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04 Sep

Why the Wars Roll on: Ban Campaign Money From Outside the District

“war is a racket.”

By: Ralph Lopez, t r u t h o u t | Perspective, Friday 04 September 2009

A body wrapped in cloth after an airstrike.
Civilians carry a victim of a NATO airstrike in Afghanistan.

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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……………………………….

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:………………………………………………

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.

Ralph Lopez has been published in the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and other smaller newspapers. He has a degree in economics and political science from Yale University. He has reported from Afghanistan, and at present lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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