Thursday, May 21, 2015 Conversation on Money in Politics: Buying a Seat at the Negotiating Table: Money and Trade Agreements

This week, May 18-22, Leslie Woods, Representative for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness, is guest-hosting a conversation on money in politics on Today's article is written by OPW Young Adult Volunteer Jenny Hyde, looking at the way corporations and private money influences international trade.

The United States is currently in the midst of negotiating two major trade deals. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would seek to build new bridges with Asia-Pacific economies, and an E.U.-U.S. agreement, commonly known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would expand the U.S.’ trading relationship with Europe. The Obama Administration has publicly announced its hope to secure both deals before elections in 2016.
Together, the TPP and TTIP stand to affect a massive portion of the global economy. The TPP alone is predicted to impact approximately 46 percent of the global GDP.  While the White House has hailed the TPP as being the “most progressive trade agreement in history” – one intrinsic element is certainly not progressive: the pervasive influence of money at the negotiating table.
When trade agreements are put into effect, they have a direct impact on the livelihood of individuals residing inside trading nations. As an economic mechanism, trade can be used to grow and expand economies around the world.  Over the years, however, trade agreements have grown from simply covering tariffs, to rewriting the rules for environmental, health, and labor regulations. Therefore, it is fundamentally important that potential trade agreements reflect the interests of a state, and its economic sector. In order to synthesize the construction of trade agreements in the U.S., advisory committees meet to determine what terms of trade would best suit public welfare. These committees report to Administration officials who then proceed in international negotiations.
According to a noteworthy piece published by the Washington Post, of the 566 members on advisory committees, private industry and trade groups make up a combined 85 percent of voices at the table. The other 15 percent of voices represent small clusters of academics, labor groups, government agents and NGOs. The balance between civil society groups, and the interests of private corporations is seemingly non-existent in this make-up.
Moreover, the TPP has received a great amount of criticism for its lack of transparency. While the 566 advisory committee members receive access to the text, the public at large is kept out of the loop. What little knowledge that has been released on the agreement is the result of WikiLeaks, despite a multitude of requests from politicians and civil society groups demanding otherwise. Several years of negotiations later, the TPP still remains under a veil of secrecy.
What can be witnessed through the TPP, however, is an evolution of society’s understanding of trade. As the private sector has managed to gain greater access to government decision making processes, trade has gone from being viewed as a public good, to a business transaction made among wealthy people and multi-national corporations. And as a result of this normative shift, we now see feedback on trade agreements from civil society groups all too often labeled as an inconvenience for decision makers.  In pursuit of streamlining the trade negotiating process, corporations have been invited to the table, while everyday folks are left out of discussions.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of many strong voices against the TPP, has questioned the validity of such secrecy in light of the trade deal’s major impending repercussions. The Senator reflects, “If the American people would be opposed to a trade agreement if they saw it, then that agreement should not become the law of the United States.” While corporations are able to protect their interests under the current system, other voices have been devalued. As we are repeatedly seeing in the U.S. today, the divide between rich and poor threatens the pursuit of equal representation in our society.
Concern over this lack of input is quite justified, as major trade deals of the past have wreacked havoc on both developed and developing economies. NAFTA and CAFTA for example, both of which contain many parallels to the TPP and TTIP, have earned reputations for their negative externalities. Jobs in the US have moved overseas, while push factors for migration have increased. The treatment of workers and the environment in developing countries have become secondary interests to the pursuit of profits, and as a result, tragic headlines have repeatedly topped news cycles. With no promise of evaluating trading partners based on their human rights records, or tangible enforcement mechanism upholding standards for livelihood in economies different from our own, current terms of trade may no longer be in the public’s best interest.
How, then, do we avoid mistakes of the past, and seek to reclaim trade as an empowering economic tool? The answer may be as simple as giving trade back to the people it impacts. The problem persists, however, that there is little incentive to change the predominant trend of neoliberal decision making. Neoliberalism, since the 1980′s, can be defined as extensive economic liberalization to enhance the role of the private sector in our the economy. Within neoliberalism, deregulation incentivizes profit-makers to further exploit both people and the earth because they have much to gain and little to lose.
A resource from Share the World states, “The crucial first step towards reclaiming democratic power is therefore to curb the influence of corporations on policy making at the local, national and global levels.” As a society, we need to reclaim our role as citizens actively invested in the impacts of trade legislation. Not only this, but we need to advocate on behalf of poor and marginalized people, both among us and overseas. The voices that are not privileged enough to be heard are often those who are the most  adversely impacted. In Washington D.C. and elsewhere, the faith community has sought to make the negotiating table open for all, and it is important that it continue to do so as the TPP and TTIP move forward.
While the task of separating money and trade is a daunting one, our faith calls us to a task greater than ourselves. In the model for community we see outlined in scripture, no one is exploited or neglected for another’s personal gain. Let it be so as we seek trade justice, and seek to reclaim trade agreements as instruments of peace, made to uphold the beauty of all of God’s creation.
A seat at the table should not be bought by power or influence, but earned because of the inherent dignity of each person on earth.

