial lawyers. It appears that the only interests met are corporate and special interests.
Money has certainly been associated with elections since the inception of the electoral process. In fact, the Founding Fathers debated the issue of who should be able to run for public office.
One of the main points of contention was whether to limit candidates for office to landowners. The Founding Fathers decided that such a limitation would impede democracy inasmuch as people of less wealth could not run for public office.
Americans need to reclaim the Founding Fathers’ vision of democracy, where both the rich and poor could run for public office. This vision cannot be achieved without real campaign finance reforms and the implementation of policies such as Clean Elections.
TWO PARTIES EQUAL ONE CHOICE
Another factor stifling American democracy is the two-party system. The two-party system has led to issueless elections which motivate candidates to run negative campaigns. Candidates focus solely on issues that appear necessary to differentiate themselves from their primary opponent, instead of addressing actual policies constructive or beneficial to citizens.
The dynamics of the American two-party system have prevented both parties from shifting too far to either side of the political spectrum. The two parties have such similar stances on most major issues and in their reliance on a wealthy power base that the two parties in reality form a one-party system.
A two-party system also increases the usage and reliance on gerrymandering tactics. In an effort to diffuse minority strength, the two parties attempt to concentrate opposition votes into a few districts to gain more seats for the majority in surrounding districts. Similarly, campaign finance corruption is more prevalent in a two-party system since it has fewer players to receive donations. The result of excessive corporate and money influenced campaigns is the abandonment of the interests of millions of taxpayers.
EARMARKING TAX DOLLARS TO ENSURE RE-ELECTION
Another contributing factor to political corruption and the removal of the taxpayers from the equation of politics is earmarking. In the United States legislative budget process, Congress has the power to earmark funds it appropriates to be spent on specific named projects while circumventing all review. Earmarks obligate agency bureaucrats to spend a portion of the budget on special projects chosen by politicians. Members of Congress, including Rep. James P. Moran Jr., used earmarks to fund a private defense contractor $37 million for technology the military could not use. Meanwhile Moran received $17,000 in campaign contributions from the President of the company.
In 2005, 15,000 earmarks were issued costing $47 billion. Public finance experts criticize earmarking as it creates an environment of corruption including kickbacks. Legislators are not fighting for a specific earmark to help their constituents. Earmarking is really about securing campaign contributions from big business and special interests.
Earmarking is further distancing democracy from the electorate and ought to be outlawed. In 1998, the Supreme Court took away similar powers extended to the president, the ability to use the line-item veto on spending bills. The next step is to ban earmarking.
WHAT IS REALLY AT STAKE
The greed and corruption on the part of both parties has reached the point where the electoral process is in jeopardy. Whether the Republicans retain complete control of the government or the Democrats successfully challenge that control is not what is at stake, but rather the health and viability of American democracy.
In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a warning about money interests in the political system: The liberty of democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism- ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.
Taxpayers should ask the powers that be whether they are the powers that ought to be. Unfortunately, in November no such questions will be on the ballot, and as result the election will accomplish little towards the restoration of democracy.
Americans need to reclaim their voice in government. Americans should demand real campaign finance reform, a multi-party system of government and a ban on earmarking. Corporations should be made the taxpayers’ servants under the law.
Without such institutional political reforms, positive change will not occur and democracy in American will remain unsafe.