Heaving scrums from coast to coast are occupying public squares to protest what seems to be the greatest concentration of personal wealth since the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. Their ire is directed at Wall Street, which does bear some of the blame for the epic meltdown of the US – and global – economy over the last four years.
The biggest share of the blame, however, really belongs on another street entirely: K Street. The street of lobbying dreams, chock full of high-dollar law and PR firms that work Capitol Hill relentlessly on behalf of everything from AARP to zoologists.
Individual taxpayers have no access to K Steet influence, unless they’re members of an interest group – like the aforementioned AARP – that has enough chedda to hire a lobbying firm.
Congress, both the House and the Senate, depend on special interest money to mount successful election campaigns.
The electorate – the taxpayers, we individual voters who head to the polls to hold our noses and do the best we can with the choices offered – are offered those choices for national office based on who can raise the most money, and spend it to get our attention.
And now that corporations are people – thank you, Citizens United – they are under no restraint whatsoever when it comes to political donations.
Have you completed the calculation yet? Here’s what it boils down to:
Corporate $ + K Street (Congress) = We’re Screwed
That may seem simplistic, but it captures the essence.
Do not mistake me – I am a capitalist. I believe that every citizen – including a corporate one – has the right to appeal on behalf of his or her interests to elected officials. Where we find ourselves today, though, is at a very broken place.
Most Americans see their financial futures as, if not stormy, at least cloudy with a chance of bankruptcy. They see their children’s future prospects sinking, since the college degree required for an entry level corporate gig will now saddle those kids with a level of debt that will keep them living on ramen noodles well into their 30s.
How does the American Dream work in that scenario? How does hard work – to get a degree, to start a career, to start a business – actually work to advance your cause if most of the marketplace is on the ragged edge of broke?
A commitment to re-tooling our educational system to a 21st century model (instead of the 19th century “train factory workers” model currently in place) and a simultaneous commitment to bringing our national infrastructure up to date would be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the occupants of Capitol Hill are more interested in bleating about the lack of jobs than actually creating jobs by taking those actions.
We have a broken bureaucratic biosphere, and we’re choking on sewage. The gridlock on Capitol Hill has reached Nero-with-a-fiddle proportions, with no progress in sight on any issue. Congress isn’t actively doing anything other than saying why it can’t (won’t?) do anything, and we’re at a stasis point until the 2012 election … ?
What’s missing here is balance. There has to be a balance struck between totally unrestrained free markets – can you say Enron? – and government redistribution of wealth via the tax system. There has to be a balance struck between “do for yourself” and a safety net for the most helpless among us.
The only path that I see to that balance is term limits … for Congress. They were real good at setting term limits on the occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: two terms, yer out. Winning a House or a Senate seat, however, can mean lifetime employment as long as you can keep getting re-elected.
Even if you can’t keep getting re-elected ad infinitum, you can take advantage of the revolving door connecting the US Capitol to K Street.
The real problem? The folks who have to draft and pass term limits legislation are … Congress. Yeah, they’d have to stamp themselves with expiration dates. Which they are demonstrably loath to do.
And their re-election ad campaigns – financed largely by their buddies on K Street and their pals in state capitals across the land – will work hard to scare us into the horrors that will befall us should we fail to vote them back in to “finish the job.” Which “job” is likely to be more gridlock, followed by another round of “re-elect me to finish the job.”
A quote attributed to Winston Churchill says that “America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options.”
I hope we are about to exhaust the last of our options before demanding that Congress actually conduct the business of the people. Let’s occupy K Street to help drive that message home.
That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it …