Jenny Hyde graduated from Gordon College in Massachusetts, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She hopes to pursue a career in economic development, with a particular interest in post-communist contexts.  Jenny currently serves as a Young Adult Volunteer at the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, in Washington, DC, working primarily on issues related to trade justice.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015 Conversation on Money in Politics: Caught in the Net of Corporate Greed: Our Immigrant Sisters and Brothers

This week, May 18-22, Leslie Woods, Representative for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness, is guest-hosting a conversation on money in politics on Today's article is written by OPW Young Adult Volunteer AmyBeth Willis, exploring the links between for-profit corporations and the incarceration of immigrants. 

“You cannot serve God and wealth.” – Matthew 6:24b
At any given time in the United States of America, 34,000 jail beds are made ready for immigrants to fill. According to the April 2015 report by the advocacy group Grassroots Leadership ‘Payoff: How Congress Ensures Private Prison Profit with an Immigrant Detention Quota’, sixty-two percent of these beds are now operated by private prison corporations, which rake in millions of profits from government contracts. Immigrants are now the largest market for these corporations.
Moreover, millions of dollars have been poured into the federal justice system to fund  the salaries of privately contracted defense attorneys, for example and into internal immigration enforcement, to accommodate the arrest, prosecution, detention, and deportation of immigrants. Immigrant detention has contributed to the 500 percent increase in our nation’s incarcerated population. In 2013, immigrants made up 10 percent of the federal prison population. This mass detention of immigrants has helped to increase the number of deportations. Under the Obama Administration, two million people have been deported. [1] This system is an affront to the Christian values of acting justly and welcoming the stranger.
The boom in modern immigrant detention began in the 1980s when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now the Department of Homeland Security, DHS) signed a contract with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to detain immigrants in response to the surge of immigrants from Central America. In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act mandated that undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions be detained without bond; it also removed judicial discretion to review asylum cases of undocumented border crossers.
After September 11, 2001, INS was renamed the Department of Homeland Security and split into U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This blurred the distinction between civil and criminal immigration enforcement. At the same time, from 2004 to 2012 the number of Border Patrol Agents on the ground rose by 85 percent, increasing apprehension capacity. [2]
The Immigrant Detention Bed Quota
In the mid-1990’s our country detained around 7,000 immigrants per day. Between 2000 and 2006, the number of detained immigrants hovered around 20,000. In 2009, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) added language to the Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 Appropriations bill instituting a quota of 33,400 detention beds. It has been renewed in the yearly federal budget since then, increasing to 34,000 in 2013. The market has caught up with this demand through the expansion of the private prison industry; its size has risen by 47 percent in the last ten years.[3]
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement maintains 82 detention centers across the nation to hold immigrants under removal proceedings. In fiscal year 2014, 32,163 immigrants were detained per day; this costs taxpayers two billion dollars per year, or five million dollars per day. [4]
The centers are concentrated in Arizona, Texas, and Georgia, with the rest scattered throughout the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast. In addition, the Federal Bureau of Prisons incarcerated 19,100 immigrants found in violation of federal immigration laws in 2013. This is separate from those detained by ICE under deportation proceedings.
Private Prison Industry Control
Out of eight private prison corporations, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group dominate the private prison industry; currently they each run twelve ICE-contracted facilities. Together they run eight out of the ten largest immigrant detention facilities in the nation. Since the implementation of the bed quota, CCA saw its profits rise from $133 million in 2007 to $195 million in 2014. In the same period, GEO Group’s profits rose by 244 percent from $41.8 million to $143.8 million. [5]
CCA and GEO Group’s domination of the industry did not occur by accident. From their start, both companies have captured the immigrant detention market through federal lobbying. Between 2008 and 2014, together they spent $16 million dollars. At the same time, the private prison industry donated “over $132,000 in campaign contributions to members of Congress on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, the birthplace and point of control for the immigrant detention quota.”[6]
Other companies stand to gain from increases in immigrant detention. G4S Wackenhut, a security company connected to GEO Group, also profits from the increased enforcement and detention of undocumented immigrants. They were first subcontracted in 2006 to transport immigrants to Border Patrol Stations after being apprehended in the borderlands. Their contract was renewed in 2013 for $234 million dollars. Once under Border Patrol custody, immigrants are detained for three or four days, often subjected to abuse anddeprived of food or water.
Why Detain?
