No 332, Posted by fw, November 10, 2011
Everybody and his uncle, it seems, is offering Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters advice on what do next. So why should Tom Ferguson, a highly respected political science professor be any different, especially when invited to do so in a Real News Network interview? He doesn’t miss the opportunity to say the Occupiers have “got it right” so far, and that he loved two protest signs he saw while walking through the Occupy Wall Street in Boston recently.
Anyway, here’s what Ferguson, no ordinary mortal, had to suggest in the following video of an interview by Paul Jay of The Real News Network. A transcript with added subheadings is below the video.
Congress for Sale featuring Professor Tom Ferguson, uploaded by TheRealNews on Nov 10, 2011
Paul Jay – If you’re a member of Congress – House or Senate – and you want to be a member of one of the powerful committees, or, even more, chair of a powerful committee, how do you get there? Well, it used to be a matter of seniority. Now it’s a matter of dollars. And how does this affect the whole issue of money in politics in Congress? Now joining us to help us understand all of this is Tom Ferguson. Tom is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. First of all, what is the fact-basis here?
Tom Ferguson – They [honest politicians as portrayed in the old Hollywood movies] might have a heart of gold, now they have a pocket of gold. That’s a big shift. It’s relatively straightforward. In the old days you rose in the hierarchy in Washington basically by just sticking around. A very special form of rule by the aged or gerontocracy — what you measure was your time in the institution, not your calendar age. In the 70s that collapsed. The Democrats brought it down first but the Republicans followed. For a long while pieces of that lingered. But the bottom line was — very quickly that sort of institutional change in Congress coincided with the big revolution in the American economy that brought finance to the top, taking it to the monster percentage of all the profits by the early 2000s. Very quickly folks started – since there was no longer any sort of hierarchical structure coming from seniority, or not much of one, folks started, in effect, paying their colleagues to vote for them. And the “Pay-to-Play” system starts to develop. In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay – Delay would actually sit in the meeting selecting committee members and chairs with printouts of members’ contributions – Gingrich and the Republicans put in a further requirement that you needed to raise money for the Congressional campaign committees, the national Congressional campaign committee, and the Senate did the same thing at its end. The Democrats copies that system. The striking implication of this though is what happens when you start filling the national campaign committee coffers because that’s not money that individual members control. That’s controlled by the leadership. So what you get over time is a huge upward shift in power – maybe not over time – in Gingrich and Delay’s thing it was instantaneous. They got there, they put the system in and there was no question . . .
Paul Jay – Tom, this power that gets concentrated in the hands of the party leadership, I guess indirectly the administration. What significance does that have in terms of democracy?
Tom Ferguson – The first thing it does is it makes the individual members much more cautious about breaking with the party leadership. That’s basically why everybody’s index of party-line voting has gone up so much — the sort of mass of concentration of power in the leadership. You get this one chequebook, one party, one message. Just in the way they behave in Congress, they change. They act a little bit more like the ant colony, as it were, and a little less like the most expensive tropical fish in the tanks. I mean there are limits. The Senate’s different from the House but even there it’s true.
Paul Jay – If you were to – if Occupy Wall Street and others were to make some demands about some kind of reform in Congress that would distribute power more evenly or more fairly within Congress itself, what would that demand look like?
Tom Ferguson – I think, first of all, implicitly I’m not – nobody on Occupy Wall Street is making lots of demands right now. And that seems to me perfectly rational. I mean when I hear they don’t have a program, I just think, hey, you know the Democrat and Republican parties don’t have one either, by the way, and they’ve been around a lot longer – at least any program that’ll do much for any ordinary person. But as you start to formulate demands you can see already the Occupy Wall Street has basically got the most important point exactly right. The ads about 1% of the population that’s taken down most of the income gains in the last 30 years is the first point.
The second thing is that the connection between money and politics is just altogether organic at this point. It’s basic. When I was down walking around the Occupy Wall Street in Boston the other day I saw this sign that said that basically “Capitalism Is Socialism for the 1%”. That’s about got it right. There was another sign I saw which I love, which was that “Congressional Representatives Should be Like NASCAR Drivers and Tell Us Who Their Sponsors Are.” You know, just wear their sponsors’ colors. That would be a revolution [in] financial services I’ll tell you that.
In that sense, people, I think, have got it, but they need to make this concrete. Here I think you got a short and a long problem. The short problem is do something right away. I would, myself, insist that if you’re on a Congressional committee you can’t take any money from any interest [group] that’s affected by your decision. That’s a rule. The reason I stress that is that Congress, absolutely, whatever the Supreme Court has to say, is allowed to make its own rules. They don’t have to take any dictation from the Supreme Court. And they could do that in the current state of the law.
They could also enforce – they could direct the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to actually enforce what looked like the intent of the statute, that the legislation that people cite as enabling the so-called superpacs to use completely secret money. That rests in part on court decisions but the secret part of it also rests on the FEC unwillingness to enforce law. Now they are, of course, taking low-key direction from the House and Senate leadership. The FEC staff knows exactly what’s required of them there. But we could change that, I think, if you focused on that.
In the longer run I think you plainly want a constitutional amendment that makes it clear that corporations are NOT people. That allows the government to make reasonable rules on limiting money on politics. The notion that anybody who’s super-rich can do anything they want in American politics is ridiculous. It’s a travesty.
Paul Jay – Really concretely, if people were going to ask for one or two very specific pieces of legislation that might help somehow mitigate this, what would they be?
Tom Ferguson – Can I broaden the question? In the short run I have to tell you, given the – next month is the Supercommittee [Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction] reporting. It would be tragic and ironic beyond measure if in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, what remains of the social safety net is shredded in the United States. I hope that doesn’t happen. In that sense, I think, folks got to remember that Wall Street isn’t the only constituency pushing to cut social spending and keep taxes on the rich low. But it’s probably the most powerful single force for doing that. And you’ve got to watch what Wall Street is doing, and Washington next month, or it won’t matter much what happens in December if in November that Supercommittee report is rolling through, shredding Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and, for that matter, all domestic spending almost entirely in every program.
And you can crack down on the FEC laxity that allows these super committees not to report their contributions. That’s partly a court decision and law but it’s also the enforcement. They are doing no enforcement at all. They’re really taking their cues from the Congressional leadership. That agency has a very special relationship with Congress. You could fix that, at least in theory, you could do it.
MY COMMENT – If I were an OWS participant, I would enlist the support of co-participants in passing a resolution to invite Tom Ferguson, and/or others, to do a teach-in for some additional best advice – i.e., what best strategies would he/they counsel for accomplishing the 4 best pieces of advice presented above? The strategies are certainly not obvious to me, but then I’m a Canadian..