One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln – ill from smallpox – traveled by train to Gettysburg to dedicate a new national cemetery. Lincoln spoke for only a few minutes and summarized, in 10 sentences, our bloodiest war. Those 10 sentences, revered as one of the greatest American speeches, conclude with the hope that our nation shall have a new birth of freedom – “and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
If he returned today, Lincoln would be saddened but maybe not surprised. Our representative democracy has been corrupted by professional politicians seduced by money from special interests.
Lincoln had earlier said, “Politicians are a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people, and who, to say the most of them, are, taken as a mass, at least one long step removed from honest men. I say this with the greatest freedom, because being a politician myself, none can consider it as personal.”
All too often, money decides. More than $6.3 billion was spent on federal elections in 2011-12 – all in the hope of getting something. At the state level, legislative candidates who raised the most money were successful 76 percent of the time. Incumbents in contested general elections were successful 85 percent of the time. In Pennsylvania, $101 million was spent on the 2011-12 elections, with 52.2 percent going to Republicans and 37.9 percent going to Democrats. Republicans won both houses and the governor’s office.
During the 2011-12 election cycle, there were 13 oil and gas companies paying 96 lobbyists to influence legislators. In 2012 the Legislature passed Act 13, taking zoning away from local communities so that gas drilling activities could be permitted in every zoning district. Act 13 also protects gas industry fracking chemicals as “trade secrets” and gags doctors who treat patients made ill by frack chemicals. Act 13 avoids a severance tax and enacts impact fees – the industry choice.
There are no direct benefits to citizens.
Money and favors flow from special interests to public officials and candidates. Even the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote in a landmark 2010 case that started as a First Amendment appeal, said, in effect, that corporations should be treated as people and could use their money to influence elections. (Justice Stevens pointed to the “appearance of corruption” and the dangers posed by corporations with lots of money, no morality, no purpose outside of profit-making, and no loyalty.) We do see a recent 336 percent increase in special interest money. But no one refers to this practice of using money to influence lawmakers as legalized bribery, and no one refers to the practice of taking money for political favors as prostitution. To our enduring shame, it has become the American Way.
In Pennsylvania, the coal companies that left behind boney piles, polluted water and abandoned strip mines are long gone – as are their jobs. Is this same legacy, enabled by complicity between industry and politicians, about to be repeated?
What will be left behind by a gas drilling industry that got itself exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act? What do they know that made that exemption so necessary? Are Pennsylvania’s state officials good trustees of our public health and natural resources, which our Constitution says are, “the common property of all the people”?
Where are the legislators whose first concern is the protection of our homes, schools, hospitals and environmentally sensitive areas? Where are the legislators who protect our state forests, park, and wild areas from exploitation; who require testing of water quality in our rivers and streams to detect pollution; who require accountability of those who threaten our drinking water; who fight for direct benefits to citizens for the depletion of natural resources; and who want natural gas at cost for heating our homes before it is liquefied and sold abroad?
Why aren’t all local officials demanding return of their zoning powers to protect their citizens, homes, schools, and quality of life? (Seven courageous communities have gone to court.) Where are the municipal associations? And where are the teachers unions when a gas severance tax earmarked for education – with property taxes rolled back – should be on the table? (The National Education Association is the nation’s largest contributor to state campaigns, shelling out $54 million in just the 2007-08 election cycle.) Now is the time to do something really good for funding education, for Pennsylvania taxpayers, for kids, for schools – and for the people.
What about companies that operate under regulatory rules that are there to protect the water we drink, the air we breathe and the environment we all share? Certainly public officials who regulate extractive (gas, oil and coal) industries as a duty of their office should refuse to accept money from those industries they regulate. Accepting money from the same industry you regulate is unethical and should be unlawful.
Also, such a law would establish a fair, level playing field for all candidates. The people of Pennsylvania deserve, and should demand, a government that is for the people. And they deserve public officials who, when necessary, say, “Sorry, Pennsylvania is not for sale.”
Edward Smith of Jackson Township is a retired city and county manager. He is a board member of Pennsylvania Homeowners Association.