Although patterns of migration to the United States ebb and flow with U.S. economic productivity, the government maintains that detention is a deterrent to future immigration. [7] A 2013 report “In the Shadow of the Wall,” published by the University of Arizona and George Washington University “found that the majority of migrants intended to cross again, that the effect of deterrence was difficult to measure, and that deterrence has a limited impact compared with other factors such as family and economic need.”[8] As deterrence policies gain steam, migrants attempt to cross through more dangerous and remote terrain, resulting in more deaths on the border.[9]
More than detention itself, the increasing privatization of these prisons is hailed as a cost saving mechanism. However, Gary Mead, a former ICE Executive Associate Director for Enforcement and Removal Operations, admitted that no independent studies have verified whether private prisons really cut costs.[10]
The government also claims that many immigrants present a flight risk as they undergo removal proceedings and therefore need to be detained. [11] Yet, the rise in apprehensions and detention has meant that the average wait time for a final ruling in an immigration court case is 550 days, greatly prolonging that detention.
Policies Promote Apprehension and Subsequent Incarceration
Policies such as Secure Communities and Operation Streamline and aggressive state laws such as S.B. 1070 in Arizona assist in the criminalization, apprehension, and detention of immigrants.
Secure Communities (S-Comm) was implemented in 2008 to aid the collaboration between the FBI and local law enforcement to detect national security threats. However, ICE uses it to enforce the nation’s immigration laws. When someone is arrested, their fingerprints are searched against  a national database to identify immigration violations. The program PEP-Comm, Priority Enforcement Program, replaced S-Comm in early 2015, but several of its problematic aspects remain.
In 2005, Operation Streamline began in Del Rio, Texas to fast track the prosecution of border crossers en masse. Six U.S/Mexico border cities followed suit, citing Streamline as a strategy to deter migration. In Tucson, Monday through Friday, up to 70 migrants are charged with illegal reentry, convicted and sentenced to one to six months of jail time within a short afternoon proceeding. Now, the majority of defense attorneys for migrants are privately contracted.[12] This initiative costs Arizona $120 million in court proceedings.[13] Yuma, Arizona, recently rolled back its use of Streamline because of exorbitant costs.
The state of Arizona passed S.B. 1070 in 2010 to re-classify state crimes related to immigration or legal status. CCA as a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization of state legislators, large corporations and corporate associations, was a part of the task force that drafted the law. [14] Thirty of the thirty-six legislators who co-sponsored the bill received contributions from three different private prison corporations.[15] S.B. 1070, dubbed the “show me your papers” law, encouraged local police officers to identify residents they suspect to be undocumented. Since its implementation, it has resulted in rampant racial profiling of Latinos in the state. In 2012, the Supreme Court did not challenge the “show me your papers” part of the law; this meant racially motivated stops and incarceration have continued. Copycat state legislation in Utah, Georgia, Indiana, Alabama, and South Carolina followed, but courts have struck down the harshest parts of these laws.[16]
Family Detention
One of the most egregious forms of immigrant detention re-entered the stage last summer: family detention. Thousands of Central American families (68,684 family units arrived here in 2014) fled from violence, gang activity, and poverty to our borders, seeking a safe haven. ICE, at the Obama Administration’s direction, began to detain these mothers and children. Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, claims that, “family detentions were meant to send a signal to other immigrants that they would not be simply released into the U.S. if they crossed the border.”[17] According to the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the majority of these families would qualify for asylum with proper legal representation.
This also has not occurred by accident– CCA and GEO Group lobbied heavily to secure contracts for family detention centers in South Texas. In June of 2014, family detention bed capacity was 90; by June of 2015 around 4,000 beds will be available. [18]
Advocates visiting these facilities have documented dehydrated and undernourished children. CCA operates the massive, 2,400 bed South Texas Family Residential Center, which opened in Dilley, Texas, in December of 2014. Recently, a group of mothers at the Karnes County Residential Center (operated by GEO Group) in Karnes City, Texas, have gone on two separate hunger strikes to protest the impact of incarceration on their children, as well to bring to light the harsh conditions, and the mistreatment by officials in the facility. [19] In 2009, the Obama administration closed the T. Don Hutto Residential Center (managed by CCA) in Taylor, Texas; there, children were forced to wear prison garb and access to medical care and nutrition was inadequate. [20]
Our Faith Call
Immigrant detention flies in the face of the core values of our Christian faith. For God calls us in Exodus 22:21 to not “mistreat or oppress a foreigner.” We also must recognize and welcome Christ in the stranger (Matthew 25:35). Jesus warns us in Matthew 6:24 that “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and money.” Privatized immigrant detention is a glaring example of how our nation’s policies serve moneyed interests over the common good. The very essence of corporations whose profits grow through the exploitation of immigrants is sinful. Thousands of our migrant brothers and sisters pay the price of this greed.

