Bill Moyers discusses the power of money in politics with a group of political and economic experts including Kevin Phillips and William Greider.
BILL CLINTON: We are going to change this country with your help. You have to begin by staking out your ground and taking on the interest groups – I’m going to change the government. We’re going to reduce the influence of lobbyists, we’re going to reduce the influence of special interests- It’s time for us to realize we have some changing to do too- Relive the most traditional American idea – the courage to change in the face of changing circumstances and get the courage to change – I want to change it – Forever changing – If we have the courage to change –
BILL MOYERS: For all the talk of change, today in Washington, money talks louder.
BILL MOYERS: Good evening. I’m Bill Moyers in Washington. When the 1992 election was over, it was clear the public wanted change. Sixty-two percent of the voters cast their ballots against the incumbent President, and the status quo, by voting for either Bill Clinton or Ross Perot. Both men ran as outsiders pledged to cleaning up Washington. Millions of Americans had grown disgusted with how money buys access in this town; they resented the inside traders who rigged the rules to benefit themselves, and they were infuriated, to say the least, with how the last word here often goes to big campaign donors instead of voters. People wanted a new day for democracy; and in his inaugural address one year ago, that’s what Bill Clinton promised.
BILL CLINTON: To renew America, we must revitalize our democracy. This beautiful capital, like every capital since the dawn of civilization, is often a place of intrigue and calculation. Powerful people maneuver for position and worry endlessly about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down- forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way. And so I say to all of you here, let us resolve to reform our politics, so that power and privilege no longer shout down the voice of the people.
BILL MOYERS: So what’s happened to that grand intention? Later in this broadcast, we’ll get the perspective of some people who practice democracy at the grass roots. But first, we’ll hear from a couple of Washington’s resident skeptics, who are famous in this town for reading between the lines. Both wrote best-selling books that fed the hunger for change in 1992. Bill Greider’s Who Will Tell the People describes how the inside traders of Washington have turned government into a grand bazaar, where favors are bought and sold to the highest bidder and the public picks up the crumbs and the costs. Kevin Phillips’ The Politics of Rich and Poor traces the decline of the American middle class to deliberate political choices in Washington. His new book, Boiling Point, looks further at the disaffection of the middle class and its alienation from politics. Kevin Phillips edits and publishes The American Political Report; Bill Greider is national editor of Rolling Stone magazine. Bill Greider- President Clinton a year ago promised that he would change the way Washington works. Has he?
WILLIAM GREIDER: No. With a few marginal exceptions, I think he’s caught in the same swamp that, that existed and has grown up for over the last twenty years. The sympathetic view of that would be, hey, he’s got to govern, he’s got to live with these folks, he recognizes the power realities and he’s trying to play with them; a harsher view, which I think I would take, is- nothing will change fundamentally to satisfy our, our democratic complaints, until somebody takes the system on head-on.
BILL MOYERS: What about that, Kevin? Have you seen change of any significant character?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Yes, I have, in a sense: what’s significant is we didn’t see change. It used to be that you could have an upheaval in politics in this country and it could take over Washington. And I wrote a book a long time ago called The Emerging Republican Majority, which sort of came true – that Republicans had the White House for twenty of the next twenty-four years – but they couldn’t take over the city. This city now has a life of its own, and Clinton came in and he couldn’t take over the city. And that hasn’t happened before. We’ve got something here that’s bigger than American democracy, and it blocks it.
WILLIAM GREIDER: And if you- if you take Bill Clinton the candidate -as a sincere voice – and I do – the extraordinary shift and pivot of positions on one issue after another since he won election reflects the system Kevin is talking about. The most obvious one is fiscal policy. He ran on job creation, let’s get America back to work, we need to deal with structural unemployment, et cetera. But within ninety days, the power realities of the town said, no, that’s not your agenda. So instead of getting a real shift of priorities in a new Democratic President after twelve years of Republicans, you get sort of extensions of what we’ve already had.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: We’re not just talking about Washington, we’re talking about New York, Wall Street and the bond market, that are not based in Washington. You’ve had, out of the whole change in the system in the last five or six years, a coming together of the New York financial power and Washington permanent lobby and interest group power, that doubly negates whatever the people at the grass roots try to do, and that hasn’t happened before either.
WILLIAM GREIDER: You know, and the question I think Kevin and I probably both run into, and perhaps you as well, is – well, hasn’t it always been like that? I mean, yes, in some fundamental sense there have always been lobbyists, there are always interests; interests with more resources, that is, money, tend to be more powerful than the folks who don’t have those resources. But I think what we see in the last generation is a sort of a regularization of that process, and a raising of the stakes to a level that, if you go across America and talk to ordinary folks, viscerally they sense is true. And they can’t quite put their finger on how it works maybe, but they, but they know power has shifted in this society away from them and toward these aggregations of wealth and, and economic influence.
BILL MOYERS: Well, both of you talk about and have written about how Presidents surround themselves with the very interests that they had come to town to try to challenge. And the question is, can you win the war against the Mafia if you put the Godfathers in charge of that war?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, they haven’t so far. If you look at the way Presidents have tackled these things, often they tend to have people from their party and people from their state that they’re comfortable with, and often the people from the state wind up moving pretty quickly towards the interest groups, because they did back home.
WILLIAM GREIDER: The harshest chapter, I think, in my book was called “Who Owns the Democrats.” And I, and I described the Democratic Party, which calls itself after all historically the party of working people et cetera, as perhaps more accurately described as a party of Washington lawyers. And these are not evil people; they’re people who have come up through the ranks of politics, as Kevin is describing, served in the government for some period of time, either in Congress or the White House, and they now have an expertise, and they now have a set of connections; and they now work, on the whole, for clients whose interests are frequently in conflict with the basic constituencies of the Democratic Party.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s take a look at exactly what you’re talking about.
BILL CLINTON: Let us give this capital back to the people to whom it belongs.
