A List of Demands: What Occupy Wall Street Should Have Been Protesting

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Less than four blocks from my office is McPherson Square, ground zero of the Occupy DC/Occupy K Street camp. One day after work, I took the long route to the metro so I could walk through the square. Littered with makeshift tents and cardboard signs with half-baked slogans scribbled on them like a 3rd grader’s art project, the camp was filled with scores of people my age, and yet somehow a gulf existed between us.

Wearing a suit and tie, I clearly looked out of place, and probably bared a striking resemblance to everything they hated about Washington, D.C. I started talking to a few of the protesters about why they were there and how they thought the protests were going. Much like me, they said they were frustrated by the growing inequalities in the country and thought they were on the verge of something really important in American history. When they asked what I did for a living, they looked less than enthused to discover I worked for a firm that ended with “& Associates” – a dead giveaway for a lobbying firm.

On my way out of the park, I noticed a handful of protesters taking advantage of the rush hour traffic at one corner of the square. I wish I was kidding, but the poor protesters were so unorganized they couldn’t even chant in unison. I walked out of the square thinking the Occupy Movement embodied 21st century America: burdened with debt, full of misdirected anger, and completely void of any ideas for improving matters.

I enjoy a good protest as much as the next guy, but the Occupy DC crowd has done little more than upset the city’s homeless who normally reside in McPherson Square. Confined to a square block, the camp resembles an exhibit at the zoo. Passersby marvel out the primitive creatures as if they were pandas.

Like Napoleon invading Russia on the verge of winter, the protesters may become victims of mother nature rather than metro police soon enough. Once the first snow fall blankets the northeast, sending temperatures plunging below freezing, the protesters’ resolve will be tested.

Tents in McPherson Square

The OWS crowd has every right to be angry. Hell, I’m angry. The wealthiest 1 percent more than doubled their share of income during the last three decades, according to the Congressional Budget Office. During the past three decades, special interests have slowly whittled away at the tax structure, making it less progressive and skewing it in favor of people who make money through inheritance or capital gains rather than actual work. The middle class is vanishing, homeownership is becoming a luxury, and more than a $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt will create another drag on the economic recovery in the years to come. Almost 91 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, making you wonder – who are the 9 percent that think Congress is doing a good job.

Like the Greek, Roman and British empires before us, a sense that our best days are behind us is pervasive. Our politics have become bereft with graft, and the institutions we designed to protect us are now conduits for legalized corruption.

Elections alone won’t solve anything. 2006, 2008, and 2010 were all “change” elections. One party was swept out of power in each of those years, but business in Washington continued down the same path.

But why? And how can we change it?

Reform the campaign finance system – Money has had a corrosive effect on American politics. Instead of the current “money talks” system, we need a system that activates all Americans and encourages them to participate in the Democratic process.

To have a real discussion about campaign finance reform, we need to get a few things out of the way: corporations are not people and money is not speech. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC (2010) still holds some merit even when these two assumptions are taken out of the equation. The court’s assertions do not end the argument for publically financed elections; they just make it more complicated.

Once a hardened critic of the Citizens United case, I now struggle with the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision. From outside the Beltway, it looked like activist jurisprudence at its worst. At its heart though, Citizens United is a free speech case. Campaign finance laws do restrict free speech, but they do so to achieve a much greater good: a functioning republic.

Free speech is not an absolute. Time and again, the Supreme Court has placed restrictions on what people can and can’t say it. Fighting words, libel, obscenity – none of these are forms of protected speech, and neither should contributing money. For any reform effort to work, it needs to address the free speech issues outlined in Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo (1976), which struck down limitations on campaign expenditures, independent expenditures by individuals and groups, and expenditures by a candidate from personal funds.

The problem with the current campaign finance system outlined in these rulings is that all of the power resides with the wealthy. If you can pay, you can play in American politics. Whether it is running for office or defeating a specific piece of legislation, you can do it as long as you have the money. After the Buckley ruling, philosopher John Rawls said, “We run the risk of endorsing the view that fair representation is representation according to the amount of influence effectively exerted.”

This is still true today. Only 4 percent of Americans donated money to political campaigns in 2008 and less than .1 percent maxed out their contribution limit. When Occupy Wall Street talks about the 99%, they should actually be talking about the 99.9%.

“By limiting the influence of big money in politics,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) said, “elections can be more about the voters and their voices, not big money donors and their deep pockets. We need to have a campaign finance structure that limits the influence of the special interests and restores confidence in our democracy.”

Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig has received increased attention lately for promoting a new small-donor public funding model in his book “Republic, Lost.” This is how it works: every taxpayer of voting age will get a $50 voucher. That voucher could then be given to any candidate who vows to finance his/her campaign solely with “democracy vouchers” and contributions of less than $100. I would expand this system so people could donate portions of their vouchers to national parties and political action committees. Much in the same vein as “one person, one vote,” this system ensures that all people have an equal say in the political process.