AmyBeth Willis hails from Murfreesboro, TN, and is a 2013 graduate of Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  In college, she studied Sociology, Religion and Spanish.  She spent the 2013-2014 year as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, AZ.  She is currently serving her second YAV year in the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, in Washington, DC. She is passionate about the connection between her faith and justice work, especially in the areas of immigration, advocacy, and education.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015 Conversation on Money in Politics: Breaking the Chains Between Campaign Finance and Private Prisons

This week, May 18-22, Leslie Woods, Representative for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness, is guest-hosting a conversation on money in politics on A new article will be posted each day. Here is Emerson Hunger Fellow Nora Leccese's piece on the connection between money in politics and private prison profiteering. 


“[The Abolition of private prisons] is a cornerstone of our collective work to put justice back into the so-called criminal justice system.” This bold statement made in 2003 by the 215th General Assembly (2003) is still resonant over a decade later as the U.S. continues to invest heavily in private prisons. Despite documented human rights abuses and fiscal mismanagement, there are nearly twice the number of federal prisoners incarcerated in private facilities today as there were in 2001. The massive transfer of taxpayer dollars to the coffers of private prison operators has broken state budgets, torn families apart, and has failed to make our communities measurably more secure. Why, then, are we investing in for-profit prisons at unprecedented rates? Part of the answer lies in the substantial power and influence accrued to private prison operators by lavish campaign contributions and lobbying efforts. In order to renew our democracy and reform our criminal justice system, we must sever the link between campaign finance and the privatization of the prison industry.
Today, the U.S. incarcerates 2.1 million people at any given time; according to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.” Over the past 40 years, our prison population has grown exponentially due in part to a strict punitive measures enacted as part of the War on Drugs in the 1980’s which imposed mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. As social programs were systematically stripped and city infrastructure left to crumble, the forgotten residents of many inner cities faced intense scrutiny for rising crime rates and drug use. Although this social injustice can be traced back to historical disinvestment and the outcome of legacies of racism in communities of color, the state response was to criminalize the drug user.  As described by activist and intellectual Angela Davis, “We began to see the prison emerge as a major institution to address the problems that were produced by the deindustrialization, lack of jobs, less funding into education, lack of education, the closedown of systems that were designed to assist people who had mental and emotional problems.”
As a result of the crackdown on crime, prison populations and budgets began to swell in the early 1980’s and a faction of enterprising prison administrations saw an opportunity to privatize incarceration, thereby making it profitable. Their pitch was that the private sector could warehouse inmates at a fraction of the cost (this has since proved to be untrue in most cases) of public prisons, which was an appealing argument to cash and capacity-strapped states. Since that time, corporations have reaped huge profits from prison construction, management, and from the provision of subcontracted services to prisoners (food, health care, pay phones); the market for calls made from prison pay phones alone is estimated at $1 billion a year. Yet another source of profit is prison labor; a wide variety of companies—including such familiar ones as Victoria’s Secret, Dell, Motorola, and Microsoft—have taken advantage of the low cost, and armed supervision, of prison labor. The success of prison privatization was no mere accident; it was a bitter cocktail of conservative, tough-on-crime ideology and enterprising private prison barons who sought to cement the demand for their services in the rule of law.
Since 2000, the three largest private prison companies—CCA, GEO and Cornell Companiesi—have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates, including Senators and Members of the House of Representatives. Giving to state level politicians during the last five election cycles was much higher: $6,092,331. Data maintained by the National Institute on Money in State Politics also reveal the following about private prison campaign contributions: Between 2003 and 2011, CCA contributed to over 600 state candidates, and GEO contributed to over 400.  Both corporations have established their own Political Action Committees (PACs). These companies backed a high proportion of candidates who ultimately won elections, which may indicate a strategy of focusing contributions on candidates likely to wield power, not a comprehensive partisan agenda.
Examples of private prison contracts awarded in the wake of private-prison funded campaigns riddle the landscape of electoral politics, and are not corralled on one side of the aisle.
  • Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) accepted at least $60,000 from people directly connected to the Corrections Corporation of America, and Arizona has lead the country in the expansion and privatization of detention centers for undocumented immigrants.
  • An examination of campaign finance records shows that GEO Group gave over $11,000 in contributions directly to the campaigns of 14 of the 20 members of the Florida state Budget Committee that approved a massive prison privatization bill, by a vote of 14-4. Since 2006, GEO Group has spent a total of $1.3 million in campaign contributions in Florida alone and has been rewarded with hearty new contracts for prison healthcare.
  • In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown (D) of California received $54,000 from GEO for his reelection campaign. As reported in Truthout, in April 2014, California subsequently contracted with GEO Group to open a 260-bed women’s prison. The contract allows GEO to double the number of beds, potentially increasing its four-year revenue from $38,132,640 to $66,394,276 in California.
The influence of corporate dollars is evident not only in allotment of federal and state contracts, but in the crafting of legislation itself.  One of the primary tools of the private prison sector is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which is a collection of about 2000 legislators and corporate leaders.  They meet once a year to draft model legislation intended for introduction in state houses around the country.
The ALEC yearly meeting, attended by Arizona lawmakers and CCA executives, produced the language for Arizona Senate Bill 1070 which required police to detain anyone suspected of being undocumented. Such detentions led to a swelling demand for detention centers, and a predictable call by Arizona legislators to build more detention facilities.
It is a sly relationship between politicians and corporate executives. Elected officials are careful not to exchange contracts for exact dollar amounts, only to align their platform with business priorities and create opportunities to expand the domain of prison privatization. As long as politicians privilege the demands of this industry over the needs of their own constituents there can be no justice in the United States. And without justice, there can be no peace.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Leslie Woods hosts 'Money in Politics' conversation on