BILL MOYERS: Even as he began his Presidency, Bill Clinton was not a free agent. In Arkansas, he worked both sides of the street, casting himself as a populist while turning for campaign funds to powerful commercial interests.
BILL CLINTON: As Secretary of Commerce I am nominating someone who will
BILL MOYERS: And there were all those debts to Washington and Wall Street.
BILL CLINTON: -Ron Brown.
BILL MOYERS: As Secretary of Commerce, Clinton named a consummate Washington fixer, whose law firm boasts of technology so sophisticated it can track legislation through Congress and match it at any given moment with corporate donors willing to spread money in its path. Some of those companies were to pay for a lavish party in the new Secretary’s honor, until the public outcry forced its cancellation. A year later, Secretary Brown remains a Clinton favorite.
BILL CLINTON: My friend Mack McClarty has helped to bring success to everyone and everything he has touched.
BILL MOYERS: As his Chief of Staff, the President named a corporate executive who had been his close friend in Arkansas. His choice for Secretary of the Treasury was known in the Senate as the best friend a corporate loophole could want. For top economic advisors, he chose Wall Street deal-makers who had raised millions of dollars for his election. Washington’s mercenaries had claims on the President too, and on his party.
1st MAN: -proposal that guarantees every American will be covered by health insurance-
BILL MOYERS: Lawyers and lobbyists were the leading source of his campaign funds during the primaries; and they’ve become the permanent establishment of the Democratic Party in Washington. Look at this confidential memo written to Clinton by a long-time supporter last summer when his Presidency seemed to be unraveling. The memo urges the President to pull together a small outside strategy group. First on the list are these three names: Anne Wexler, a former aide to Jimmy Carter, now a successful lobbyist, and recently the head of business’s pro-NAFTA campaign; Harry McPherson, another Democratic insider whose law firm, a big contributor to Democrats, received fifty thousand dollars a month to help drug companies hold on to taxpayer subsidies; and Robert Strauss, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee – no one has done more to ally the Democratic establishment with corporate interests, or traded more effectively on his access to power. Bill Clinton has appointed five Strauss associates to key government jobs; and Strauss’s partner and heir apparent, Vernon Jordan, is reputedly the President’s closest confidante. Even while privately advising the President, Jordan himself sits on corporate boards and serves many corporate clients. Not surprisingly, the White House has rolled out the red carpet for big business. On issue after issue, reports the Wall Street Journal, the Clinton administration comes down on the same side as corporate America.
2nd MAN: Yeah, we had a very pleasant lunch.
REPORTER: What did you talk about?
2nd MAN: We had a good dialogue about every issue that relates to business.
BILL MOYERS: At least eighty CEO’s have joined the President for private luncheons at the White House; and at one, Bill Clinton himself led the singing of “Happy Birthday” to the chief executive of Atlantic Richfield, who had been the co-chairman of George Bush’s reelection campaign.
BILL MOYERS: Kevin, does anyone think that corporate America shouldn’t have access to political power- I mean, they can get hurt by government policies.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, there’s no doubt that corporate America has access and there are a lot of people including myself that thought twenty years ago that perhaps they needed even more access when they weren’t organized to deal with this city. But they are so organized to deal with this city now- they don’t need what they’ve got- in the sense that the country doesn’t need them to have what they’ve got. And it doesn’t need all the other interests to have the access they have. This is organized access. People come to Washington to serve in government jobs to have access- it’s all commercialized.
WILLIAM GREIDER: And, and, and yes it’s true, corporations are at risk in politics, and they, and they have to defend their bottom line, nobody denies that. But what we’ve got now is a system where, where on the whole those monied interests do our politics for us.
BILL MOYERS: No counterweight.
WILLIAM GREIDER: There’s no counterweight. There’s- the mediating structures, including the parties themselves, that used to connect people to that decision-making at the highest level – not perfectly, not on everything, and not without some corruption on the margins, but, but who really did speak for ordinary folks – are gone, they’re atrophied, they are hollow shells. And that’s why the structure of corporate economic power is able to dominate.
BILL MOYERS: What does it mean when, as the Wall Street Journal says, on issue after issue the Clinton administration, the government, comes down on the side of corporate America?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, the first thing is that the party of the people- it used to be the party of the people – can no longer be the party of the people. That is not what the Democratic Party is. The second thing is that we no longer have something that I used to attack politically, called interest-group liberalism. It doesn’t exist any longer. The, the representatives of labor, of the cities, of poor people, they don’t have any clout left. What we have is interest-group centrism now. It’s not conservatism necessarily, it’s just one never-ending opportunism of the business and legal and commercial and financial classes. They dominate the whole process; they smother all alternative politics, really, with that centrist pragmatism opportunism.
WILLIAM GREIDER: And so what you get with a President like Clinton- and I say this sympathetically – is, he makes a choice, he obviously has made this choice: If I’m gonna get anything out of this process, I gotta deal with those folks. And so he starts dealing off pieces of his own agenda, or subsets of, of important ideas, and, and the effect of course is to neuter the ideas. But, but we’re not gonna get out of this either through the leadership of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party.
BILL MOYERS: Both of you call for deep change, you call for a revolution in the two-party system, so to speak. And you say that Clinton should take on something that he can really push for, as Reagan did the basic issues important to him. One of those Bill Clinton said last spring that he was going to champion, was cleaning up money in politics. Let’s look at this.
BILL CLINTON: It’s quite clear, government will work for the middle class and for the average American only if Washington is free to work for the national interests and not narrow interests. And that won’t happen unless we change the way we finance campaigns in this country. It’s time to curb the role of special interests, and to empower average citizens to have their voices heard once again.
BILL MOYERS: But that’s not what’s happening.
1st MAN: With campaign finance reform going through this week, the, the package being unveiled this week, this kind of thing might be a dinosaur.
AL GORE: Well, the, the rules are certainly going to change. We’re, we’re pushing very hard for, for reform.
