Was Reagan Right?

As an environmental activist, I have always viewed the federal government as an essential -- even leading -- cog in the organized effort to curb pollution and resource degradation.

It was therefore alarming to me that President Ronald Reagan's tart observation that "the 10 most frightening words in the English language are 'I'm from the federal government, and I'm here to help'" was beginning to make sense.

Of course, we were leery of federal intervention for different reasons. Reagan was hostile to big government on ideological grounds. He characterized the federal bureaucracy as an obstacle to economic freedom (and prosperity) because of excessive regulation, environmental and otherwise.

By contrast, I regarded the federal government to be an extension of the general public, in principle. Its presence was crucial because only Washington had the resources to mount a coordinated response to environmental threats transcending national and state borders.

My disillusionment stemmed from the increasing influence of big money on the functions of government. Wealthy corporate polluters were using hefty campaign contributions to co-opt federal politicians into blocking or unraveling environmental regulations that raised the cost of doing business.

The legislative calendar of the 114th Congress is testimony to that fact. A Republican congressional majority's wish list is filled with proposals to relax anti-pollution measures on the dubious grounds that electricity bills will soar and substantial job loss will otherwise occur.

In effect, it is a return on the investment of industry tycoons such as the Koch brothers, who funneled millions of dollars to Republican candidates in the 2014 elections. Also on the legislative docket with the Koch brothers' blessing: proposals to defund or block climate-change initiatives and remove the subsidies for renewable energy, a rival to the Koch fossil-fuel empire. It is a pattern that seems certain to continue, given the Koch brothers' professed intention to donate nearly $900 million to the 2016 national campaign.

On the floor of Congress, it is obvious where the Republican leadership is coming from. With a straight face, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell complains about the "powerful special interests" -- that is, the environmental community -- opposing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a pet project of the Koch brothers. McConnell knows full well who the real powerful special interests are. Using its great wealth, the fossil-fuel industry has blanketed the airwaves with pro-pipeline ads, swamping the occasional message in opposition.

To be fair, neither major political party is immune to being corrupted by barrels of cash. With that in mind, we must ask: What is to prevent the federal government from eventually becoming an oligarchy, focused on assuring the business world's freedom to pollute in the name of economic growth?

The best answer is obvious and has been articulated many times: Establish a dominant role for public campaign financing.