Jimmy Williams: Time to Get Money Out of PoliticsSeptember 23, 2011
This episode of Radio Free Dylan is a conversation with Jimmy Williams, a frequent contributor with us at MSNBC and partner in our effort to finally get money out of politics. Here’s what Dylan has to say:
“As we find ourselves just about a year away from a presidential election, the number of people in poverty in this country has ticked up to 50 million. More than one out of every five of our children lives in poverty. Simultaneously, we have a two-party political system that refuses to engage in any consequential debate around the core issues that are causing the incredible extraction and wealth discrepancies in this country, whether that is the lack of capital requirements in our banking system, the “for sale” or bought nature of our tax code, or trade agreements that are made in the interests of special interests and at the expense of the American people.
We all know that there are things we simply do not talk about in the two-party political system. It’s like having that crazy uncle that you keep in the basement that no one discusses. Well, that is the American political system, and it’s high time we discuss the crazy uncle, and that crazy uncle, for my money and I believe for yours, is money in politics.
It is the single most distorting factor in the way that legislation is prosecuted. I know people like to indict given special interest, or for that matter, the congressmen or, for that matter, lobbyists, but the fact of the matter is all of those individuals and systems are necessary to the functionality of our democracy; they have simply been corrupted, as steroids has corrupted baseball, money has corrupted the political process.
We’ve got a long road ahead of us, and until we can get money out of politics, we will not be done. But we believe this is the first step to restoring the greatness of America and restoring our democracy, both in the immediate term and for generations to come.”
Dylan: Welcome to Episode 69 of Radio Free Dylan; I am Dylan Ratigan. And we find ourselves just about a year away from a presidential election at a time when the number of people in poverty in this country has ticked up to 50 million. More than one out of every five of our children lives in poverty. Simultaneously, we have a two-party political system that refuses to engage in any consequential debate around the core issues that are causing the incredible extraction and wealth discrepancies in this country, whether that is the lack of capital requirements in our banking system, the “for sale” or bought nature of our tax code, or trade agreements that are made in the interests of special interests and at the expense of the American people. We all know that there are things we simply do not talk about in the two-party political system. It’s like having that crazy uncle that you keep in the basement that no one discusses. Well, that is the American political system, and it’s high time we discuss the crazy uncle, and that crazy uncle, for my money and I believe for yours, is money in politics. It is the single most distorting a factor in the way that legislation is prosecuted. I know people like to indict given special interest, or for that matter, the congressmen or, for that matter, lobbyists, but the fact of the matter is all of those individuals and systems are necessary to the functionality of our democracy; they have simply been corrupted, as steroids has corrupted baseball, money has corrupted the political process. And with no further ado, I wanted to bring into the conversation a good friend of mine, a frequent contributor with us here at MSNBC, and a man who had made a career advocating policy and found himself as a lobbyist suddenly in a morass of nothing more than a fundraising contest to see who could best influence a politician with a pile of money with limited, if not no relevancy to his policy advocacy. It was a position he simply could not sustain for purposes of his own psychological sustainability, I believe. And with no further ado, I’d like to introduce Jimmy Williams, and congratulate you on an incredibly courageous set of decisions that you’ve made the past few years to attempt to have a positive impact.
Jimmy: Well, thanks; I appreciate it, and I’m glad to be here today. Don’t congratulate me or anyone else yet; we’ve got a long road ahead of us, and until we can get money out of politics, we will not be done, so.
Dylan: Why is that so important? Why is the starting point money in politics? And why is it the lobbyists and all the other things that people think?
Jimmy: Right, well, you know, it’s simple. The theorem that a politician or an elected official has to spend probably 50% of every single day on the phone dialing for dollars, what does that tell you? That tells you that the other 50% of the day, they’re trying to legislate. You simply are not able to, as a politician, and any politician that tells you that this is true is lying to you. Not because they’re liars, but because they just don’t want to admit it. That means they’re spending the other 50% legislating something that they just got paid to legislate for. And I don’t know of anybody in their right mind to think that that is actually good for the American people. So politicians today, instead of spending 100% of their time either legislating or listening to their constituents, they instead spend half of their time dialing for dollars. Now, that could be from lobbyists, that could be from corporations, that could be from their constituents, that could be from anybody. But the point is shouldn’t the people that we call the “honorables” spend most of their time legislating and not asking for your dollars? Because until we get that out, they’re just going to keep asking you for your money, and they can’t untie those two issues—money and politics.