BILL MOYERS: The Democratic National Committee chairman said the party would rely more on brown-bag lunches than on black-tie affairs.
AL GORE: Hi, how are you.
BILL MOYERS: But if this crowd brought their lunch to this fundraiser, they must have checked their bologna sandwiches at the door.
AL GORE: Good, I really enjoyed having dinner with you.
BILL MOYERS: And when Bill Clinton went fundraising in Hollywood just last month, the only bags in evidence were lined with jewels- as the glitterati paid one hundred thousand dollars and up to dine with the President. The White House said it supports the toughest restrictions ever on officials lobbying after they leave government. Yet when two of the President’s top aides left the White House last month for lobbying jobs, everyone winked. And they wink as the money rolls in.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me specifically what money does in this town, and how it does it.
WILLIAM GREIDER: Well, the cliche of every lobbyist and political contributor is that “all I get is access.” Well, that sounds fairly innocent, and of course it’s, it’s an insufficient answer. But access is what, is what people need to roll the decision, and particularly if you’re talking about a complex decision surrounded by lots of expertise. Secondly, you build up in politics relationships, and there, I think, is the real corruption: the sense of, I can go to him for money, perhaps not even for myself but for some other politician, or for a Presidential race, and I may not be for him on everything, but he is now my friend in politics. And the structure that Kevin and I are describing has done that now in both political parties over two decades or more, and it does it at a very sophisticated level that an average citizen has not a prayer of penetrating.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Let me give the perspective of somebody whose origins are in the Republican Party. One of the great ironies here is that the system expects the Republicans to represent business and commercial and financial interest, and that’s sort of the role that they’ve played, so I don’t think it’s quite as illegitimate for them, in a, in a way to do this; but what money has meant for the Democrats, and their ability to play their historical role, is it has blocked it. So what we have in this situation- You look at the people appointed by Bill Clinton to top jobs in economic policy-making, like Bob Rubin, co-chairman of Goldman-Sachs, twenty-five million dollars a year; you’ve got the Deputy Treasury Secretary was a vulture capitalist on Wall Street- this is a man who ran against this! He’s not against this; that’s where they get all their money! The ability of politicians to turn to Wall Street and the financial side for fundraisers, for last-minute contributions- the role of money has given the power to the people with the ultimate amounts of money, which is the financial sector. And as a result, you have the Democratic Party is unable to play the role that it played with Thomas Jefferson, with Andrew Jackson, against the Bank of the United States, with Bryan, with FOR against the money-changers in the temple- the Democratic Party is now subservient to this.
WILLIAM GREIDER: And if you look back at what happened in the 1980’s and ask, why didn’t the Democrats in Congress take on junk bonds and leveraged buyouts and all of the other cannibalizing effects of finance that were occurring, Kevin has just given you the answer: they all had in their Rolodex Michael Milken and, and Drexel-Burnham, and a long list of other fundraisers who can produce for them, literally, in a matter of days, two hundred and fifty, four hundred grand.
BILL MOYERS: Are we going to get any- given the democratic complaint you talk about, the system you describe, and the, and the anxieties out there, are we going to get any serious reform of campaign financing?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: If you take the word “serious” out of your question
WILLIAM GREIDER: If you ask-
KEVIN PHILLIPS: If you ask about a facade of reform, we’ll get a facade of reform. Will we get a reality that changes the system? I can’t imagine-
WILLIAM GREIDER: And, and this-
KEVIN PHILLIPS: -until the people are so angry they force it.
WILLIAM GREIDER: This is one of those decisive questions where Clinton chose to be with the insiders instead of the angry public. And he was quite deliberate about that. He put some good ideas on the table, and, and people in Congress – particularly, I should say, House Democrats, who are most fearful of real reform – said no, no, no! And he said, well, all right, you guys work it out. And he walked away. Now, he may return, I hope he does this year, but- but that’s not political leadership that’s going to accomplish anything serious.
BILL MOYERS: Each of you, briefly: what’s at stake here? What are we talking about?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: What’s at stake is the whole way American democracy has worked over two hundred years. You have to have fluidity in the system for the people’s voice to carry. The public has to be able to change Washington. When they can’t change Washington, they start to drop out, the institutions malfunction; you can’t elect people who can do anything, because they come, become part of the problem; you really have a situation which calls for the equivalent of a revolution to make it work again.
WILLIAM GREIDER: I think we’re in a- one of the most serious patches in our history, because people are quite reasonably losing faith in the democratic idea itself- that, that this is a shared enterprise, that everybody doesn’t win but we’re, we’re all sort of in this together, and the system believes in that and at least tries to produce that result. If you’ve got half or two thirds of the American public not believing that any longer, and you’ve got the global economy chewing up middle-class prosperity, that’s a very dangerous formula for our future. And so I think you’ve got to start with the simple and straightforward idea: do we believe in, in a shared democratic enterprise in our country or don’t we? And if we do, then from the ground up we’ve got to, we’ve got to rebuild it, literally.
BILL MOYERS: Thank you, Bill Greider, and thank you, Kevin Phillips. Well, as we’ve just heard, one reason there’s been so little change in how Washington does business is because the political establishment here, and in New York, and in other state capitals around the country, doesn’t really want to reform campaign financing. A new bill to do that on the federal level is right now moving through Congress, but it’s a skimpy little thing without any teeth. They’ll call it, as Kevin Phillips said, a reform, and go on more or less with business as usual. That’s certainly the opinion of Ellen Miller. Her Center for Responsive Politics is a nonpartisan group that tracks the money trail through the political jungle of Washington. ELLEN MILLER: Josh, I don’t know if you saw this article.
BILL MOYERS: Miller and her colleagues trace the sources of contributions from individuals and PACS to the President, to the politicians on Capitol Hill and to the parties.
