To Change the Power Behind the Law – Leslie G. Woods

Leslie Woods“In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

– Luke 18:3-5

Having served in the ecumenical advocacy community for nearly 10 years, I find that I need ways to keep my spirits up. The work of advocacy (as a good friend of mine says) is a marathon, not a sprint. At times, the long, grinding haul of justice-making seems hopeless. But as the prophet Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

One of my favorite biblical reminders of the power of tenacity is the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. In Luke 18:1–8, Jesus tells the story of a widow seeking justice against her adversary from a judge who does not “fear God or care for people.” The widow keeps coming back, demanding justice, until finally the judge grants her suit—not because she convinces him of the merits of her case, but because her continual advocacy wearies him. She eventually receives justice through her persistence—a potent reminder to all of us who engage in advocacy for justice.

But what if the unjust judge were being paid to deny justice? What if the unjust judge, in order to keep his position of power, needed to refuse the merits of the widow’s case? What if her adversary was not simply the lone judge, but the political or social engine that empowered the judge and benefitted from the judge’s rulings? What then would have happened to the widow and her quest for justice?

In all likelihood, she would have been denied justice. The judge would have continued to ignore her just case and appeased the special interest backing his power. Regardless of what the widow said or did, the judge would have denied her justice.

The Shifting Paradigm of Advocacy

Of course, rewriting Bible stories is not what we do in the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, where I serve as the Representative for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues. We advocate for justice. In the nearly ten years that I have been doing faith-based advocacy, I have worked on antipoverty programs, the federal budget and tax code, justice for workers, economic inequality, health care reform, environmental justice, climate disruption, clean energy, food justice, violence against women and children, public education and immigration.

It is a broad portfolio and there have been some true victories for justice during my tenure. But more and more, I find that my workshops include an admonition that sounds something like “If we don’t work to get the special interest money out of politics, we will never achieve a ____ bill.” In the blank space, name your favorite justice issue: comprehensive immigration reform, a national climate justice plan, tax reform, gun violence prevention, prison reform or any other of the myriad fundamental reform concerns. These pressing justice issues have caught the attention of advocates, but have also caught the interest of special interest groups who are willing to spend to bring about particular outcomes. For true justice, we must first reduce the undue influence of special-interest spending in policymaking.

Law and Power

Which comes first: law or power? Certainly, laws need power to be enforced. But for this article, I am more interested in the power at play while a law is being made. When the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) speaks to the creation of laws, our positions are rooted in Christian values and the authority of Presbyterian General Assemblies. Many advocacy groups speak to the creation of laws out of conviction or concern for the welfare of others. Still others speak out of self-interest or special interest. Some special interests—though by no means all—speak to the creation of laws with a goal of furthering profit or currying favor. Even nefarious ends may propel a person or group to speak to the creation, continuation or repeal of a law.

It frequently comes down to what creates power. Is it, as suggested above, morality or conviction, concern or welfare, profit or favor? Each of these motivations may compel some special interest or another; each has the capacity to create power and, hence, law.

Sadly, our system of legislation, justice and executive power has tipped too far to one side. We have allowed our system to move away from a code of laws based on conviction and welfare—as outlined in our Constitution—to one that is unduly influenced by whomever has the deepest pockets.

We have a system in which the cost of running for office requires exorbitant spending, personal wealth and donations from those who can afford to pay. And that financial support usually comes with strings attached, whether expressly stated, implicitly felt or simply created out of a sense of obligation and gratitude.

As the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) said,

“Large sums of money, and the time needed to raise it, dominate our electoral and legislative processes. Money buys access to legislators as well as to the details in legislation. If they reject special interest money, candidates fear that their opponents will outspend them—and spending counts: incumbents almost always raise more money than challengers, and the candidate who spends the most money almost always wins. (For House seats, the number is more than 90 percent.) Because the Supreme Court has ruled [that] campaign contributions are a protected form of “speech,” the most important reform to enhance the voice of citizens and reduce the role of powerful special interests and big money in elections is public financing. Under such systems, candidates or parties receive public funds to replace or augment private money. Public funding can curb the appearance of the influence of big money over lawmakers, encourage candidates with limited resources to run for office, and allow politicians to spend less time raising money and more time serving their constituents [emphasis added].”

 

The Money Behind the Power

According to an analysis in Lo$ing Faith in Our Democracy: A Theological Critique of the Role of Money in American Politics, published by Auburn Seminary, “more than $6 billion was spent on the 2012 elections. That’s a lot of money in American politics. And that figure only includes election campaigns expenses—it doesn’t include funds spent on lobbying or advocacy” (1). According to the footnote,

“[O]f that figure, $970 million was spent by outside groups, that is, groups supposedly unaffiliated with a political party. . . . The Alaska Dispatch analyzed the presidential election expenses into dollars spent per registered voter, and found that the combined spending of the Obama and Romney campaigns amounted to $11.75 per voter. That figure is more than double, in inflation adjusted dollars, the $5 per voter that the Reagan and Carter campaigns spent in 1980.”

