American Politics

The People, the Press, and Other Special Interest Groups

You have probably seen the frequent vacillation of US policies, both domestic and foreign. You may also wonder why some politicians act against the national interest, fail to produce any idea that is logical, or simply appear as nuts by what they say. These represent the pressures exerted by many different interest groups, some having extreme ideas, trying to influence the direction of the country for better or for worse.

Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Note that democracy is never perfect, and is always work in progress for human governance. Let me explain why things happen the way they do in the United States, the world’s oldest democracy.

The simplest litmus test for democracy is that any citizen can voice his/her opinion without fear of retribution from the government. You will notice that many countries do not even allow criticism to take place. As far as the US is concerned, a citizen’s voice can be expressed anytime through the free press, the Internet, or by direct mail to politicians. On a regular basis, citizens cast their votes to elect their favorite politicians. During an election year, the politicians are more active. They come to the electoral districts to talk with ordinary folks in an effort to get reelected or to unseat the incumbent opponents.

The election cycle is two years for the US Representative, six years for the Senator, and four years for the President. So a Representative has only two years to show any accomplishment before re-election time comes around. A Senator has six years to do more work. The President has four years to show any results, but two years for the people to render a mid-term electoral judgment. Why? The reason is that every other cycle of the Representative election coincides with the four-year cycle of the President. As for the Senate, one-third of the total number of Senators is due for re-election every two years, which also coincides with the Representative cycle.

When a President messes up in the first two years, the public has a chance to voice its anger at his own political party in the Representative/Senate elections that fall right on the President’s mid-term. An example is the mid-term election of 2006 when the Iraq war deteriorated badly. The angry public punished the Republican Party by giving the majority to the Democratic Party in both the House and the Senate. A partial reversal came in the 2010 mid-term when the public, worried about government deficits, gave back the majority to the Republican Party in the House of Representatives, but not in the Senate. Each switch of majority in either the House or the Senate will bring about some major changes in policy and legislative agenda.

Apart from the elections and regular channels of communication where the people exert influence on the government, there is a third way, the so-called backdoor channel reserved for the rich and powerful, and the well-organized interest groups. They funnel money or favors to the politicians to obtain legislative concessions in return. Although this is considered outright corruption, it is permitted under a legal framework known as lobbying. The backdoor channel has always existed throughout human history because of greed and selfishness to gain unfair advantage over others. Corruption exists in every country. The difference is how big, how open, and how rampant is the problem.

Another simple litmus test for democracy is the presence of a free press. The responsibility of the free press is not only to scrutinize and criticize, but also to act independently and reject the pressures from government, big business, or other powerful interest groups. In other words, the free press should try to be the conscience of the people and a champion of the common good. In the past, the American press has done some great feats of conscience as follows:

It showed the rest of the country on television about racial oppression in the South in the early 1960’s. This solidified public opinion against racism still being practiced in some parts of America. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 can be attributed partly to the conscientious reporting of the press.

In the late 1960’s, Walter Cronkite filed a report after returning from Vietnam, declaring that the war was not winnable. This ran counter to the unrealistic views held by the military and the government. President Johnson later commented that when he lost Cronkite, he lost the support of “Middle America”, meaning the majority of the people.

During the Watergate investigations in the early 1970’s, two reporters, Bernstein and Woodward, relentlessly pursued the bugging acts initiated by the White House. This uncovered many illegal actions authorized by President Nixon. It eventually led to Nixon’s resignation, reaffirming that nobody should be above the law.

The above admirable feats of conscience make me wonder where is the free press nowadays. During the months leading up to the war of choice in Iraq, the American press did not seriously question its purpose and consequence. It did not ask how to keep the peace after winning the war. Were they just complacent? Did they allow themselves to be pushed around by the Bush Administration and the weapons dealers? Did they have a private agenda similar to Bush’s? Were they supposed to represent the people’s conscience?