ELLEN MILLER: The system is rotten through and through. A political consultant recently said to me if the people of this country knew how bad it was, the connections, the way money pulls on legislators, they’d come to Washington and bum the Capitol down. I have a chart that shows us the source of money for congressional campaigns in the last election cycle. And what it very graphically demonstrates is that 80% of the money comes from big money sources and that only 20% comes from individuals who gave small amounts, under $200.
BILL MOYERS: So the little giver is really not a player in a campaign.
ELLEN MILLER: He’s vastly outweighed and outspent by the economically interested givers.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me why – and how – money makes a difference.
ELLEN MILLER: Two or three basic ways. It makes a difference in who wins elections. Generally, those who have the most money will win the election because they have the money to get their voice out, to be heard, to buy media time, to buy sophisticated polling and political consultants. Number two, it makes a difference in terms of policy. There is no level playing field. Senator Bob Dole said it best: there is no poor people’s PAC. There is a kind of plethora of interest. Their economic interest often fighting one against the other but the public is really left out in the cold. What it also means is that national priorities are really skewed in favor of economic interest. We have found plenty of money to do a whole lot of things that don’t mean a lot to the average person in this country.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
ELLEN MILLER: I think health care money over the years has been one of the perfect examples of how money buys nothing happening. I mean, again, for years and years and years the health care industry has put millions of dollars into the campaign coffers and they’ve kept the issue of health care off the agenda. Now that the situation is so bad, it’s clear we must do something, they have the seats at the table.
BILL MOYERS: And both parties, Republican and Democrat, both play the money game.
ELLEN MILLER: Absolutely. I think one of the reasons there is not much difference between the two parties is because the very same sources of money fund them. Well one of the interesting things during the last election cycle was this area of money raised for a loophole called soft money. And we found a number of double givers, in fact, maybe we can sort of look at these.
BILL MOYERS: Double givers? You mean-
ELLEN MILLER: Double givers. People who give to both sides, and this is actually a list of $100,000 givers. What we found was that as the Democrats looked stronger in the campaign and especially towards the end that people and companies who were giving early to Republicans, were in fact starting to give money to the Democrats late in the game. And so here is a list of contributors who gave 50 thousand dollars or more to both parties.
BILL MOYERS: Archer Daniels Midland – one million dollars to the Republicans and a quarter million dollars to the Democrats. R.J. Nabisco- 529 thousand to Republicans; 346 thousand to Democrats. Right on down the list, big companies giving large sums of money to both parties. Atlantic Richfield, Philip Morris, US Tobacco, Merrill Lynch, Time Warner, Chevron, Occidental Petroleum. Each gave large sums of money.
ELLEN MILLER: This is money which is hedging the bets money. This is if Republicans knew that I gave only to Democrats or the Democrats didn’t see any of my money in their list, after this was all said and done, they wouldn’t return my telephone calls. It’s for access and influence. That’s only a step away from buying votes. And it is remarkable how the campaign contributions follow, in 99% of the cases, the committees on which members sit. So if you’re on the House Ways & Means, you have a ton of money from the finance and insurance business. If you’re on the Energy and Commerce Committee, you have a ton of money from the Energy Business – and on and on and on.
BILL MOYERS: Here are three examples of money sources that Miller and her colleagues have traced to committee assignments: Take Alfonse D’ Amato, Republican Senator from New York: He sits on the powerful Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. His largest source of money comes from those industries with a big stake in that committee- the finance, insurance and real estate industries. They gave D’ Amato more than one million dollars in the 1991-1992 season. Let’s pick a Democrat. Senator John Breaux, from Louisiana who sits on the Finance Committee which overseas energy and agricultural taxation as well as international trade. His largest contributors are from the energy, agriculture, finance and business communities. They fattened his coffers by almost one million dollars during ’91 and ’92. Then there’s Dan Rostenkowski from Illinois, perhaps the most powerful Democrat in the House. Rostenkowski chairs the Ways and Means committee which oversees all tax issues. He received almost 1/2 a million dollars from the finance, insurance and real estate industries.
BILL MOYERS: Are we going to get a campaign reform bill out this year?
ELLEN MILLER: We are not gonna get real campaign finance reform. The two -neither of the bills, neither the Senate version, nor the House version which are radically different really will change the system very much. What I see in the House and Senate versions of reform, in fact, is freezing into place the status quo. And I think it’s ultimately a kind of hoax that they’re trying to pull on the American public. Which is why I think the solution ultimately will not come from Washington.
BILL MOYERS: Where will it come from?
ELLEN MILLER: Well, I think it has to come from the grass roots. I mean it has to come from people around the country who have awakened to the notion that money and politics, that the private financing of election campaigns fundamentally thwarts every issue they care about.
BILL MOYERS: Ellen Miller said it: the power of money can be curbed only if the people demand it. If that happens, you may hear a lot in the corning years from the men and women who have joined me now. They practice democracy at the grass roots, and they know firsthand the difference money makes in politics. Miles Rapoport is a state representative in Connecticut who champions tough lobbying laws and simpler registration for voting. Randy Kehler heads the Working Group on Electoral Democracy, based in western Massachusetts. Barbara Perrea Casey is a schoolteacher who was elected to the state legislature in New Mexico against resistance from party elders. Scott Douglas runs a church-based interracial program for families in crisis in Birmingham, Alabama. Gwen Patton is a veteran Christian civil-rights activist in Montgomery, Alabama. Betsy Sweet founded a citizens’ group in Maine that is pushing for the public financing of campaigns. And Jim Boutelle helped run the Reagan-Bush campaign in Connecticut in 1984 and the George Bush campaign in ’88 before becoming state coordinator for Ross Perot’s United We Stand. Why do you need campaign finance reform out where you live and work?
GWEN PATTON: All of this money has become a tremendous barrier. It has been a disappointment, after we struggled so hard to get the voting rights bills passed, and to participate in this system, only to find that money is a new barrier. And it makes a mockery, it undermines the means to vote. People died, you know, trying to get the right to vote. And I think that people are not going to allow their legacy of this whole movement to be trampled upon by this grubby, grubby money.