Dylan: But as you and I know, most people in this country, while they understand and appreciate the philosophy and the principles that you’re describing, their primary concern is they don’t have a job, they are in fear of losing their job, they’re concerned about the stability of their investment and retirement portfolio and/or pension and/or government benefit, or whatever your relationship with the future security is. How does them taking their attention away from their job problem, away from the problems with their kids, away from the immediate problems of their lives and devoting any of their time to get money out—benefit them? How does that connect?
Jimmy: I don’t think there could be a clearer answer than the fact that we’ve got a number of unemployment that’s at the bottom 10%. You just said it, 50 million people in this country living below the poverty rate.
Dylan: 22% of our children…
Jimmy: Right. Now, if that’s the case – now, I get that there are economic cycles and the economy goes up and the economy goes down; I’ve got all that and everyone understands that. The economists, regular people, priests, teachers, everybody gets that. But when you get to a number that is that staggering, then that tells me that, in fact, our elected officials aren’t doing their jobs, which is – and by the way, I want to be clear about something. People run around saying, “Why can’t the President pass a plan that creates job?” Government doesn’t create jobs except for federal jobs. Government’s job is to create an environment so that the private sector creates jobs, and they can’t even do that. So I think that the numbers of people living in poverty and the number of people that are unemployed or underemployed or not earning a living wage, that’s proof-positive that, in fact, you’ve got a government that can’t even – you’ve got a business community right now that’s sitting on over $2 trillion in cash, flushed with cash. Bank of America just announced they’re going to lay off 30,000 people. Now, I’m pretty sure as a Bank of America customer, they’re not charging me less for my fees.
Dylan: But how does getting the money out of politics resolve all these issues?
Jimmy: And to that point, right, and to that point. I would like to see members of Congress and Senators and this President and any future President not have to spend half of their time and half of their career dialing for dollars, first. Secondly, there’s no way that when you hang up the phone asking people for money and then you turn your attention to the floor of the Senate or the floor of the House or the business of running the nation, per se, that you don’t link who just gave you money to policies that they like or do not like. And anybody that tells you that is lying to your face. Again, I am not saying that all politicians are corrupted, I’m not saying that the lobbyists that the corporations employ are corrupted. You’re going to have bad eggs. You’re going to have politicians that, in fact, steal or take from their campaign funds or raise money or take bribes.
Dylan: [Cross-talking 07:33] explicit sort of low-hanging thievery.
Jimmy: Listen, you’re always going to have piece of scum no matter where you go, and that’s in government, that’s in the private sector, that’s in the church; it doesn’t matter. But that’s not the majority of members of Congress. But what a majority of the members of Congress do do every single day, not a majority, all of them, they all go and raise and money from the very corporations that they’re supposed to be creating an environment for to go out and create jobs but not protecting. Government shouldn’t protect industry; government should tell industry how to now hurt people and then get out of the way.
Dylan: It appears, though, that if you look at the banking debate…
Dylan: …where the vast majority of the legislation revolved around protecting the stability of the banks while reducing risk for the consumer, but the priority was let’s not disrupt this banking system, let us not go to the core, for instance, the swaps markets, which is not on an exchange, and were we to put it on an exchange would require significant…
Dylan: …restructuring and capital and a lot of things.
Dylan: Or you look at the healthcare debate where it was, “well, we wanted people to get more healthcare coverage, but we don’t want to deal with restructuring the private insurance monopolies, we don’t want to deal with the restructuring the negotiatings construct for drug prices with the drug companies. We’re wanting to leave intact these things, but we want to better protect the customer,” and in the process it creates either massive debt and deficit to finance the difference between the cost of one and the other, or simply doesn’t resolve the problem at all and it just postpones for the next financial crisis or the next issue. How much does money dictate the fact that things like the capital requirements in the banking system or things like reform in private health insurance or reform in some fashion for the drug industry happen?
Jimmy: It dictates all of it. It dictates every single aspect – don’t think – I lobbied on the Dodd-Frank Bill when I was in the Senate as a staffer, I helped write Gramm-Leach-Bliley, I helped write Sarbanes-Oxley. You know – I helped write the terrorism insurance bill. You know, we wrote a lot of legislation, and who did I meet with mostly? I met mostly with lobbyists. Not constituents from my boss from Illinois, the Senator from Illinois…
Dylan: You were working in a Senate office…
Jimmy: I was a Senate staffer.