This week, May 18-22, Leslie Woods, Representative for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness, is guest-hosting a conversation on money in politics on A new article will be posted each day. Leslie's introductory piece is below, "To Change the Power Behind the Law."

“In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”
– Luke 18:3-5
Having served in the ecumenical advocacy community for nearly 10 years, I find that I need ways to keep my spirits up. The work of advocacy (as a good friend of mine says) is a marathon, not a sprint. At times, the long, grinding haul of justice-making seems hopeless. But as the prophet Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
One of my favorite biblical reminders of the power of tenacity is the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. In Luke 18:1–8, Jesus tells the story of a widow seeking justice against her adversary from a judge who does not “fear God or care for people.” The widow keeps coming back, demanding justice, until finally the judge grants her suit—not because she convinces him of the merits of her case, but because her continual advocacy wearies him. She eventually receives justice through her persistence—a potent reminder to all of us who engage in advocacy for justice.
But what if the unjust judge were being paid to deny justice? What if the unjust judge, in order to keep his position of power, needed to refuse the merits of the widow’s case? What if her adversary was not simply the lone judge, but the political or social engine that empowered the judge and benefitted from the judge’s rulings? What then would have happened to the widow and her quest for justice?
In all likelihood, she would have been denied justice. The judge would have continued to ignore her just case and appeased the special interest backing his power. Regardless of what the widow said or did, the judge would have denied her justice.
The Shifting Paradigm of Advocacy
Of course, rewriting Bible stories is not what we do in the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, where I serve as the Representative for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues. We advocate for justice. In the nearly ten years that I have been doing faith-based advocacy, I have worked on antipoverty programs, the federal budget and tax code, justice for workers, economic inequality, health care reform, environmental justice, climate disruption, clean energy, food justice, violence against women and children, public education and immigration.
It is a broad portfolio and there have been some true victories for justice during my tenure. But more and more, I find that my workshops include an admonition that sounds something like “If we don’t work to get the special interest money out of politics, we will never achieve a ____ bill.” In the blank space, name your favorite justice issue: comprehensive immigration reform, a national climate justice plan, tax reform, gun violence prevention, prison reform or any other of the myriad fundamental reform concerns. These pressing justice issues have caught the attention of advocates, but have also caught the interest of special interest groups who are willing to spend to bring about particular outcomes. For true justice, we must first reduce the undue influence of special-interest spending in policymaking.
Law and Power
Which comes first: law or power? Certainly, laws need power to be enforced. But for this article, I am more interested in the power at play while a law is being made. When the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) speaks to the creation of laws, our positions are rooted in Christian values and the authority of Presbyterian General Assemblies. Many advocacy groups speak to the creation of laws out of conviction or concern for the welfare of others. Still others speak out of self-interest or special interest. Some special interests—though by no means all—speak to the creation of laws with a goal of furthering profit or currying favor. Even nefarious ends may propel a person or group to speak to the creation, continuation or repeal of a law.
It frequently comes down to what creates power. Is it, as suggested above, morality or conviction, concern or welfare, profit or favor? Each of these motivations may compel some special interest or another; each has the capacity to create power and, hence, law.
Sadly, our system of legislation, justice and executive power has tipped too far to one side. We have allowed our system to move away from a code of laws based on conviction and welfare—as outlined in our Constitution—to one that is unduly influenced by whomever has the deepest pockets.