The study notes that the influence of money in human politics is as old as the Bible, and likely as old as human civilization, but this doubling of U.S. presidential campaign spending in just 30 years is astronomical, not to mention unsustainable.

Decreased transparency in campaign and other political spending, as permitted by Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, makes it even more difficult for the voting citizen to sift through the propaganda and make an informed decision with his or her vote. And I’m learning that many people feel that their vote is less valuable than it used to be. “It doesn’t matter whom I vote for, it won’t make a difference in Washington anyway,” I hear regularly. Many voters (or those who don’t bother) feel that the voices, opinions and convictions of real people who are engaged in honest debate are drowned out by the volume of special interest money. This development in American politics is not serving people, only profit. This is a true problem in today’s political landscape and the failure of the current system.

In an op-ed published last year, Diane Randall of the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Patrick Carolan of the Franciscan Action Network wrote,

“More often than should be true in a democracy, money appears to speak more loudly than the voices of the electorate on these and other values-based issues. The wealthiest 0.01 percent of the voting age population now account for 40 percent of all campaign contributions. When money talks, it almost inevitably makes a difference in the decisions elected officials make. If money is doing the talking, it is unlikely to fairly represent needs for housing, health care and decent wages for people who cannot take those things for granted.”

Indeed, people of faith are beginning to challenge such disproportion in the brokerage of power in our political system. Polls vary, of course, but a recent survey reported by Time magazine showed that

“[A] majority of likely voters among Democrats (75%), Independents (64%) and Republicans (54%) see the wave of spending by Super PACs this election cycle as “wrong and leads to our elected officials representing the views of wealthy donors.” So far in the 2014 election cycle, Super PACs, which can raise unlimited sums from donors, have spent $87.5 million and counting to influence election outcomes.”

It will only be through addressing this deficit of the people’s voice in politics that we will affect the choices made by those who hold power and are in a position to create law.

 

What Can You Do?

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there would be no limit on the amount that corporations could spend on political advertising. This case gave corporations the same rights as individuals. Then in the subsequent McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court overturned limits for individuals on aggregate federal campaign donations. The ruling noted that the only legitimate rationale for limiting campaign spending is to prevent quid pro quo corruption—essentially, the crime of bribery. But the problem of big money dominating our elections is far more profound than the narrowly defined crime of bribery.

The potential flood of spending on national elections threatens the foundation of our democracy. One of the best ways to address the undue influence of political money in the process of law and power is to change the ground rules through an amendment to the Constitution. The Udall Amendment (S.J.Res. 19) is one such vehicle for creating the 28th Amendment.

Call the Capitol Switchboard ( 202/224-3121) and ask to speak with your elected officials. (Go to http://capwiz.com/pcusa/dbq/officials/ to find out who your Senators and Congressperson are.)

Ask your elected officials for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that

  • Establishes that Congress and the states have the power to regulate and limit election spending
  • Overturns recent Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon and puts the voice and the power back in the hands of voters
  • Overturns the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling, which established the doctrine colloquially known as “money equals speech.”

Additional Resources

The 221st General Assembly (2014) approved an overture that the church should support financial and political reforms of the U.S. political and financial sector, including campaign finance reform. Learn more about this topic with the following resources.

 

Lo$ing Faith in Our Democracy: a Theological Critique of the Role of Money in American Politics

www.auburnseminary.org/mip

In this highly accessible 20-page report, ten theologians (from Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant and Jewish perspectives) reflect on what their traditions can teach Americans about how to use money in politics.

 

The Franciscan Action Network (FAN)

www.franciscanaction.org/money-politics

FAN is a grassroots organization seeking to transform United States public policy related to peace making, care for creation, poverty and human rights. Visit their website for multiple resources on campaign finance reform, as well as private prisons, gun control and climate change.

 

This article was originally published in Horizons: The Magazine of Presbyterian Women in September/October 2014. Reprinted with Permission. To Subscribe to Horizons, please visit http://horizons.pcusa.org.

 

Leslie Woods has served as Representative for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness since January 2007.  In this capacity, she advocates on behalf of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on matters related to poverty, hunger, health, human needs, federal budget, climate change, energy, food systems, and other environmental issues. She also coordinates the Internship and Fellowship for Public Witness Programs, the OPW’s service learning opportunities for young adults. Leslie is committed to ecumenical and interfaith cooperation, and enjoys strong partnerships with colleagues in the faith-based advocacy community, serving in leadership positions in several faith-based advocacy coalitions. Leslie holds a Master of Arts in Religion with a concentration in Hebrew Bible from Yale Divinity School and a B.A. from Randolph-Macon College.

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