The Common Good
August 2012

A 'Buy-Partisan' Problem

by Sen. John Marty | August 2012

If we want a democracy that represents the public interest, we'll need a system where politicians are no longer bought and paid for by the highest bidders.

IN OUR DEMOCRACY, the first Tuesday in November is supposed to be an election. Unfortunately, it is turning into an auction, with government for sale to the highest bidders. Powerful interest groups buy clout with big campaign contributions.

Recently, the billionaire owner of the Minnesota Vikings persuaded the Minnesota legislature to build a new stadium with public funds. It was an enormous gift: It works out to a $72 taxpayer subsidy for every ticket, to every game, for the next 30 years!

This huge subsidy passed with votes from legislators of both parties, despite strong public opposition. Along with a multimillion lobbying campaign over the past decade, the Vikings owner, Zygi Wilf, with his family and lobbyists, contributed thousands of dollars to the Republican legislative caucuses and the Republican gubernatorial and legislative candidates.

They also contributed thousands of dollars to the Democratic legislative caucuses and the Democratic gubernatorial and legislative candidates. Why would they give to both parties and even to candidates running against each other? They say it is because their interests are bipartisan. Perhaps this might be more appropriately spelled “buy-partisan,” since they were trying to buy favor with both parties.

Did those contributions make a difference? Imagine what would happen if Wilf tried the same strategy to get his way at an NFL game and made $1,000 or $1,500 “contributions” to each of the referees before the next Vikings-Packers game. The NFL would kick Wilf and his team off the field and fire the officials without waiting for proof that the money affected the officiating. The conflict of interest is obvious.

Yet in politics, Wilf’s conflict of interest didn’t raise any eyebrows. Insiders are so accustomed to the practice that it doesn’t even cross their minds that there might be a problem.

Big money plays a dominant role in determining who runs for office, who gets elected, what the priorities of public officials are, and how the issues are framed. Big money is robbing our nation of a fair economy, it is preventing people from getting the health care they need, and it is destroying our environment.

Super PACs and the Citizens United ruling didn’t create the problem; they simply made it worse. Big money has always been a corrupting influence on our political process; now it controls the entire system. Those who believe in democracy ought to be angry about it. For people of faith who take seriously the call to love your neighbor as yourself, it is tragic.

More than 120 Americans die every day because they lack access to health care. That’s tragic, and it’s unnecessary. Thirty other countries provide health care for everyone, at half the cost. We could too. But the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance lobby, and other interests fund the presidential and congressional campaigns. Then they lobby them for a health-care system that increases their profits, instead of one that keeps people healthy.

It’s time that we have a democracy that represents the public interest, not the special interests. That requires a campaign finance system where politicians are no longer bought and paid for by big money.

Unfortunately, because the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are “people” and that money is “free speech,” we need to amend the Constitution before we can implement meaningful campaign finance reform. has perhaps the best approach to a constitutional amendment that restores our democracy from the corrupting power of corporate influence and big money.

It will not be easy, and political pundits may say it is impossible, but it is a fight we need to win. Like the struggles for the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, this is a matter of social justice.

John Marty has been a member of the Minnesota Senate for 25 years, representing seven suburban communities. He funds his campaigns without any special interest money and is a strong advocate of campaign finance reform. He is a member of Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

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