Our Incredible Shrinking Democracy
Continued from previous page
Personally, I want the government to limit the pay of financial executives, regulate greenhouse gases, and reform health care. And no one wanted a financial meltdown. But I’m appalled by the process that’s been used to reach these objectives.
A big piece of the problem is this: Washington is now so overrun by lobbyists representing moneyed interests that it’s become almost impossible to make policy in the open. If the Treasury and Fed tried to decide publicly which industries and firms should get hundreds of billions, they’d be inundated. Wall Street lobbyists are blocking real financial reform. The energy industry has filled the House’s cap-and-trade bill with special subsidies and exemptions. Big Pharma and Big Insurance would have killed off the health-care reform if they hadn’t been bought off. When it comes to the long-term deficit, Congress is incapable of acting because so many special interests have their hands out.
But the answer isn’t to give up on democracy. Back-room policy making can succumb to private interests just as easily as lobby-infested legislatures (much of the public suspects the Treasury of being too cozy with Wall Street as it is).
The real answer is to recommit ourselves to cleaning up democracy. Yes, I know: The Supreme Court’s recent grotesque Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which decided corporations are people entitled to First Amendment protection, complicates this. But the goal is still possible to achieve with more public money for congressional and presidential candidates who refuse private funding, more constraints on lobbyists, tighter rules for who must register as a lobbyist, fuller disclosure, and tougher rules on the revolving door between public service and private gain. Yale’s Bruce Ackerman recently came up with another good idea: A $50 tax credit per person, which they can send to the candidate of their choosing.
Yet nobody seems to be talking about these sorts of reforms. They don’t appear on Obama’s agenda. True, they don’t generate lots of public excitement or appreciation, and they’re murderously difficult to enact. But without them our democracy doesn’t stand a chance.
Robert B. Reich has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He also served on President Obama's transition advisory board. His latest book is Supercapitalism .