Dylan: …you were not a lobbyist, you were an agent of somebody who represented the American people.
Jimmy: I represented the people of Illinois as a staffer for a United States Senator from Illinois, who is an honorable man. And every single day, my calendar would be filled with meeting with lobbyists. Again, 99% of those men and women that would come into to see me, honorable people, not bad people, experts in their fields. What I never got to see, but then when I left the Senate to become a lobbyist, what I never saw was when they left my office, they then went and raised money for my boss, or against my boss. But the point is, it’s not about policy, it’s about politics. The money affects every single aspect of every piece of legislation that has been written since the day I walked into Washington D.C. in 1992. And anybody that tells you that it’s not true is lying to you. Lobbyists are good people, they’re protected by the First Amendment because the First Amendment’s clear…you have the right to address your grievances with your nation. That’s a lobbyist. You have the right to hire a lobbyist. You have the right to get a doctor. You have the right to hire a lawyer. So you should have the right to hire a lobbyist to advocate on your behalf, that’s fine. The question is, why is it then the lobbyist has to spend so much time raising so much damn money for these members of Congress and for these Senators?
Dylan: And why is the access of their power…
Jimmy: Yes, by how much you raise.
Dylan: [cross-talking 11:20] of their advocacy, but the lobbyist’s qualifications as a fundraiser for or against a given politician.
Jimmy: I spent, I bet you, 70% of my time as a lobbyist in the last seven years raising money for members of the House and the Senate. 70%, so that means I’m doing 30% policy? Does that tell you anything about why the policies coming out of Washington suck so bad but the money going in doesn’t suck so bad? I mean, doesn’t that tell you everything that you need to know?
Dylan: So why have efforts to get money out in the past failed and what – I want to get into a little bit about how what we all…
Jimmy: Well, there’s two reasons for that…
Dylan: …not just you and me, but what we all can do to succeed with this now.
Jimmy: There are two reasons why money has never been able to get out of politics, and let me be clear, Congress has certainly tried. Congress has tried, they tried in the McCain-Feingold Bill, I mean they have tried for decades to get money out of politics. And the reason that (A) it’s never succeeded is because, first and foremost, they have never actually said ‘no money’, they’ve just said, “Well, money is speech,” so we have to be able to raise some money, so whatever that number is, that arbitrary number, then we’re going to put that number in and we’re going to have the “disclosure” and sunlight and transparency and we’re going to go out and legislate and keep it separate. Well, I’m sorry, but it’s almost like the church and sinners. Nobody goes to church unless they sinned for all intents and purposes, so you either got to get the sin out or you don’t go to church. If you don’t take money out, which Congress can’t seem to do because (A) it doesn’t want to cut off its lifeline, but (B) the Supreme Court of the United States in decision after decision after decision has ruled that money and politics is speech and that is protected under the First Amendment. It’s odd; it’s almost ironic that the First Amendment, according to the Supreme Court of the United States, that speech is protected under the First Amendment and so is lobbying. How ironic is that, right?
I’m not suggesting that one’s ability to speak in the public arena, in a political arena, in a policy arena should be curbed in any way. Your ability to vote in the United States, if you are a citizen of the United States, that is the number one thing that’s more American than anything else we do, that’s speech. Your ability to go and work on a campaign for your Senator or for your Congressman or whatever, for your local dogcatcher, that is protected, that is speech. But the only reason money is speech is because the Supreme Court of the United States has said that it is speech and because Congress has never said it’s not speech. Congress has only said a limited amount of money is speech. So until you stop money from being speech, and the only way to do that is to pass a constitutional amendment, until you do that, the Supreme Court of the United States is going to, no matter who appoints these justices, whether they’re liberal Presidents or conservative Presidents, it does not matter. Under precedent and under Supreme Court cases and rulings, and when I say rulings, I mean some that go back to the ‘50s and ‘60s and some that were issued like [indiscernible 14:38] did last year. Until you stop that and say that money is not speech as protected under the First Amendment and until Congress passes that, then you’re going to have money in politics and then it’s going to continue to be the same system.
I’m pretty sure with Congress at a 13% approval rating – first of all, I’d love to know who those 13% of the American people are because I think that’s crazy, and secondly, you can’t get much lower than 13% until the people finally say “Wait a minute, is it broken?” Yeah, it’s broken. So you’ve got to pass a constitutional amendment and you’ve got to say money is not speech as protected under the First Amendment. So then people will come out and say how do you do that, how do you fix that? Well, the way Congress passes a constitutional amendment is you have to have two-thirds of each chamber pass it, it has to be signed by the President, then it has to go to the states, and then the states, a majority of the states have to pass it, as well.