BILL MOYERS: And you think that money frustrates what people gained when they earned the right to vote?
GWEN PATTON: No question. No question about it.
RANDY KEHLER: If I might add to that- the Voting Rights Act itself, if you look at the 1982 amendment, specifically says that any system or arrangement that causes a 1 certain set of voters to have less opportunity than another part of the electorate to l participate fully in the political process, to elect representatives of their choice, is illegal under the Voting Rights Act. And I think clearly this system today of privately financed election campaigns constitutes a system or arrangement that denies people equal political opportunity. It’s- BETSY SWEET: Well, and I, I think we’re getting to the point where the question is whether we’re holding elections or auctions. And I think much too often in, in, in the smaller states, states like Maine, rural states where it’s relatively inexpensive to run for office, we’re getting to the point where we’re running auctions, and who the highest bidder is going to be the person who gets, and is controlling, not only legislators but the legislative processes, the bills that get in. And that affects every one of us; it only adds to the cynicism and disaffection I think the people- they have already.
BARBARA PERREA CASEY: Well, we don’t have true democracy if we don’t have true representation. Because if you have only the monied elite being able to participate in government, then we don’t have true government for the people.
BILL MOYERS: Is that what happened in New Mexico? You’ve been in the legislature for how long?
BARBARA PERREA CASEY: Ten years.
BILL MOYERS: And have you actually seen money dominate the process?
BARBARA PERREA CASEY: Yes. Yes, it does. I’ve had opponents who have paid people to vote, paid people ten dollars to put up a campaign sign in their yard. You know, if, if you don’t have money, you can’t run.
BILL MOYERS: So if you don’t have the ten dollars, you rely on a volunteer.
BARBARA PERREA CASEY: That’s right. And I’ve been very fortunate, because I was able to overcome the system, because I was able to win without a whole lot of money. But a lot of people are afraid to participate in the system for lack of money.
BILL MOYERS: But have either of you seen examples of how money shapes policy, shapes legislation, shapes executive decisions?
MILES RAPOPORT: Yes. I mean, we see it over and over again, you know, in the Connecticut legislature, and obviously in, in Washington.
BETSY SWEET: We see it all the time. I mean, as a lo- I also lobby on social-service issues, and we saw an incident in which seventy-two chiropractors gave a hundred dollars on the same day to the same person, the day before their budget cut was removed from the budget. We’ve seen- I have a, a, there’s a gentleman who is a man of the people, he’s fabulous, great, you know, always for the p- little guy, little working person, and last year took on the cause of the nursing-home industry, which was totally bizarre. You know, why would this person now supporting this huge industry? And so I said, I’m just gonna go check his report. And sure enough, half of his campaign donations came from the industry.
JIM BOUTELLE: There, there’s two interesting points here. I mean, we, we heard from Greider what a mess, what a swamp Washington is. And we’re kind of out on the front lines now, fighting at the state level, we’re seeing more and more federal programs being shifted down to the state level, and we’re going to see the lobbying that, that has just dominated this town start to dominate even more so the, the state capitals.
BARBARA PERREA CASEY: I’ve been asked to run for Congress several times, but they don’t say “Barbara, do you think you can get the votes?”; they say, “do you think you can raise a million dollars by May?” And so- it’s not a matter of, of the- getting support from the people for what I believe in and for what they believe in, but for money. You know, can you raise the money to do this. And to me that’s wrong.
MILES RAPOPORT: I had precisely that experience. I was interested in 1989, thinking about running for Congress, and I went to Washington and met with a number of groups, and I had prepared a little presentation about my qualifications and what a good campaign I could run and how much energy-
BILL MOYERS: Your ideas, did you include your ideas?
MILES RAPOPORT: My, my ideas, my experience- And I got about three minutes into that speech, at each place, and they stopped me and said “That’s not the question. The only question is, can you raise one hundred thousand dollars by January 1st of the election year.” Money was the qualifying issue. It wasn’t ideas, it wasn’t experience, it wasn’t values, it wasn’t support, it wasn’t volunteers, it was only money. And it was very distressing.
RANDY KEHLER: And we talk about- talk about having a system that’s based on the principle of one person, one vote; but it really is one dollar, one vote.
GWEN PATTON: -one vote.
RANDY KEHLER: Who is it who said recently that- if the founding fathers had meant for American democracy to use the dollar bill instead of the ballot, why, they would have installed cash registers instead of voting booths.
GWEN PATTON: -instead of voting booths.
BILL MOYERS: But this is the issue, though, isn’t it? I mean, one of the fundamental issues, if you won’t change- you’re up against the Supreme Court ruling in 1976, Buckley vs. Fileo, which in effect said that money is free speech.
GWEN PATTON: Which raises a very interesting question, because if speech is money, and I don’t have any money, you know, for whatever reason, then I’m speechless. And if I’m speechless, does that violate my First Amendment? And-
BETSY SWEET: But, so- ,
GWEN PATTON: So it, it opens up a whole Constitutional question here.
BETSY SWEET: We also have to change the culture. Maine, we put a bill in last year in Maine for total public financing of all state races. And we had to- because of Buckley Fileo, we had to, we had to leave open the public- the private financing route. You have to leave that open. But if we can change the culture to say “If you’re taking this kind of money, you’re on the take, .we don’t want people on the take, we want people who represent real people and represent democracy.”
BILL MOYERS: Scott Douglas, you’re down there in, in Alabama, working on, with issues like families in crisis, social issues, the distribution of routine services to people who need them, food, shelter; how does money in politics affect what you do?
