MoveOn on the Ground

Earlier this month Congress introduced an $820 billion omnibus spending bill, which would strip overtime pay protections and reverse Congress's previously imposed freeze on media empire conglomeration while allocating millions of dollars for pork projects like promoting golfing and building an oil museum.

MoveOn.org was ready.

MoveOn members were already hard at work on an ad campaign targeting the $87 billion war appropriation, featuring examples of what else could be bought for $87 billion, when news of the proposed omnibus spending bill pending in Congress came over the wires.

Decentralized committees of MoveOn members around the country instituted a massive on-line petition drive opposing the bill, with thousands quickly signing in each state. The MoveOn.org Voter Fund also aired an ad on national and cable TV stations including CNN, CNBC, Fox News and MSNBC. The ad featured "The Most Outrageous Christmas List in History," citing the "early Christmas gifts to friends and supporters of the Bush campaign in the giant spending bill," as MoveOn member Mary Rickard's press release put it.

Similar print ads also ran in various newspapers, asking, "So who does President Bush feel is naughty and nice?" And members called their elected officials in droves to oppose the bill. There are about 1.7 million members who receive regular email updates on legislative issues and can use the massive Moveon.org server to send emails to their Congressmen.

The bill did pass the House on Dec. 8 but it is still pending in the Senate, so the organization is still calling on members to email and call their Senators.

Rickard notes that the proposed bill reverses positive measures previously approved by Congress under pressure from their grassroots constituencies, including a safeguard for overtime pay protection and a ban on the Federal Communication Commission's new rules making it easier for major media companies to consolidate. The current bill would allow overtime pay rules to be gutted and rolls back the freeze on the new FCC rules.

It also ends unemployment benefits to about 80,000 people a week beginning Dec. 21, with half a million people losing their benefits by the end of January. Meanwhile pork projects in the bill include $2 million for the First Tee Program to provide affordable access to golf in St. Augustine, Fla.; $325,000 for a swimming pool in Salinas, Calif.; the oil museum and even an indoor rainforest in Iowa.

"We're cutting these really important things like overtime and unemployment and then putting money in there for a rainforest in Iowa and encouraging people to take up golf," noted Rickard, a Chicago resident who works in marketing as her "day job" and has taken on public relations for MoveOn locally. "Basically MoveOn is trying to raise awareness so that other Americans know what's in the omnibus bill."

Rickard noted that MoveOn members like her put this campaign together in a matter of days after switching their focus from the $87 billion and what other things it could buy, like universal health care and millions of new teachers. "We figured this was more timely," she said. "This shows how quickly MoveOn can change direction." With only a handful of paid staff people, the group counts on an army of volunteers around the country to serve as organizers, spokespeople and the like.

MoveOn's focal point is its high-tech server, which handles a personalized data base of close to two million people and sends out immediate news and action alerts regarding legislative activity.

"What's so wonderful about MoveOn is it's a new participatory democracy opportunity," said Marguerite Delacoma, an interior decorator who works on the volunteer campaign in Chicago with Rickard. "We can find out in the morning if something has been in a committee or if it's coming to the House in three days or whatever, and then we can immediately go online and send a letter. You give your opinion to your legislator immediately -- we can get an alert like that in the morning and by evening there will have been 40,000 calls or emails telling the legislator what his constituents think."

Rickard notes that members help shape the direction of the organization by posting on bulletin boards and participating in chat rooms on the website. The central office ultimately makes key decisions on the focus of campaigns, and then the masses of volunteer committees implement the campaigns in their own ways.

"There were 500 meetings in people's houses all over the country last week, and that was all organized in 10 days," she said.

Kate Jones, who does PR work for the wine industry in northern California and regularly signs MoveOn petitions, said she found out about the omnibus bill from a MoveOn petition and saw it as "typical of the way Washington works." But she said MoveOn helped her feel more empowered in the face of this system.

"They make me feel heard," she said. "They're very organized and efficient, they're not spending my money just to ask me for more money. It's a new channel for people like me, and it's become a real force."

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at karilyde@aol.com.

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