As Barack Obama clears his millionth individual contributor, the Congressional influence of large corporate donors continues to generate controversy.
The fight currently focuses on the question of warrantless wiretapping. The story goes like this:
- Some time in 2001 (before 9/11), the Bush administration started leaning on telecoms to give broad access to telephone calls involving American citizens, without any warrants.
- After 9/11, that program ramped up, sweeping up phone calls from innocent Americans, without any evidence that any terrorist activity has been detected.
- The New York Times revealed this illegal program.
- Groups like EFF sued the telecoms, since their participation violated individual citizens’ rights, and violated various laws.
- Congress passed a law permitting such warrantless wiretapping, but requiring that it be subjected to secret judicial review.
- A law re-authorizing that program hung up over a provision which would have retroactively granted immunity to companies which illegally granted access to citizen’s communication.
- Bush vetoed a brief extension of the law that didn’t immunize corporations; House Democrats refused to grant that immunity.
The current Republican talking point is that Democrats oppose immunity because they want to get trial lawyers rich. This asinine. EFF is a small non-profit. The issue is not fees for lawyers, the issue is that TELECOMS BROKE THE LAW. That matters. The law that existed was a good law, it had been carefully crafted to block abuses, abuses in which compliant telecoms let the feds listen to phone calls and read telegraph ad libitum, which power the feds used to monitor and intimidate their political opponents. As Rush Holt says, “What the President really wants is a permanent blank check to conduct indiscriminate collection and fishing expeditions without any judicial oversight. This does not lead to better intelligence.”
If the White House wanted to loosen the law, he’s had a disturbingly compliant Congress willing to listen to even the silliest of arguments. But instead, the administration chose to go it alone, and the telecoms (with rare exceptions) didn’t stand up for their customers (you and me). They deserve to be held accountable for that, as do Bush administration officials.
The dominant theory was that Republicans favored immunity because it would prevent telecom execs from testifying, and linking senior administration officials to a criminal conspiracy.
It turns out, the motivations may be a bit less high-minded even than that. Hill Republicans are complaining that the telecoms, which usually give more to Republicans than to Democrats, haven’t ramped up their giving in response to the FISA fight. As Roll Call puts it “GOP leadership aides are grumbling that their party isn’t getting more political money from the telecommunications industry.”
Now, I don’t know if campaign contributions are really a factor on either side of the aisle. Maybe the two parties simply see the underlying issue differently, with Republicans indifferent to lawbreaking. But the way we fund elections masks disagreements over fundamental issues, clouding the public’s view of profound moral, legal, and principled questions with a screen of greenbacks. One way to change that is to reform the laws so that corporations and corporate interests have fewer opportunities to influence elected officials. Another is to elect officials who will voluntarily forego such corrosive donations. And the third is to simply swamp the effect of those donations, outspending corporate interests and buying our politicians back.
In Barack Obama, we have a candidate who sought a million donors. Out of that pool, a few are surely corporate interests, but he knows that his owners will be the entire American public. And in Obama, we have a candidate who has refused donations from lobbyists and other influence-peddlers. Indeed, we have a candidate who has worked hard to tighten the laws governing campaign contributions and ethical behavior of elected officials. Had Larry Lessig run for Congress, we’d have seen an entire race driven by that one issue, but as it stands, he’s in the process of building Change Congress, a group dedicated to this agenda, of cleaning this sort of legalized corruption out of politics, and returning political power to the voters.
As Nancy Boyda says, nothing will change until we change Congress. A lot changed in 2006, but there’s still a lot to be done.