Dylan: There’s another mechanism for a constitutional amendment…
Dylan: …that does not start in the Congress, but it starts in the State Legislatures that Lawrence Lessig has been advocating. What is the difference between going to the State Legislatures directly advocating an amendment and then taking it up to the Congress effectively as opposed to going to the Congress and having it go down. How is that different? Does it matter?
Jimmy: It’s almost in a way sort of a chicken and an egg argument, which is – or sort of hypotheses. A constitutional convention, you have to have 17 state legislatures pass a resolution saying that we demand a constitutional convention. And what is a constitutional convention? A constitutional convention basically, for all intents and purposes, is when the people of the United States tell Congress “you’re going to convene a convention and you’re going to amend the Constitution.” And when 17 of those states pass these kinds of resolutions and are sent to the Congress, then the Congress, by law, has to actually convene a constitutional convention—how funny a word—and then they have to vote up or down on the amendments that have been sent up by the states.
Dylan: Which could be any amendment.
Jimmy: It could be anything from banning Diet Coke to banning gay marriage to supporting gay marriage…
Dylan: To [cross-talking 16:57] balanced budget amendment…
Jimmy: Anything that they want it to be, as long as 17 states do that and agree on what those constructs are.
Dylan: So how in a constitutional environment do you not end up with just a bunch of wacky amendments that totally…
Jimmy: Well, you could and you very well may, and that’s why constitutional conventions—it’s kind of hard to say, isn’t it—rarely happen…
Dylan: Because the risk profile is seen as too high.
Jimmy: Well, certainly. And listen, what’s the number one rule in politics—never ask a question that you don’t know the answer to. So, I mean, at the end of the day – and by the way, the threat of a constitutional convention, the treat i.e. to Congress of being hold what to do by 17 state legislatures, not even 25, half of the states, not even all the states, but just 17 of them, that’s crazy. That’s scary talk for Congress. And what does that inevitably probably do? It makes Congress then do the opposite, which is, “Ah, well, you know what, we’ll circumvent this, we’ll cut this off at the legs, at the knees, and we will do our own amendments. And so the treat…
Dylan: So it’s an implied threat that will catalyze Congress more than it would. What about the idea of using the Tax Code? The idea of taxing fundraising, of taxing political spending, instead of waiting for all the rigmarole of all the legislatures and all the Congress, it takes years, there’s a lot of games, who knows what will happen, what if you went directly to the Tax Code and passed a tax, a change in the tax law that charged 100% tax on all campaign spending and fundraising so that if Barak Obama wanted to spending $740 million on a presidential campaign or any other person by the way, he just happens to be the current sitting President, they would have to pay an additional $740 million in taxes for the money that they raised. What would that do?
Jimmy: Two thoughts: First, if you did – if the Congress passed something like that, I would laugh, and – as you are right now, because Congress is never going to tax to fundraise, but secondly it would have – constitutionally, it would have to apply to all federal campaigns because what Congress is not allowed to do or the government is not allowed to pick and chose how it levies taxes against or for some – it has to apply to all 50 states and all campaigns and all federal – all campaigns for federal office. You cannot pick and choose. The court has ruled, and rightly so, that the Congress is not allowed to say, “We’re going to tax the Dylan Rattigan campaign but not the Barak Obama campaign.” So, in essence, if everyone is running for federal office…
Dylan: It’ll be uniformly applied.
Jimmy: It has to apply to all of those alike, otherwise – or none. So the chances of that happening are slim to none. I like the idea, but it’s pretty damn novel. And I don’t mean novel in a bad way, I mean novel in sort of a fresh idea. But again, my concern would be (A) how it’s worded, and (B) that it has to apply to everyone because if not, then the court would strike it down.
Dylan: And at the end of the day, you are a part of American society, you’re part of the American media, all of us are part of American society and in some way, large or small, because of the digital revolution, part of the American media. It would seem that the incentive for either the Congress or the state legislature is truly on a principled level to take the money out of politics is less than the interest of the hundreds of millions of Americans who would rapidly benefit from a fairer system. And so I guess the question is, would a major media mobilization, I’m not saying mainstream like traditional corporate media, I’m saying the communications of all people, some mainstream corporate like us, others completely grassroots, uncorrelated around a singular principle that is to get the money out, would that have an impact? In other words, if there were millions of people that were in waves overwhelming legislators with just copies of an amendment, just sending it as an attachment through email over and over, is that a worthwhile undertaking for anybody, for me, for a given individual who might be risking their time with me to try to do these things?
