By Ralph Nader
If your next-door neighbors were the U.S. Congress, spending your income and using their power to influence your life, would you pay close attention to them?
Over the past several weeks, Congress has been the focal point of much controversy for its inability to come together on a comprehensive fiscal cliff deal until the absolute final hour. More and more Americans are becoming aware — and upset — about the systemic gridlock in Congress, which results in the failure to solve or even address numerous major problems that plague our country. Issues such as the stagnant minimum wage, the bloated military budget, undeclared wars, the corporate crime wave, the business plunder of Medicare, corporate welfare sprees and many others. Consider the governing power that Congress possesses — the power to raise or lower taxes, the power to spend, the power to declare war, the power to give away your public lands, airwaves, and taxpayer dollars to wealthy corporations looking to widen their profit margins, the power to investigate and hold hearings, the power to oversee the executive branch, the power to impeach, and the power to confirm cabinet nominees and federal judges. Congress is the most powerful branch of government which is why it’s the branch with the most dire need for citizen oversight.
There are 535 members of Congress, 100 senators, and 435 representatives who represent about 650,000 people each. The job of all of these elected officials is to represent the interests of the people. But the voices of the majority of the American people are not heard on issues that matter to them most, particularly when it comes to their senators and representatives. A lack of pressure from the people back home has created an opportunity for mostly commercial entities to use their lobbying power with limitless campaign money, influencing members of Congress to back their own material interests. These entities are, of course, the major corporations, whose executives socialize with them, go on vacation with them, and offer them high-paying jobs when they retire from their seats. If a member of Congress doesn’t serve the interests of the corporation, they can find some primary or general election candidate who does.
In short, the corporations have a vice grip on the electoral and governmental process; they have seized the power to make decisions for the American people. In fact, back in 2000, a Business Week poll revealed that over 70 percent of Americans believed that corporations had “too much control over their lives” — and that was well before the Wall Street collapse, the bailouts, and casino capitalism’s recession. But the ace-in-the-hole that the corporations do not have is as simple as it is plainly stated in the preamble of the United States Constitution — “We the People.” The corporations do not have the ability to vote. Consider what good fortune it is for the corporations that only half of Americans take advantage of this sovereign right. Apathy tilts the power balance right back in the corporate favor.
In 2009, the Tea Party movement revolted against the bureaucratic forces of Washington. Its effect was jolting, penetrating into the mainstream media and shaking up the political orientation of Congress to this day. The rebranded Tea Party members of Congress have managed to maintain sufficient power to stall any momentum in areas that don’t meet their philosophy. But consider this surprising fact about the Tea Party movement — a few years back the Washington Post attempted to tally up the members of the various Tea Party groups around the United States and could find little more than 300,000 active members. That’s less then half of the population of one Congressional district. All that political momentum was gathered up by a small but extremely vocal minority. It is long overdue for an organized political movement, representing tens of millions of workers, to rise up with far more determination and tenacity. It’s easier than one might think.
What is needed the most for the progressive movement is the establishment of congressional watchdog groups, each representing one of the 435 congressional districts in America. Imagine the enormous power that just one thousand people in each Congressional district could wield. If each member of the watchdog group agreed to an agenda that supports a better and more just society — throwing their support behind vital issues such as clean elections, full Medicare for all, a living wage, tax reformations, stronger enforcement on corruption and corporate crime, etc. — the spark would ignite a flame in these long neglected areas. The congressional watchdog groups would have three primary goals: to enlist more members, groups and supporters in each district, to coordinate with other districts in mutually beneficial campaigns, and, most importantly, to work tirelessly so that all 535 members of Congress are aware of their agenda, and, ideally, come to support it. That’s all it would take — just a small percentage of the population to agree on issues that are most important, overdue, backed by “public sentiment” (Lincoln’s words) and to organize around them. History has shown that this technique can be enormously effective in countering the corporate supremacists, but only through unity and diligence.
Too many Americans feel a common sense of exclusion, powerlessness, and betrayal by those in Washington whom they’ve given the authority to govern. Congress bickered into the late hours on New Year’s Eve because the will of the people wasn’t made clear. If enough people come together on Congress, district by district, and use their power as public citizens, always reminding their elected officials that the Constitution begins with “We the People” and not “We the Corporations,” it could lead to a true, American renaissance. The time is now.
Who can stop the people from trying, step by step?