Skip to main content

Don't give the rich even more influence

By Ben Cohen and Betty Ahrens, Special to CNN
October 3, 2013 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It's been five years since the government bailed out banks during the economic crisis
  • Ben Cohen, Betty Ahrens: Today, Wall Street is still the biggest player in Washington
  • In upcoming McCutcheon v. FEC, Supreme Court may give the rich even more power
  • Cohen, Ahrens: We need democracy that represents the people, not super rich donors

Editor's note: Ben Cohen is co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and founder and Head Stamper at the Stamp Stampede, which aims to build a movement to amend the Constitution to get big money out of politics. Betty Ahrens is the vice president for outreach and operations at Public Campaign, a nonprofit that raises awareness about election finance.

(CNN) -- Five years ago, on October 3, 2008, with the economy in a tailspin, President George W. Bush signed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program into law, giving the government the ability to bail out the big banks to prevent further calamity.

A number of factors caused the economic collapse, but one in particular stands out -- a witch's brew of money and politics.

As the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission wrote in its 2011 report, "It did not surprise the Commission that an industry of such wealth and power would exert pressure on policy makers and regulators. From 1999 to 2008, the financial sector expended $2.7 billion in reported federal lobbying expenses; individuals and political action committees in the sector made more than $1 billion in campaign contributions."

Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen

Five years later, with millions of Americans still unemployed or underemployed, not much has changed.

Wall Street is still the biggest player in Washington. The industry dished out more dough than any other industry during the 2012 election. In the first six months of 2013, the finance, insurance and real estate sector has already given $63 million to federal candidates and committees. It has spent $242 million on more than 2,000 lobbyists.

The Dodd-Frank financial reform was an important legislation and it has, and will continue, to protect consumers from abuses of the banks. But the industry played a major role in what rules were passed and it continues to play a role in the implementation of regulation rules.

Barofsky: Bank bailout sold out Main St.

Soon, the Supreme Court may give bankers and wealthy special interests -- the same guys and gals who wrecked the economy in 2008 -- even more influence.

On October 8, the court will hear oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case brought by Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee that threatens to remove the aggregate limits that individual donors can give, in total, to federal candidates and committees each election cycle.

For the 2014 election cycle, that total is $123,200 -- more than double the median American family income. If the court sides with McCutcheon, an individual donor could bundle more than $1 million to congressional fundraising committees.

So what does this have to do with Wall Street and TARP? Plenty.

Some 28% of the roughly 1,200 individuals who got within 10% of the aggregate limit in the 2012 election work on Wall Street. These super donors work at Goldman Sachs, Elliott Management and other top financial firms. Wall Street was the biggest industry to put money into politics.

If aggregate limits are thrown out, a future presidential candidate could be allowed to ask for a $2 million donation for his campaign and various committees. Congressional leaders could set up a fundraising committee that could take in $3.5 million from one donor. That's a sweet deal for Wall Street, but it's a raw deal for democracy.

Based on past precedent, the court should uphold the current limits. But whether the justices do or do not, our democracy is already in trouble. Congress must act to raise the voices of We the People.

StampStampede.org brings the issue home to Main Street.

The Stampede encourages people to legally stamp messages such as "not to be used for bribing politicians" on our nation's currency to support reforms to #GetMoneyOut of politics. Every bill is seen an average of 875 times and helps demonstrate a growing, sustained demand for reform.

One solution is modeled on successful systems in Arizona, Connecticut and Maine, which allow candidates to run competitive campaigns for office by relying on a mix of small donations and limited public funds. There are a handful of similar measures already introduced in Congress. They would empower small dollar donors and help them compete with the lobbyists, bankers and wealthy donors writing big checks.

The American people want and deserve a representative democracy that represents the people, not super-rich donors. But unless we come together and demand change, Congress will continue to be owned (or at least rented) by big money.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ben Cohen and Betty Ahrens.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT