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Bill McKibben, Buying Congress in 2012

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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Startling numbers of Americans are "underwater" -- homeowners and students alike -- and so, for that matter, is Congress, even if in quite a different way.  In these last years, it's been flooded with money.  Millionaires, including at least 10 centimillionaires, now make up nearly half of our representatives there, and as a group, they have been growing ever richer as Americans grow ever poorer.  Bad times?  Never heard of them.  Congress's median net worth rose by 15% between 2004 and 2010 -- and this news, in a recent front-page New York Times piece, hardly caused a stir.

Of course, everything is relative.  Compared to the giant energy companies, ours is a Congress of paupers.  After all, the Big Five oil outfits (BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell) announced a combined $36 billion in profits in the second quarter of 2011.  Exxon alone pulled in $10.7 billion (and spent more than half of those profits simply to buy back its own stock).  In the third quarter, the same five companies returned for an encore.  They made another $32.6 billion in profits, with Exxon at $10.3 billion (about half of which it again spent on stock buybacks).

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Out of a deep sense of civic-mindedness, they and other oil and gas companies have, in turn, showered Congress with their pocket change.  From 1989 through 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics' invaluable OpenSecrets.org website, oil and gas companies gave Republicans in Congress $126 million and Democrats $42 million.  Throw in a few hundred thousand dollars for the odd "independent," and you've got $169 million dollars of pure oil and gas generosity over that period, which for them, as Jackie Gleason might once have said, is a "mere bag of shells."

In case you're interested, you, the American taxpayer, through Congressional subsidies for the oil and gas industry, reach deep into your own pockets and pony up billions every year to support those poor dears.  And they turn around and pour what is, in essence, your money into the American electoral process to achieve the usual noble oil-and-gas ends.  And just how well does all of that work?  Here's a little surprise: oil company political action committees (PACs) handed out $1.2 million to members of the House of Representatives in the first six months of 2011 and let's not say "in return," but -- consider it an unrelated fact -- 94% of the House members who received such funds voted to keep those industry subsidies flowing.

Then, of course, there's the presidential race where, thus far, Rick Perry has raised $1.2 million from the energy sector, Mitt Romney $532,000, and Barack Obama $395,000.  (If you're talking just oil and gas, the figures are: Perry $648,000, Romney $274,000, and Obama $83,000.)  And that's just the beginning.  After all, we're officially only five days into presidential campaign 2012!  And here's the thing: you can't always tell just where oil and gas money is likely to pop up.  It might even, for instance, turn out to be behind the energy questions people have been asking in Iowa recently. 

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This is political (and corporate) life as we now know it, and most Americans are remarkably resigned to it.  Not Bill McKibben, TomDispatch regular and author most recently of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.  As he showed with the ongoing dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline, when he sets his mind to it, he has a way of making us take another look at the previously accepted and acceptable.  (To listen to Timothy MacBain's first Tomcast audio interview of the new year in which McKibben discusses how the rest of us can compete with a system in which money talks, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)  Tom

Armed With Naïvete
Time to Stop Being Cynical About Corporate Money in Politics and Start Being Angry

By Bill McKibben

My resolution for 2012 is to be naïve -- dangerously naïve.

I'm aware that the usual recipe for political effectiveness is just the opposite: to be cynical, calculating, an insider. But if you think, as I do, that we need deep change in this country, then cynicism is a sucker's bet. Try as hard as you can, you're never going to be as cynical as the corporations and the harem of politicians they pay for.  It's like trying to outchant a Buddhist monastery.

Here's my case in point, one of a thousand stories people working for social change could tell: All last fall, most of the environmental movement, including 350.org, the group I helped found, waged a fight against the planned Keystone XL pipeline that would bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Canada through the U.S. to the Gulf Coast. We waged our struggle against building it out in the open, presenting scientific argument, holding demonstrations, and attending hearings.  We sent 1,253 people to jail in the largest civil disobedience action in a generation.  Meanwhile, more than half a million Americans offered public comments against the pipeline, the most on any energy project in the nation's history.

And what do you know? We won a small victory in November, when President Obama agreed that, before he could give the project a thumbs-up or -down, it needed another year of careful review.  (The previous version of that review, as overseen by the State Department, had been little short of a crony capitalist farce.)  Given that James Hansen, the government's premier climate scientist, had said that tapping Canada's tar sands for that pipeline would, in the end, essentially mean "game over for the climate," that seemed an eminently reasonable course to follow, even if it was also eminently political. 

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A few weeks later, however, Congress decided it wanted to take up the question. In the process, the issue went from out in the open to behind closed doors in money-filled rooms.  Within days, and after only a couple of hours of hearings that barely mentioned the key scientific questions or the dangers involved, the House of Representatives voted 234-194 to force a quicker review of the pipeline.  Later, the House attached its demand to the must-pass payroll tax cut.

That was an obvious pre-election year attempt to put the president on the spot. Environmentalists are at least hopeful that the White House will now reject the permit.  After all, its communications director said that the rider, by hurrying the decision, "virtually guarantees that the pipeline will not be approved."

As important as the vote total in the House, however, was another number: within minutes of the vote, Oil Change International had calculated that the 234 Congressional representatives who voted aye had received $42 million in campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industry; the 193 nays, $8 million.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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