Besides a free press, democracy cannot function without an engaging and critical population. This depends on the level of interest and awareness that enables a person to distinguish the truth from propaganda and misinformation. Recently, the public debates about the problems facing this country have been manipulated and twisted beyond reason, such as:
*Cut taxes for the rich and corporations in the name of job creation.
*Minimize business regulations in the name of job creation.
*Cut government spending in the name of job creation.
*Shut down the Environmental Protection Agency to create jobs.
*”Drill, baby, drill!” (To create jobs again? Are you tired of jobs now?)
*Climate change has little scientific foundation, so no need to develop alternative energy. Just let the oil industry create more jobs.
*Evolution has little scientific foundation, for it contradicts the Bible.
*Guns don’t kill, people do. (My question: Do people with guns kill more?)
*Fight for our freedom overseas (My answer: Nobody threatens our freedom more than our stupid reasoning).
*Government should privatize social security to give you more freedom to invest your retirement money in the stock market. (My question: What kind of freedom garbage is this? It will allow the investment companies to steal your retirement money).

The above are some of the twisted public debates going on. Can you figure out where the influence and distortion come from? I give you a list of some powerful interest groups at work:
*Oil industry
*Big corporations
*Wall Street
*Defense contractors, weapons makers/dealers
*The rich and powerful
*The National Rifle Association
*Evangelical Christians

Do you notice the common thread between all those misguided public debates? It’s an attempt to brainwash ordinary citizens who don’t share their special interests or convictions. Why? The special interest groups know that they are only a small minority that does not carry enough votes. They need to win more votes by hook or by crook, such as linking their own agenda to freedom and job creation that please the public. They are aware of their weakness in number. My concerns are: Do ordinary citizens understand their own strength in number and unity? Do they employ reason and common sense to understand the issues rather than accept brainwashing? Are they apathetic to the extent that voting does not matter anymore when the next election comes?

Since America is a vast country of diverse races and cultures, many different beliefs and visions co-exist that vary according to geography and cultural heritage. Politicians dedicated to advance the common good and the national interest should find a way to unite the people, rather than to divide them by manipulating their differences. Unfortunately, it seems that divide and conquer is the strategy being employed by most politicians right now. It does not serve the common good, nor the national interest.

The Three Branches of Government

Executive Branch

As head of the Executive Branch, the President has plenty of power but is circumscribed by the US Constitution, the actions of Congress, and the rulings of the Federal Courts. This is what they call the balance of power. The following examples illustrate:
*The House of Representatives approves the federal budget submitted by the White House.
*The Senate confirms all high-level appointments by the President.
*The Senate approves treaties or trade agreements negotiated by the Executive Branch with foreign governments.
*Any new laws proposed by the President must be approved by both the House and the Senate.
*The Supreme Court can strike down any law on grounds of violating the US Constitution.

On the other hand, the President has a lot of leeway in executing policies such as:
*Being Commander in Chief of the nation’s armed forces.
*Issue Executive Orders to implement policies without consulting Congress.
*Refuse to cooperate with Congress by citing “executive privilege”.
*Cast a veto on a new law passed by Congress that will require two-third majority in both the House and the Senate to override.
*Call a news conference to directly appeal to the people for support.
*Give a televised big speech in a joint session of Congress to attract popular support.

Judicial Branch

The power of the Judicial Branch is mainly vested in the nine Justices of the US Supreme Court, one of whom being the Chief Justice. They vote independently on any big issue. A majority vote confirms the legality of the issue. The Supreme Court takes up any issue they want to rule on. Normally, they refuse to rule on policy issues so as not to interfere with the legislative process. In addition, they try to avoid explosive issues that may divide the country such as slavery, racial segregation, and wars. Imagine if the Supreme Court ruled that slavery was illegal back in 1860, the American Civil War might not have taken place. The same may apply to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

Below the US Supreme Court are the District Courts representing the trial courts of the federal system handling appeal and bankruptcy cases. The whole country is divided into 94 federal judicial districts, which are in turn organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a US Court of Appeals.