SCOTT DOUGLAS: I think it sets an artificial, artificially low glass ceiling on the aspirations of low-income people in Alabama and everywhere else. It’s not just about who gets elected to office; it’s about the quality of service they can give once they get elected. If my state Senator or representative is sitting across the table from another representative or a state Senator who’s taken big money from the people who have big money, then his voice has been rendered mute- there’s nothing he can say in that conference room. It’s like playing checkers: there’s nothing you can do if your opponent has an unending supply of checkers to keep supplying the, the, the board, and your representative, all they have is what the game came with, your, your, your representative’s always going to lose. And we want to make it a equal playing field, so the ideas can get expressed. A lot of the bills we fight for on behalf of low-income people have a DIC acronym attached to em: Died In Committee. Everything we want dies in committee, it never gets up for a vote; and we trace that directly to the influence of private money in public politics.
JIM BOUTELLE: Well, that’s where I think that the most important thing that we’re going to be doing is public disclosure right now. United We Stand is, is looking at, at the campaign finance reform issue, and we’re looking at public financing as a possibility, but, but we’re not out to support that yet. I think we need a full public discussion. We gotta remember that PAC’s, which are now viewed as the bad guy, started out as a reform coming out of the, the Watergate reforms; it was supposed to solve our problems.
BETSY SWEET: What I say to people in Maine is, “Do you want to pay four bucks a year through the front door or do you want to pay hundreds and thousands of dollars a year through the back door from the special utility bill – deals that are passed, from the lack of health insurance reform, from all these things that we’re paying for dearly under the guise of freedom, or do you want to pay four bucks through the front door and know that when your representative goes to Augusta or goes to your capital that they’re representing you?
RANDY KEHLER: Look at the S&L crisis alone.
BETSY SWEET: Yes, right.
RANDY KEHLER: If you take the cost to the average taxpayer of that, which comes to what they say, several hundred dollars per family per year and this goes on for years and years, and compare that to the cost of financing publicly through public funds all congressional elections, you realize that it would be a bargain basement deal to pay a few dollars a year to make sure that that private money is not distorting public policy.
BILL MOYERS: But poll after poll shows that the public generally does not want to finance elections with public money because for a variety of reasons. They don’t want to underwrite what they see as a corrupt system. They say even if you take money out of it there will still be dishonest people. They don’t want to fund private ambition for public power. There’s no groundswell in this country in either the polls or anecdotally as a journalist for public financing of campaigns.
BETSY SWEET: But interesting, the polls change when you make- they don’t want to pay for this kind of election and this kind of politician. But when you package that with, we’re going to- you know, people are going to pay five thousand dollars to run and that it. They’re going to get this money and that’s it. Or – and you – and you really do take everything out of it. Then the numbers actually go up.
BILL MOYERS: Miles and Barbara, you both – you both take money, don’t you, in your senatorial – elections?
MILES RAPOPORT: Of course.
BILL MOYERS: Look – are you blushing? How do you do it?
MILES RAPOPORT: Well, you know, obviously, we don’t have a choice at this point. We are- we are given a set of rules in which we have to function. You’ve got to get a campaign going. You’ve got to get a – you message out through the media or whatever. I mean, my feeling is that what we have to do is we have to create a political system in this country where money counts for less and ideas and values and energy and people count for more. And I think that they’re- I’m agreeing with Betsy. I think that there are two elements that are necessary to really change the political culture on this. One, which I think is clearly present, is public disgust with the way things are happening now. And we also need a really firm grass roots organized movement to try to make this issue into a public one. I know in New England, with what Betsy’s doing in Maine and in Connecticut, northeast action, it’s happening. And I think the public is ready for it. At least I hope so.
BILL MOYERS: Poor folks in Alabama, are they, do they have time, interest, energy, opportunity to get involved in something like this?
SCOTT DOUGLAS: If campaign finance reform is tied to the needs the people have already articulated interest in. For instance, we’re going through right now a big fight around tax reform. A big struggle around education reform. Without campaign finance reform our hopes are quite limited.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
SCOTT DOUGLAS: The scenario right now is that the legislature will not pass the needed taxes necessary to fund real educational reform. Well, the polls have shown the citizens are for tax reform for education. So if the citizens are for tax reform for education why can’t the legislature pass it? Well, there’s still some big businesses in Alabama, primarily land-based timber, that’s desperately opposed to any kind of a property tax increase. Alabama has the lowest property taxes in the nation. If we double them they will still be the lowest. And the people who benefit – who benefit from that are – are big, heavy campaign contributors. And that’s why the polls of the people don’t match the votes in the legislature.
JIM BOUTELLE: You know, the public is partially to blame in this. The- the voter turn-out has been dropping historically since the 50’s. And you know, Mr. Perot said during- during his campaign, he said we have- what the monied interests don’t have, we have the vote. I mean, when – when a legislator takes money what is their goal? Their goal is to get into the newspapers, to get onto television, to get onto radio. Ultimately to get people to vote for them. So what we’ve tried to do in United We Stand is go – take the money out of the picture by going directly to the voters and saying hey look, get involved in the process, get educated and vote.
SCOTT DOUGLAS: But I don’t think we can just blame the voters.
GWEN PATTON: Right.
SCOTT DOUGLAS: It’s like in the school system. I think the voters -lower voter turnout is more push-outs than drop-outs. Voters are being pushed out of the system because they can’t see the connection between their vote and their interest.
GWEN PATTON: And what’s happening, right.
SCOTT DOUGLAS:– because their votes get thwarted in the conference room, along the trail of big money in politics.
RANDY KEHLER: And they do see the connection between the money and
BETSY SWEET: And what’s happening.
RANDY KEHLER: And what’s happening.
SCOTT DOUGLAS: That’s a cynicism. That’s a cynicism.
GWEN PATTON: And you will find that those who don’t vote have a lower income with those who do vote who have a higher income, which to me is another manifestation that money counts and my vote doesn’t. And that is the reality.
RANDY KEHLER: There’s a money gap-
GWEN PATTON: There’s a money-
RANDY KEHLER:– in who votes and who doesn’t vote. An increasing money gap. And I think it’s an intelligent decision on many people’s part to decide not to vote when they can see what’s going on with- with the big money.
JIM BOUTELLE: I think that -I think that’s a terrible thing to suggest that it’s an intelligent decision not to vote. I think that’s the most stupid decision that you can make.
