A fight in Congress over whether to renew the charter of the Export/Import Bank—an obscure government agency that supports the purchase of American products overseas with taxpayer-backed financing—illustrates that “crony capitalism” is alive and well in Washington today.
Some Americans believe that the Export/Import Bank gives special interests an unneeded leg up at the expense of small business and everybody else. Others think it helps our economy. And many have no opinion; we’re busy and we elect politicians to study these issues and vote based on their assessment of our best interests.
But to many politicians, this issue is an opportunity to fill their campaign coffers. Big businesses that profit from the bank’s low-interest loans want the government to keep funding it, and they’re willing to pay politicians to make sure that happens. For example, Boeing, one of the bank’s biggest beneficiaries, spent over $15 million to lobby politicians on the left and right in 2013. With the American people focused on more pressing issues, it gives politicians in both parties a free pass to sell their votes and save the bank.
While some Republicans are fighting back against crony capitalism in action, many of their congressional colleagues are happy to cash the checks in their place. In fact, some Democratic politicians have bragged to big business interests that the Democratic Party is now closer to the corporate agenda than the Republicans.
Now that the Supreme Court has given corporations and the powerful individuals who reap their profits free rein over our political process, we need elected officials who are committed to banishing crony capitalism from our public and private institutions for good. But can we trust politicians to focus on the public interest when evaluating big money issues like the Export/Import Bank—or the public-private college loan scheme, or sugar subsidies—when powerful corporate lobbyists stalk the halls of Congress as if they own it? And so much money in campaign contributions is at stake?
We can’t, and most Americans know it. Polling data shows that 68 percent of Americans believe “government and big business work together against the rest of us.” And they want to do something about it: another poll found that 87 percent of Americans thought that reducing corruption in the federal government was “extremely important.”
The way to stop crony capitalism and corruption is to get the big money out of politics. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has said that campaign cash is a form of “speech,” and corporations have the same constitutional rights as people.
But there is still hope. Later this year, the Senate will vote on a bill to amend the Constitution and get big money out of politics. We need to come together—Republicans, Democrats, and everyone else—and restore the Founders’ original understanding that freedom of speech doesn’t mean government for sale to the highest bidder.
This isn’t just about the Export/Import Bank. This issue is much bigger. It’s about reclaiming our democracy for ourselves and our country’s future.
Fein is legal director of Free Speech For People, a national nonpartisan nonprofit organization working to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn Citizens United. Bacon is a former legal intern at Free Speech For People.