It was standing room only in the Spanos Theater in San Luis Obispo on June 2 when Citizens Congress 2014 held its kickoff presentation “Money in Politics: What Could Go Wrong?” If you missed it, you can watch the video here. Local organizer William Ostrander put together a stellar group of experts who have been tackling the issue of campaign finance reform for years. Some highlights:
Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School – The collapse of our system of government began in 1994 when Republicans took control for the first time in 40 years. Since then, Congress has been in a state of perpetual campaign fundraising, which takes up 30-70% of the average politician’s time. There are only 150,000 relevant contributors, accounting for less than .05% of the population and this tiny fraction is controlling our government, its policies and our country. They work hard to polarize us, pitting left against right, because it makes them more powerful. But Lessig says there is no left and right – only inside and outside. We cannot fix anything else that is wrong with this country until we fix this. Although 96% of Americans want reform, 91% don’t believe anything can be done about it. Lessig calls this the politics of resignation. To give people hope, he decided to start a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to put reformers in Congress. He raised $5 million in 13 days for his May Day PAC. Look for Lessig’s TED talks – they are fantastic.
Hedrick Smith – Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former NY Times reporter – People no longer fail to believe in their elected leaders but in the entire system. In the 1960s citizens were engaged in their social systems – we had the civil rights, environmental, women’s rights, labor and consumer movements. Within only one year of the first Earth Day, five major pieces of environmental legislation had been passed. Politicians responded to the demands of people. Not now. Power corrupts, but powerlessness corrupts the entire system. Smith called for a new generation of agitators.
Trevor Potter – founding president and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center – Potter had some hard numbers for those in attendance. $7 billion was spent in the last federal election, more than double what was spent in 2002. Outside spending increased from $300 million in 2008 to $1 billion in 2012. 40% of these outside monies came from secret sources, known as “dark money.” Elected officials are no longer being paid to govern, they are being paid to fundraise. They spent their time not with constituents, but will lobbyists, fundraisers and donors. Potter says there are systems for campaign financing that work, such as the one for New York City elections, and we should follow those models. Citizens need the courage and strength to implement the necessary changes. It can be done.
William Ostrander – Directors of Citizens Congress 2014 – We need to stop calling it “the” government and start calling it “our” government. Using “the” separates us and distances us from the issue at hand. There are 93 organizations in this country all devoted to campaign finance reform and overturning Citizens United, but there is no organization of efforts. Ostrander is working hard to develop a national strategy to focus the energy.
Following the June 2 presentation, Citizens Congress convened from June 3-5 at the Cliffs in Shell Beach to come up with a plan of action and next steps. We will report on that in the next CCBioneers E-newsletter. Stay tuned.