BILL MOYERS: But Jim, if you’re –
JIM BOUTELLE: To- to opt out of the process.
BILL MOYERS: – choice is between two people who are funded by the same interest –
BARBARA PERREA CASEY: Interest. Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, do you really have a choice?
JIM BOUTELLE: Well, the- the problem is- is it’s not typically two people running against each other funded by the same interests. We did see part of that in Ellen’s piece when it comes close. It’s more the case of incumbents of the two parties being funded by the same interests. We have a lot of elections where they’re-
BETSY SWEET: Not to much at the state legis –
GWEN PATTON: Let me give you an example. Here we have a representative who voted against the Brady Bill. And his constituency- I mean, we know that we want to end gun- you know, we want gun control in our communities. But his money and how he got elected, a lot of it came from the NRA. And so therefore he, you know, voted the money interest. Let’s take the average voter in his district. They love him, you know, they, they objectively, they feel, you know, they feel a pity, you know, the groveling that has to go on. But why bother to go vote? Do you understand what I’m saying? It’s not like they’re – they’re unpatriotic. What difference does it make? Because that person does not belong to us. That person belongs to the National Rifle Association.
JIM BOUTELLE: But if that’s the case it – it’s not just a matter of voting, it’s getting involved in the process. What we’ve said in United We Stand is that it’s not just election day that you have to worry about being an owner of the country. That’s why we’re saying you gotta pay attention the entire time. We were heavily involved in the NAFTA debate –
GWEN PATTON: Oh-we were, too.
JIM BOUTELLE:– because it’s not just the election when you pay attention. You as a citizen you’re an owner of this country and if you’re an absentee landlord you deserve what you get.
BETSY SWEET: Well, but it’s not quite that simple. You deserve what you get. I mean, if you look at the influences on everybody -on people’s daily lives, not that it’s an intelligent choice, but if you look at our access to the system, our access to information, our access to what NAFTA deals were being made, our access to all of that, we don’t have it. And I think the reason that Ross Perot was able to do it is, you know, we have a billionaire saving us from the millionaires which, you know, if you’ve got- if you’ve got that kind of money that’s great but how many people have that opportunity?
GWEN PATTON: By the way -we had a wonderful coalition with the Perot people, labor, farmers, pro-democracy people, civil rights, human activist people on N AFTA. And a lot of the people involved did not vote in the last election. But they were right on target in visiting, they were right on target in terms of picketing, they were right on target in terms of sending letters and we were very successful. I think we have to be very careful not to blame the victim because we lose sight. I think – I want our discussion really, if we can, to get back into the money and the politics and not so much to blame the voter.
BILL MOYERS: This is a fascinating point to me about all of you. I mean, represented here are Democrats and Republicans, conservative Christians and progressive labor people. I mean, in Maine you work with a labor and conservative Christian coalition.
BETSY SWEET: Mmm-hmm.
BILL MOYERS: And down in Alabama, as you and Scott were saying, you have a variety of – of seemingly ideological adversaries joined on this issue.
GWEN PATTON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s not leave people cynical. You are at the grass roots. Tell people out there what they can do if they want to try to signify on this issue.
MILES RAPOPORT: Find out a group, get involved and start to lobby and start to work. I think this issue is – is -just about to be there in the public. And I think with a little oomph we can make it.
RANDY KEHLER: But I think we have to go beyond just saying here’s the problem, here’s how it works, here’s how bad it is. And to be able to hold out something that gives people hope, that inspires people, that makes them want to look for change.
BILL MOYERS: What is that?
RANDY KEHLER: I think it’s the concept myself of democratically financed elections. I think the basic proposition it should be the democratic government requires democratically financed elections. That you can’t have one without the other. The- to put it another way, public servants should not be privately financed. This to me is the sound principle that has to underlie real reform.
BILL MOYERS: But the Supreme Court has said that private money is free speech.
RANDY KEHLER: Well, I think that’s-
BILL MOYERS: Democratic.
RANDY KEHLER: That’s right. I think, as Betsy said earlier, we can craft legislation. In fact, legislation, model legislation has been crafted for democratically financed elections which is total public financing. It’s been introduced in Maine. It’s been introduced in Massachusetts, Vermont and Missouri.
MILES RAPOPORT: Coming in Connecticut.
RANDY KEHLER: It’s coming in Connecticut.
GWEN PATTON: – in Alabama. I’ve sent a letter to all of the state legislators and senators and got some feedback. Because I think our coalition is broadening. The grass roots base is broadening. I mean, we have people like a retired Supreme Court justice in Alabama who tried to run for governor. And he had to quit because it cost $400,000. He had already spent that. And he had to withdraw because he didn’t have enough money. And I think if we can really say it the way that we ought to know how to say it, in the education, that we will broaden and people will demand a change.
BETSY SWEET: And tie it to the issues.
BILL MOYERS: Do any of you have hope for the campaign finance bill that’s now moving through Congress even as we talk?
RANDY KEHLER: None whatsoever.
BETSY SWEET: No.
RANDY KEHLER: But I think-
GWEN PATTON: I hope it’s defeated.
BETSY SWEET: That’s
BILL MOYERS: You hope it’s defeated?
GWEN PATTON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Why? Because Common Cause and others in this town say a little bit of reform is better than no movement at all.
GWEN PATTON: But I don’t think it’s a little bit of reform. I think- in- in fact, it runs in the opposite direction. I think it’s under the guise of being reformist, it’s a guise of moving forward. And it’s a cruel hoax and we will be saddled with a process that’s worse than what it is now.
BETSY SWEET: And I think it’s like a balloon. You take the whole balloon, you push in this side and you don’t- this bill does not close all the loops, it doesn’t remove it and it just pushes out somewhere else. As Jim said before, the PAC reforms, they pushed in this side and it just went out. So now if we’re going to eliminate PACS, great. The union people are disenfranchised and the big corporations give an extra 20,000 to all their executives and they say here’s who you’re going to give. So it goes out the other side. Until we collapse the entire balloon, these reforms, I think, cement in place a system that we already have.