We have a system in which the cost of running for office requires exorbitant spending, personal wealth and donations from those who can afford to pay. And that financial support usually comes with strings attached, whether expressly stated, implicitly felt or simply created out of a sense of obligation and gratitude.
As the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) said,
“Large sums of money, and the time needed to raise it, dominate our electoral and legislative processes. Money buys access to legislators as well as to the details in legislation. If they reject special interest money, candidates fear that their opponents will outspend them—and spending counts: incumbents almost always raise more money than challengers, and the candidate who spends the most money almost always wins. (For House seats, the number is more than 90 percent.) Because the Supreme Court has ruled [that] campaign contributions are a protected form of “speech,” the most important reform to enhance the voice of citizens and reduce the role of powerful special interests and big money in elections is public financing. Under such systems, candidates or parties receive public funds to replace or augment private money. Public funding can curb the appearance of the influence of big money over lawmakers, encourage candidates with limited resources to run for office, and allow politicians to spend less time raising money and more time serving their constituents [emphasis added].”

The Money Behind the Power
According to an analysis in Lo$ing Faith in Our Democracy: A Theological Critique of the Role of Money in American Politics, published by Auburn Seminary, “more than $6 billion was spent on the 2012 elections. That’s a lot of money in American politics. And that figure only includes election campaigns expenses—it doesn’t include funds spent on lobbying or advocacy” (1). According to the footnote,
“[O]f that figure, $970 million was spent by outside groups, that is, groups supposedly unaffiliated with a political party. . . . The Alaska Dispatch analyzed the presidential election expenses into dollars spent per registered voter, and found that the combined spending of the Obama and Romney campaigns amounted to $11.75 per voter. That figure is more than double, in inflation adjusted dollars, the $5 per voter that the Reagan and Carter campaigns spent in 1980.”
The study notes that the influence of money in human politics is as old as the Bible, and likely as old as human civilization, but this doubling of U.S. presidential campaign spending in just 30 years is astronomical, not to mention unsustainable.
Decreased transparency in campaign and other political spending, as permitted by Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, makes it even more difficult for the voting citizen to sift through the propaganda and make an informed decision with his or her vote. And I’m learning that many people feel that their vote is less valuable than it used to be. “It doesn’t matter whom I vote for, it won’t make a difference in Washington anyway,” I hear regularly. Many voters (or those who don’t bother) feel that the voices, opinions and convictions of real people who are engaged in honest debate are drowned out by the volume of special interest money. This development in American politics is not serving people, only profit. This is a true problem in today’s political landscape and the failure of the current system.
In an op-ed published last year, Diane Randall of the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Patrick Carolan of the Franciscan Action Network wrote,
“More often than should be true in a democracy, money appears to speak more loudly than the voices of the electorate on these and other values-based issues. The wealthiest 0.01 percent of the voting age population now account for 40 percent of all campaign contributions. When money talks, it almost inevitably makes a difference in the decisions elected officials make. If money is doing the talking, it is unlikely to fairly represent needs for housing, health care and decent wages for people who cannot take those things for granted.”
Indeed, people of faith are beginning to challenge such disproportion in the brokerage of power in our political system. Polls vary, of course, but a recent survey reported by Time magazine showed that
“[A] majority of likely voters among Democrats (75%), Independents (64%) and Republicans (54%) see the wave of spending by Super PACs this election cycle as “wrong and leads to our elected officials representing the views of wealthy donors.” So far in the 2014 election cycle, Super PACs, which can raise unlimited sums from donors, have spent $87.5 million and counting to influence election outcomes.”
It will only be through addressing this deficit of the people’s voice in politics that we will affect the choices made by those who hold power and are in a position to create law.

