With emergency unemployment benefits set to expire on Friday, congressional Republicans have made their top economic priority clear: protecting companies that expose their workers to the virus from lawsuits. “Liability protections would be the number one thing I would look at,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, discussing the possibility of a new stimulus. “No bill will pass without it.” On the Senate side, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has described shielding companies from liability as “my red line going forward.”
That ultimatum is all the more remarkable coming in an election year. Even setting aside the immorality of this position, why would politicians whose jobs are on the line care more about protecting corporations from lawsuits than protecting their constituents from a potentially fatal disease?
The answer, while disheartening, is simple: Politicians now have powerful new incentives to prioritize the welfare of their corporate constituents over that of the human beings they represent. Most Americans aren’t aware just how radically our system of government has been altered. But today, as coronavirus ravages the country, we are seeing these structural changes at work.
One of the most striking features of our new system of government is the way it relies on the private sector to shape public policy. In 1950, lobbying organizations in Washington spent about $112 million in today’s dollars. By the end of the century, that had leapt to $1.45 billion. During George W. Bush’s eight years in office alone, lobbying spending more than doubled to $3.31 billion, where it has roughly plateaued since. (This doesn’t even include the money spent on “grassroots” advocacy campaigns, Capitol Hill happy hours, or industry-friendly think tanks and nonprofits.)
As the number of private sector policymakers exploded, the number of public sector policymakers plunged. According to the scholars Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, the number of non-administrative congressional jobs fell by 25 percent between 1979 and 2015. Thanks primarily to changes implemented by Newt Gingrich after the Republican Revolution of 1994, the deepest cuts were made to congressional committees, which provide institutional knowledge and policy expertise, and to in-house think tanks like the Congressional Research Service.
As a result of the shrinking public sector and swelling private sector, in the mid-2000s America hit an alarming milestone: The amount of money spent lobbying Congress is now larger than the budget for Congress itself. To put it slightly differently, the majority of people in D.C. who shape legislation for a living—including the stimulus now being negotiated in Congress—represent private interests. It’s hardly surprising that the details of that bill may fail to protect the public.
In the last 10 years, the corporate takeover of the legislative process has been made even easier by a corporate takeover of political campaigns. Prior to 2010, there were strict limits on how much money businesses, and the wealthy individuals who own them, could invest in candidates. But thanks to Citizens United and a wave of similar Supreme Court decisions that followed, those restrictions are almost completely gone. Today, companies and wealthy individuals can donate as much money as they like to politicians and political causes. Because they can give in secret, it’s impossible to say just how much the private sector is now spending on elections. All we know for certain is that it’s an enormous sum—even compared to just a few years ago.
In fairness, Chief Justice John Roberts was remarkably clear-eyed about what our new campaign finance system might entail for our country. In a 2014 ruling, Roberts admitted the “possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials or political parties.” But he dismissed any concerns arising from such an arrangement, arguing that the exchange of campaign contributions for influence “does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption.”
In layman’s terms, what Citizens United has done is turn voters into shareholders, where the amount of influence they hold is directly tied to the amount of money they’ve invested. Thanks to Roberts and his allies, politicians who put the concerns of businesses and their owners ahead of public health aren’t ignoring their constituents. They’re paying attention to the constituents the Court has deemed most important.
Meanwhile, the same redesigned system of government that has made a handful of individuals and businesses more politically powerful than ever has left millions of Americans without any voting rights at all. Since 1980, the number of legally disenfranchised Americans has more than doubled. Even those who technically have voting rights find those rights harder to exercise than at any time since the end of Jim Crow. Sweeping purges have removed millions of registered citizens from the voter rolls. Polling place closures have disproportionately affected nonwhite-majority neighborhoods. “Exact match” standards for mail-in votes can invalidate legal ballots after they’ve been cast.
It’s important to note that the same Supreme Court that gave us Citizens United, enshrining the rights of corporations and wealthy donors, gutted the Voting Rights Act three years later. In theory, Americans can hold accountable politicians who fail to represent their interests. But in practice, we’ve replaced voting rights with what President Trump recently referred to as a “voting privilege.” When McCarthy and McConnell put corporate health above public health, they’re reflecting this new reality. Corporations are guaranteed political power. People are not.
Fortunately, it’s not too late to reverse this trend. A single federal law could create new transparency requirements for lobbyists; reverse cuts to public sector policy-making staffs; vastly expand our public campaign financing system; make voter registration automatic nationwide, and more. Far more than any politician’s proclivities or ideological trend, structural changes to our democracy are the reason that Republicans in Congress are more concerned about companies facing lawsuits then workers facing double-digit unemployment or frontline health-care workers facing a resurgent pandemic. Undoing those structural changes is the best way to compel politicians to once again put their constituents’ interests first.
As lawmakers hammer out the newest stimulus, they aren’t just debating the particulars of a bill. They’re choosing between two very different notions of who our democracy is meant to serve. Will we restore a government of, by, and for the people, or will we fully transition to a government of the fortunate few? The dismantling of our democracy is responsible for our disastrous coronavirus response. Today, as the virus rages and case counts rise, reforming that democracy is a matter of life and death.