By Adam Weinberg
Environmentalists assume that natural resource protection depends on cultural changes and/or advances in science. This assumption is erroneous. The real problem lies in the way our elections are financed. The vast majority of Americans already want increased environmental protection-70 percent in some studies. Furthermore, advances already made in the environmental sciences have provided the technologies to move forward on a progressive environmental agenda. What has gone wrong is that this sentiment and enhanced capability has not been translated into effective legislation.
What will it take to move on a real progressive environmental agenda? We need to get private money out of electoral campaigns. It is special interest money that has stymied environmental protection. It has done so in three ways:
First, the escalating cost of running for political office requires politicians to be overly beholden to their donors, who too often have anti-environmental agendas. For example: Senator Hilary Clinton's 2000 campaign cost $30 million. This means that she needs to raise $13,000 a day for her next race. According to John Green of University of Akron, she will most likely raise this money from a pool of congressional donors who make more than $100,000 (81% of people who give to Congress), consider themselves moderate to extremely conservative (79%, as opposed to 21% who consider themselves liberal), and likely belong to a business group (65% as opposed to 30% who belong to an environmental group). Or to put these statistics in perspective, Senator Clinton is forced into a system where she must "dial for dollars" by courting wealthy donors. It is not a stretch to assume that in return for these dollars, the donors expect the senator to support their positions on public policy.
But we do not have to assume that donors expect a political return for their contributions. The political parties have collaborated with campaign contributors to ensure just that. In a recent issue of Newsweek, Michael Isikoff reports that in the last Presidential race, the Republican Party gave its fundraisers tracking codes for donors to write on their checks. An internal memo written by the head of electric power industry's main lobbying group explained to potential donors why the code was important: "IT DOES ENSURE THAT OUR INDUSTRY IS CREDITED, AND THAT YOUR PROGRESS IS LISTED AMONG THE OTHER BUSINESS/INDUSTRY SECTORS" (capitalization used in the original document).
What's the impact? Two examples make the point:
Example #1: During the 1999-2000 election cycle, the coal mining industry contributed more than $3 million to Republicans. That's more than three times what the industry gave during 1995-96 election cycle. One of President Bush's first environmental orders was to rescind proposals to regulate carbon dioxide emissions (a gas scientists believe is linked to global warming), because it would have cost the industry millions of dollars.
Example #2: The Center For Public Integrity reports that the food industry gave more than $41 million in campaign contributions during the 1990s. This helped them stop every bill that promised meaningful improvements in food safety, despite the face that 20,000 Americans were being poisoned with E. Coli bacteria every year.
Second, the importance of private money in elections means that candidates with environmentally friendly agendas are severely handicapped. Does money really matter in elections? Definitively. The answer is yes. In 2000, the candidate who spent the most money won 98 percent of the elections for positions in the House of Representatives. In the Senate the percentage was 85 percent. Private money dictates not only who will win, but also who runs for office in the first place. The problem is that Green candidates lack the trade associations and wealthy donor bases that can underwrite competitive campaigns. What makes this tragic is that green candidates often find themselves running for office in districts where people do want environmental reform. Misleading advertisements produced by expensive marketing firms, however, drowns their voices out. Without money, they cannot inform the voters about their views.
Third, politicians spend most of their time raising money-not learning about the issues. Environmental issues are complex. Too many politicians do not have the time to master the complexity, which makes them even more vulnerable to bad science and misleading data. In an op-ed piece published last summer, Congressman Peter Kostmayer claims that his early campaigns were spent "campaigning door to door? listening to the people I wanted to represent." His last campaign was spent in an office in Center City Philadelphia, where Kostmayer reports "I spent my days talking to people about money, money, money."
In a myriad of ways, the need for private money to run for office has kept elected officials from meeting our need to act on a progressive environmental agenda. Congressman Harold Ford recently wrote, "the increasingly exorbitant cost of running for public office allows special interests to exert too much influence over decision making in government, and accordingly, hampers average citizens' ability to make their own views heard in a meaningful and influential way."
What can you do?
Over the last year, college students around the state have been getting organized to reduce the influence of private wealth in politics by reforming the way campaigns are financed. They are joining a growing national movement that has already reformed the system in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and a number of cities including San Francisco, Oakland, New York, Tucson, and Los Angeles. Their efforts have been endorsed by a range of environmental groups from mainstream organizations like the Sierra Club to more radical groups like Global Exchange. At Colgate, students have formed an organization called Democracy Matters that is working to reduce the influence of money in politics. A student recently told me, "I believe in the separation of church and state, and money from politics."
Where to start and what to do about the environment? Join the movement to get money out of politics by reforming the way campaigns are financed.
The author of this article, Adam Weinberg, is a co-founder of Democracy Matters.