What Can You Do?
In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there would be no limit on the amount that corporations could spend on political advertising. This case gave corporations the same rights as individuals. Then in the subsequent McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court overturned limits for individuals on aggregate federal campaign donations. The ruling noted that the only legitimate rationale for limiting campaign spending is to prevent quid pro quo corruption—essentially, the crime of bribery. But the problem of big money dominating our elections is far more profound than the narrowly defined crime of bribery.
The potential flood of spending on national elections threatens the foundation of our democracy. One of the best ways to address the undue influence of political money in the process of law and power is to change the ground rules through an amendment to the Constitution. The Udall Amendment (S.J.Res. 19) is one such vehicle for creating the 28th Amendment.
Call the Capitol Switchboard ( 202/224-3121) and ask to speak with your elected officials. (Go to to find out who your Senators and Congressperson are.)
Ask your elected officials for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that
  • Establishes that Congress and the states have the power to regulate and limit election spending
  • Overturns recent Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon and puts the voice and the power back in the hands of voters
  • Overturns the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling, which established the doctrine colloquially known as “money equals speech.”

Additional Resources

The 221st General Assembly (2014) approved an overture that the church should support financial and political reforms of the U.S. political and financial sector, including campaign finance reform. Learn more about this topic with the following resources.

Lo$ing Faith in Our Democracy: a Theological Critique of the Role of Money in American Politics
In this highly accessible 20-page report, ten theologians (from Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant and Jewish perspectives) reflect on what their traditions can teach Americans about how to use money in politics.

The Franciscan Action Network (FAN)
FAN is a grassroots organization seeking to transform United States public policy related to peace making, care for creation, poverty and human rights. Visit their website for multiple resources on campaign finance reform, as well as private prisons, gun control and climate change.

This article was originally published in Horizons: The Magazine of Presbyterian Women in September/October 2014. Reprinted with Permission. To Subscribe to Horizons, please visit
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Action Alert-- Faithful Budget

The Faithful Way Forward: 2016 Budget 

Last month, The PC(USA) Office of Public Witness worked with other faith partners to offer a briefing for Congress on the "Faithful Budget," a document written by the faith community about our nation's financial priorities. The Reverend J. Herbert Nelson joined with Sister Simone Campbell, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, and Maggie Siddiqi in calling for a budget that prioritizes people and livelihood, not corporate profit or greed. This included calling for—

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Sr. Simone Campbell, Maggie Siddiqi,
and the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson
  • Preservation of the social safety net, essential programs serving the most vulnerable people
  • Investment in health care, access to which is essential to the shalom and wellbeing of all people
  • A serious look at our spending priorities when comparing over-investment in the mechanisms of war and underinvestment in human capital
  • A progressive tax code that not only brings in enough revenue to pay for what is most important, but also reduces inequality by making sure that all people have enough – not too much and not too little

In April, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have passed budgets that would repeal the Affordable Care Act, turn Medicaid into a block grant, and cut billions of dollars from nutrition and education programs, all while increasing spending on overseas wars and cutting taxes for the wealthiest.

Please email your members of Congress this week. Ask them to create a budget that is aligned with the Faithful Budget and cares for the needs of all of all people, not just the wealthy few.

In preparation for the briefing, J. Herbert Nelson wrote:

“As a follower of Christianity, I believed that ‘to whom much is given, much will be required.’ God’s justice insists that those who have much must contribute to the good of all. Indeed, God’s vision of shalom wants a society in which each of us has enough -- not too much and not too little. We are living in a new Gilded Age where the gap between rich and poor grows ever deeper. Today’s worship of money and things is nothing less than idolatry and justice requires us to change if we are gong to live up to God’s radical vision for us. Responsible taxation in a linchpin of a democratic society and from a Christian perspective, greater tax justice is necessary and a key response to rising inequality.”

Read all of J. Herbert Nelson’s remarks on tax justice and the Faithful Budget.