Both the Supreme Court Justices and the District Court Judges are appointed by the President for life unless retired or incapacitated. Why for life? The reason is to ensure the independence of the Courts. Life appointment means being able to express a conviction without fear of being sacked. Thus personal integrity and philosophical orientation are very crucial job requirements. The Senate confirms all the high positions on the federal Courts. The stakes are high when a new vacancy appears because the appointee may remain in the federal Court for decades and influence policies to a great extent. The confirmation process is notoriously long because the Senators want to make sure that the new appointee will not undercut the agenda of their political parties.

Legislative Branch

The US Congress is divided into two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Any bill must pass both chambers to become law. The House controls the purse strings by approving the details of the federal budget. The Senate controls almost everything else including removing the President for big wrongdoing. Despite making laws for the whole country, the members of Congress are not elected by national vote. They are elected by a relatively small number of local people living in an electoral district in the state where they come from. This arrangement confirms the famous saying that “All politics is local”. It also explains why US policies sometimes run counter to the national interest such as building a bridge to nowhere in Alaska, because the Alaskan legislators want to milk federal money to return favors to their local constituents.

The House of Representatives has 435 members, each serving a two-year term. This number is apportioned to the 50 states according to population census data. California, being the most populous, has the biggest contingent of 53 US Representatives, followed by Texas (32), New York (29), and Alaska (1) being the least populous state. Due to this apportionment according to population, the voting results in the House tend to become a number’s game where the populous states dominate the outcomes.

The Senate partly addresses this number imbalance in the House by allowing equal representation. Each state has two US Senators with a six-year term. Thus Alaska has the same voting power as California despite being the least populous. Why such arrangement? We must remember that the US is a voluntary political union of 50 formerly independent states. A less populous state would not want to join for fear of being dominated by the bigger ones. That is why the US Constitution took ten years to negotiate between the states before being adopted long after independence from Great Britain.

Although numbers matter as described above, other factors also play an important role in shaping the power of the Legislative Branch. The most controversial one is money, because winning an election costs plenty. Finding big donors with no strings attached is hard. This is where big companies move in with bundles of money to buy what they want. Both political parties accept money from big business. This explains why most business laws cater to corporate interests rather than the national interest.

Another controversial factor is the geographical electoral districts established in the states where the members of Congress are elected. What determines the boundaries of those districts? Who has the power to draw the boundaries? Why the districts have weird boundaries and funny shapes? It’s a long story given what we have today. The unfairness of this system is that for most states, the legislators themselves draw the boundaries, known as gerrymandering. The purpose is to maximize the number of residents who are likely to vote for them. This is outright voting manipulation but is considered legal albeit grossly unfair. Some states have started reform by assigning the state court or an independent commission to redraw the boundaries of electoral districts, after securing a popular referendum to do so. In any case, the party that may lose votes after redistricting will scream, citing unfairness.

A third factor is personality, especially in the Senate. Many Senators have become very powerful due to their conviction, stubbornness, manipulative ability, family name, even old age. They master a lot of sway and influence for the passage of legislation. They are the ones the President needs to secure support if he wants something done in the Senate.

A fourth factor is the magic number 60. One Senate rule is that a bill can be debated in the Senate indefinitely unless being voted for cloture with a majority of 60 votes out of 100 total. Otherwise, the bill will languish in the Senate forever without being voted on. This is known as filibuster. It happens very seldom that a political party commands 60 votes in the Senate. Therefore, for any bill to have a chance to pass, a few undecided Senators must be persuaded to contribute to the 60 votes required for cloture. Then the bill will have a chance for a real vote on the floor. Some Senators like to play the game of holding out till the last minute so as to increase their influence.

A fifth factor is party influence that produces a lot of drama. In recent years, the two major parties, Democratic and Republican, have been engaging in a fierce ideological struggle. The result is that all the members of one party tend to vote in locked steps to oppose what the other party wants to do. The interest of the people does not matter anymore as shown in the recent fights in health care, the debt ceiling and the job creation package. No wonder recent polls show that public approval of Congress came down to as low as 20%.

(September 2011)

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