Jimmy: I think in a word, yes. I mean, look, anybody that knows me well enough knows that my favorite movie is “Field of Dreams”, and if you remember the great voice that comes out of the field is “if you build it, they will come.” And I’m not some – listen, I’ve been watching this since 1992, I’m probably a little bit jaded at this point, 44 years of life, but I believe in the inherent goodness of government. I think government can be a good thing.
Dylan: Well, it’s a tool that could be used for good or evil, right?
Jimmy: Yes, that’s exactly right. And so I believe that if you – if we in the media, per se, if we – maybe we should have some good Roman Catholic guilt here and guilt the Congress into doing something about this, but listen, Congress is reactive. Congress has never in my, and I’m a pretty good student of history when it comes to what Congress has and hasn’t done, Congress is not proactive. They don’t just go pass a Bill because we like to do this; Congress only does something when something happens. We only passed the Transportation and Infrastructure Bill when bridges fall down. We pass the Patriot Act when we get struck by terrorists on 9-11 and we’ve got to go try to “figure out” who did this and how they did it and why. And so the Congress is reactive. Congress will react if there’s enough pressure because even the most callus and non-listening members of Congress that are so stuck in their ways, if they think they’re going to be defeated, they’ll listen to you. And the only way to do that is to build millions of people, a network of millions of people who are out there who are pissed off…
Dylan: Around a principle, around a singular principle.
Jimmy: Yeah. Listen, I’d rather be for something than against something. I tend to look at the world as a glass half full not a glass half empty and I don’t want a world, a political world and a policy world where I’m against something all the time. I want the American people to love their government again and to like – and to respect their politicians, who, by the way, they pay. And if they’re paying them, then they expect them to do good things not bad things. And right now, Congress, as a whole, isn’t (A) doing a whole hell of a lot, and (B) what they are doing doesn’t really help a hell of a lot of people.
Dylan: Can you think of something more American, more democratic, or more courageous that you could be for a year ahead of a presidential election than getting money out of politics?
Jimmy: Well, I think we need a good dose of reality, which is do I expect that we can pass a constitutional – do I think we can amend the constitution between now and November 2012? The answer is hell no, but I sure want to try. And, you know, look, I’m even going to leave lobbying as a profession and devote 100% of my professional time, not my entire life, but professional time in trying to get this kind of thing passed because, again, America is a relatively new country compared to a lot of other countries that are sitting out there, but we’ve got a pretty damn good thing going. Unfortunately, I think we’re kind of sick right now and we need a little bit of an infusion of something, and it’s got to be that the American people trust their government again because right now people don’t. Look at the Tea Party; look at the dissolution by the “proverbial left”. People are upset. And unless you figure out a way to make people love and respect and tolerate their government again, and in my opinion, the only way to do that is to take money out of politics so that policy can be what members of Congress do every single day as opposed to dial for dollars then that’s not going to happen. So we’ve got to push it and you’ve got to talk about and people have got to be pissed off…
Dylan: And you’ve got to risk your time.
Jimmy: You’ve got to risk your time.
Dylan: Everybody’s taking a risk here, whether it’s me mobilizing the media resources, you abandoning your lobbying career…
Jimmy: A lucrative career.
Dylan: …or any other individual in America who chooses to risk even a fragment of their time to learn more about this or communicate with others about this, it will require that level of engagement across the board to have a chance.
Jimmy: You’re either in or out.
Dylan: Jimmy Williams, he’s in. I’m in. I know that if you’re listening to this, you are in. And I recognize that our mission now is to spread the word, so to speak, to look at the singular principle of getting money out and spread the word so that by the time we get to next year’s presidential election and beyond that, quite honestly, I think the presidential election is yet another sign post, but it is by no means a destination that we ultimately must solve this problem to get the money out if we are going to harness the wonderful, passionate, brilliant ideas of those around us in every subject in this country from healthcare to energy to education. I thank you for listening to this episode of Radio Free Dylan and I’m truly looking forward to collaborating with all of you, along with Jimmy Williams and so many others, as we embark on this rather ambitious, audacious, and important undertaking. So I look forward to a future communication. Thank you again, and we’ll talk to you next time.