Where Are Today's Shirley Chisholms?

Members of Congress are either craven beggars or skillful shakedown artists. Perhaps both. What they are not is representatives of the American people.

These are strong words, and, of course, there are individuals in Congress to whom they certainly do not apply. But recent stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times paint an alarming portrait of what is actually happening in Congress with political action committees (PACs) and the spending pattern of lobbyists in connection with the pending financial services legislation.

On May 22, 2010, The Washington Post printed a front-page story about the shift in corporate PAC giving from the Democrats to the Republicans. In essence, many corporations are now betting that control of the Congress will shift from the Democrats to the Republicans in this November's midterm elections. The Washington Post reports that Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have launched an effort called "Sell the Fight," where their leadership has:

...met privately with corporate executives and lobbyists to argue that their giving has tilted too far toward Democrats and that they need to steer more money to industry-friendly GOP candidates in key races in 2010.

Congressman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) reportedly met with 80 corporate PAC leaders this spring to urge that they contribute more money to Republican campaign coffers. According to the Washington Post, he does not threaten anyone but says that "we're evaluating giving patterns." Subtle isn't it? Some might call this another shakedown of Corporate America.

And then there are the lobbyists. The New York Times on May 23, 2010, describes a:

nonstop fundraising cycle for members of the House Financial Services Committee, which has become a magnet for money from Wall Street and other deep-pocket contributors, especially as Congress moves to finalize the most sweeping new financial regulations in seven decades.

The story refers to $1.7 billion in contributions over the last decade:

with much of it going to the financial committees that oversee the industry's operations. In return, the financial sector has enjoyed virtually front-door access and what critics say is often favorable treatment from many lawmakers.

What is going on here? Why do the American people -- the real voters, since PACs, corporations and labor unions can't vote -- tolerate this situation? These PAC contributions are not like charitable contributions to a United Way campaign: they are given for purposes of buying access and influence. There may not be an illegal quid pro quo -- a contribution exchanged for a vote -- but there can be no denying the appearance of corruption that now characterizes our system of money and politics.

The fact is that such contributions are given with an expectation of something in return. In the 1970s in Dade County, Florida, a Judicial Trust Fund was established on a voluntary basis to address the issue of attorney contributions to state judicial elections. Guess what happened? When the link between the contribution and the contributor was severed, the funds dried up. Similar results occurred in other efforts around the country to establish such blind trusts. Such contributions by clearly interested parties are made only where there is an expectation of receiving credit.

When I was eighteen, I spent a week in Washington learning about government. I was with a small group of students who met the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), the first African-American woman elected to Congress. She impressed me with her candor and her no-nonsense approach to representing her constituents.

Congresswoman Chisholm said that she made every effort to listen to her constituents, but she was not a mere cipher or adding machine who tallied up the majority view. Ultimately, she said, her vote was based on what she believed was best -- for her constituents and her country. And then she added that if enough of her constituents had a different view, they could replace her with someone else. She served for seven terms (1969-1983) and titled her 1970 autobiography Unbought and Unbossed.

How refreshing! What is it about our system today that precludes more Shirley Chisholms in Congress?

Today's frantic money chase in American elections -- including at the state level for supposedly objective and independent judges -- has become a national embarrassment. Our elected leaders show few signs of changing a system which many have grown to like. A more sincere and useful form of populism today might help clean up this mess rather than perpetuate it.

Some years ago, when Senator John McCain said on the Senate floor that all Senators were corrupt, then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell challenged him to name the names and votes. Quid pro quos are, fortunately, extremely rare, but what we find in today's elected representatives are too many instances of the "bought" and the "bossed."