Civilians carry a victim of a NATO airstrike in Afghanistan. (Photo: AFP)
As public opinion tips against the US military presence in Afghanistan, and Congress talks about "doubling down," as the pullout from Iraq is accompanied by steadily increasing violence, and talk turns to slowing or halting the pull-out, the question the anti-war public must ask itself is: What now? War funding for Iraq continues despite two consecutive Democratic majorities elected expressly to stop it. Obama's high-stakes 2008 Super Bowl ad blared "Getting Us Out of Iraq," and it worked. He was elected. But the cold hard fact seems to be emerging that, regardless of public opinion, the wars will roll on.
The occasional heroic Congress member or senator will call for a timetable, an exit plan or a halt to war funding, but despite lots of heat generated in the debate, the war bills seem to pass at the end of the day. This is because incumbents' real constituents are no longer the people who live in the district. The real power, the money which pays for television ad blitzes and the all-important donations to the local Little League, comes from far away.
Very few people know that on average 80 percent of their Congress members' and senators' campaign funds come from outside the district, and largely from outside the state. They come from industries like defense, telecommunications and financial services. What do they get for these contributions, even in cases when the Congress member votes against those contributors' positions on certain bills?
The 1976 US Supreme Court decision, Buckley v. Valeo, which equated money with "free speech," affirmed your right to buy your own congressman. But it did not explicitly affirm your right to buy mine. Since that decision, the amount of money in politics has skyrocketed and is at all-time highs. Also at record-breaking highs are the pay-offs, like bailouts for the auto and financial services industries.
The savings and loan bailout of the nineties, at $200 billion, was chump change compared to the $700 billion TARP slush fund of today, which rewards financial services companies for the subprime mortgage fiasco. In searching for an answer to how the $3 trillion Iraq war can drag on despite three years of Democratic majorities in Congress elected to end it, follow the money.
The citizen's watchdog group MAPlight.org has found that congressmen who voted for TARP, the "Troubled Assets Relief Program," received nearly 50 percent more in campaign contributions from the financial services industry (an average of about $149,000) than congressmen who voted no. Legislators who voted for the automobile industry bailout in 2009 received an average of 40 percent more in "contributions" from that industry (the less politic call them "bribes") than those who voted against it. And House Energy and Commerce Committee members who voted yes on an amendment in 2009 favored by the forest products industry, to allow heavier cutting of trees, received an average of $25,745 from the forestry and paper products industry. This was ten times as much as was received by each member voting no. This pattern repeats itself over and over.
True, contributions don't guarantee a particular legislator will vote your way. But neither will he or she filibuster your bill or go on TV to ask rude questions about impacts to taxpayers or consumers. Arguably, that could be called hush money.
What we have arrived at is a system of industries, defense, financial, telecommunications, health insurance, trail lawyers and the rest, looking to appease those who, as Richard Nixon said, can do something for them, or something to them. Take one example: Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. This is the final hurdle for war appropriations bills after they pass the House. No war bill gets to the president's desk until it gets past Inouye, who can stop it cold, send it into perpetual conference committee loops or change it in a dozen ways. As one might guess, money comes pouring in to Inouye from defense contractors from across the country:
Campaign contributions to Sen. Daniel Inouye from the defense industry, ex-district.
Inouye takes in $160,000 from corporations not in his district that have a financial interest in war. Double Medal of Honor winner Gen. Smedley Butler said after World War I, "war is a racket."
How do we change this? We can call for reform which forbids money from outside the district. If money from PACs or individuals is to be equated with "free-speech," then let it be confined to its rightful boundaries. There are now "free speech zones" for anti-war protesters, who welcome some public figures into town. So, the idea of geographically restricting some speech in the public interest is well established.
By halting money from outside districts, connections between business interests and committee members will be by coincidence, not forged as unholy alliances, which may conflict with the interests of real constituents. The influence of the defense industry over key committee members and House and Senate leaders will be diluted. The principle of Buckley v. Valeo, that money equals free speech, remains intact. But congressmen will still answer to constituents, the way they are supposed to. Of course, citizens are always free to work their hearts out for whomever they want.
When two-thirds of the nation's wealth is owned by just ten percent of the population, as is the case in the United States, that ten percent has a lot more money to give than the other 90 percent: therefore, the interest of society in limiting the corrupting influence of money across geographical boundaries is clear. MAPlight.org found that money travels outward from wealthy zip codes to poorer ones.
If congressmen were not meant to represent geographical constituents, the founders wouldn't have drawn district maps. Campaign finance is now a frenzy of interests shopping for committee members and chairpersons across the country. The industry determines which committees are targeted. The reason incumbents no longer pay attention to constituents who are overwhelmingly against bailouts, or strongly anti-war, is that their real bosses will always give them enough money to bury any challenger in a blizzard of negative TV ads.
Why should Boeing Aircraft (maker of the Apache helicopter,) which doesn't even have a shop or an office in my district, be allowed to give money to my congressman in Boston? (It does.) He shouldn't be worrying about what Boeing thinks. He should be worrying about what I and my neighbors think. Without any extraneous distractions.
If there is one thing congressmen hate, it's being embarrassed and tongue-tied in public. If he or she won't go to the mat to end the wars, or for any other issue important to the district, then ask your representative what's the deal with that contribution from the real estate company in Arizona. Or what have you. If your congressman is using your district's leather seat (it belongs to the district, not to any one person or set of outside interests) in that historic, marble-filled chamber to represent you, vigorously, then there's no problem. If not, further questions are in order.