RANDY KEHLER: I think our hope is that we- in building from the bottom up, at the grass roots level, at the city council level, the state legislature level, creating a- if you will, a grass roots democracy movement for the renewal of democracy in this country and Congress and the White House will probably be the last to come over. But they will come over when it’s built from the bottom up.
BETSY SWEET: And think of the boost to democracy. Think of the halls of the state legislatures in Washington in which we argue about ideas. And if my idea gets more support I win. And if yours gets more support you win. But it takes out all that special interest stuff. I think it would totally rej – rejuvenate democracy like Greider and Phillips were talking about. It would be the kind of revolutionary step that would get people back in the system.
MILES RAPOPORT: Well, I like Betsy’s analogy. Interestingly enough, I have had other legislators come to me and -you know, and say, I’m sick of it. I spend all my time on the phone raising money. I’ll tell, when- when you’re a candidate and that campaign finance report is coming out – you know, the week before it all the – all the candidate disappear. They’re on the phone. All they’re doing is raising money. They’re not talking to voters. They’re not boning up on issues, they’re not debating big ideas, they’re raising money. And I think if we have a public financing system we can start to get away from that.
BILL MOYERS: Barbara, at the state level is it realistic to think that a system that perpetuates the very people who control it, it works to their interest, is going to reform itself, even if the public in New Mexico rises in protest?
BARBARA PERREA CASEY: I think it’s going to take a lot of concerted effort. And Americans are going to just have to get involved. They need to know, does this person represent what I think? What I feel my ideals, my principles? Or does this person represent a big company. And once they get to know why you are there, why you are in office, then I think that we have a chance of making great change.
BILL MOYERS: You’re expecting a lot, all of you, of the office of citizen, of people who have to raise – who are raising children, serving on school boards, going off to work every morning, hold two jobs in many cases. Both husband and wife working who are worried about paying the mortgage, worried about all that comes with modern life today. The fast and furious pace of modern life. You’re asking a lot of these people.
BARBARA PERREA CASEY: Well, we’re doing that to, though.
BILL MOYERS: Raising children and- going to work? So how do you find time? That’s a good question?
GWEN PATTON: Well, you have to keep in mind now, the civil rights and the voting rights struggle. I mean, and people were under far more repressive – situations then in the forties, thirties and the fifties than we are now. And we raised up with our friends from all over this country and had a fundamental change. Now I do agree that it not only does it have to be a movement, we also have to have some legal – some legal, structural changes.
BETSY SWEET: And I think that self-interest plays a part. People are motivated when it’s in their self-interest to do so. And that’s how people go. And when people understand, and I think we’re on the verge – I think we’re right on the edge of that right now. When I realize that it’s in my self-interest to get on board with this kind of change in our democracy, because what’s happening to me and to my family and to my kids and to my schools and to my environment and all that stuff is so bad, then it’ll be the extra five minutes or ten minutes that I need to do to get involved. And I think we are right on the precipice of that –
SCOTT DOUGLAS: The thing that’s kind of ominous to me, time is not on our side. Money is encroaching into elections in a big and rapidly accelerating way. In Birmingham now where the average city council race raised seven to eight thousand dollars max, a city council race is won with the infusion of $25,000. That’s big. And our races are non-partisan. But $25,000 for a city council seat in Birmingham has just upped the ante. So I think it’s filtering down to smaller and smaller election, you know. May be $100,000 on day to run for dog catcher. Who Knows? I would like to see publicly-financed people in office and you will see their behavior is different during committee meetings and during voting times than those who are privately financed. And that’s something we – if we can demonstrate that to the American body politic that because I’m publicly financed I vote like I promised. I can keep my promise. We vote for good people who can’t keep their promises because they’ve gotta run for reelection. And that’s what’s destroying democracy around here.
BILL MOYERS: Ultimately, won’t it also take more than a grass roots movement because doesn’t, sooner or later, everything come back to Washington? No matter how you are working at the grass roots level and at the state level it’s what’s happening in Washington that you think is affecting democracy so perversely.
RANDY KEHLER: That’s right. In my own experience I got involved in this issue because I was part of the nuclear weapons freeze campaign in the early 1980’s. One of the largest grass roots movements we’ve had in this country for a long time. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people working at the grass roots level whose wishes for a halt to the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were thwarted because the big money interest, weapons manufacturers and their allies in Washington were -had the ear of our representatives in a way that the majority of American people who supported the freeze did not. And so that was a tremendous lesson. And there are many other lessons. The S&L is a lesson. The policies made in Washington come back home to haunt us, to bankrupt us, to ruin our environment, to lessen our quality of life in a million ways. And I think that as we begin to become more aware of that connection it is happening. And I think that’s the hopeful part of this. There is going to be – there will be a groundswell that will force ultimately Washington to make the change.
BILL MOYERS: On that note we’re out of time. But I want to thank each of you for coming here tonight and I want to thank you as one citizen to another for your continuing faith and commitment to democracy. Last word. As a football fan I admire the referees who keep the game honest. They do their work in public to keep the playing field level. If it were okay for players, coaches or owners to contribute to the referees on the side I’d stop trusting the game or watching the game. Supposedly, government is the arbiter between the competing claims of citizens. No one, no one, should get a leg up from putting money in the umpire’s pocket. When political donations lead to the selective enforcement of the rules we can’t trust government anymore. Representation becomes determined by a clever form of bribery. You can work to challenge the system locally as these folks have, and you can start by finding out who has bid what for whom. If you want to know where your members of Congress get their campaign funds here’s how to find out. Call this toll free number for project Vote Smart at 1-800-622- SMART. Let me repeat that. Vote Smart at 1-800-622-SMART. I’m Bill Moyers. Thanks for being with us.
This transcript was entered on April 27, 2015.