Corporations would not be allowed to donate money to candidates, parties, or political action committees and would be banned from creating “electioneering communications.” They would still be able to create advocacy campaigns designed to sway legislation, but there would be much greater distance between them and members of Congress.

Such a system has the potential to take hold because it provides enough of an incentive to people running for office that they would forego special interest money. Almost $5.3 billion was spent on federal elections in 2008. If each person appropriated their $50, it would equate to more than $7 billion per election cycle. What makes this system even more attractive is that it would pay for itself. All of the fraud, abuse, and corporate subsidies that occur as a result of the current system would vanish. It would save more than $90 billion in ethanol subsidies alone, according to the Cato Institute.

These reforms would return America to what James Madison outlined in the Federalist Papers: a Congress dependent “upon the people alone” – not corporations, not the wealthy.

Members of Congress who currently spend more than a third of their time fundraising rather than legislating will no longer have to worry about coming through on campaign promises to large corporate donors. Now, the only people they are accountable to are the American voters.

Reform the redistricting process – After every census, congressional districts are redrawn to account for population changes. In most states, this process is handled by the state legislatures, which of course leads to gerrymandering because the majority party in each legislature redraws the boundaries to benefit its party. That is why some districts are abstract 47-sided messes comprised of farming communities, suburbs, and downtown business districts that have nothing in common. All of this has been done to minimize one voter demographic and to accentuate another.

The solution is independent, nonpartisan commissions like the one established in California –one of the few smart things anyone in California has proposed. These commissions will loosen the stranglehold party leaders have on elections and allow for better representation in Congress.

Overhaul the rules process in Congress (especially the filibuster) – From the moment members of Congress arrive on Capitol Hill, they are pitted against one another in a battle royale. The elected majority should still have power to chart the legislative agenda, but the House should adopt rules guaranteeing that any proposal with enough co-sponsors to be allowed a committee hearing and an up-or-down vote.

In the Senate, the filibuster process needs to return to its original intent. If a Senator is going to railroad a piece of legislation, he/she needs to stand on the floor Mr.-Smith-Goes-to-Washington style and read from the phonebook if they have to. Needing a supermajority of 60 votes to pass even the simplest of bills without reconciliation is causing a logjam on Capitol Hill.

No More Pledges – Grover Norquist’s anti-tax lobby Americans for Tax Reform played an instrumental role shaping the supercommittee’s negotiations. Aligning oneself with a power-hungry little gnome like Norquist is a short cut to the road to nowhere.

Drop the hyperbole (Stop watching Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow) – Labels don’t matter. Arguments do. And a real discourse is lacking on both sides of the debate. Americans often say this is the most divided Congress in the history of the nation. That is a pretty bold statement. People seem to forget that in 1856, Preston Brooks, a representative from South Carolina (the crazies are always from South Carolina) almost caned Charles Sumner to death on the Senate floor. There was a time when members of Congress settled debates with a duel. We’ve come a long ways – just ask Alexander Hamilton – but we have a lot further to go.

An effective government requires a strong Fourth Estate and a prudent populace – two things we currently lack. The advent of the internet and subsequent proliferation of information has not led to a better informed population. Americans may consume more news than ever before, but due to the fragmented nature of the media, their viewpoints are increasingly partisan and grounded in dogma rather than facts.

Debate is not a bad thing as long as it is informed. We should only start to worry when we stop debating.

Stop blaming lobbyists – Everyone is a member of a group that could wield influence on Capitol Hill if they pooled their resources. Students, consumers, bald men – It doesn’t matter. All of these groups could exert greater leverage in Washington if they came together and worked for a common cause just like the elderly (AARP), realtors (NAR), or businesses (Chamber of Commerce) already do. You might not realize it, but there is someone in Washington right now who is advocating for the issues you care about.

Critics of the current system like to complain about the “revolving door” of congressional staffers who go to work for lobbying firms and vice versa. Demonizing the most knowledgeable public policy makers is a bigger problem. The best and brightest in Washington are not able to fully allocate their skills because of federal regulations that prevent them from lobbying. Lobbyists are also banned from serving on a number of federal exploratory committees. Instead, celebrities like Shakira are appointed to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

What we’re lacking most of all in our politics is integrity. Politicians need to be driven by an earnest arrow that always points in the direction of truth and honesty. If a politician is driven by any desire except to do good for the public, they shouldn’t be serving in Congress. Individuals like Rep. Spencer Bachus (R – AL) who made thousands of dollars shorting stocks on the eve of the financial collapse by using highly privileged information from meetings should be voted out of office. It is legal, but highly unethical acts like these that tarnish all members of Congress.

“However much we condemn what government has become, we forget it is heir to something we still believe divine,” Harvard professor Lawrene Lessig said. “We inherited an extraordinary estate. On our watch, we have let it fall to ruin.”

Now is the time to take back these institutions so they work for the people, not corporations.

(Also, here’s another recommendation: STOP voting Republican. Unless an individual makes at least $120, 000 a year, they have no reason to vote Republican. They are voting against their own interests.)


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