Bruce Berlin

Any serious observer of government in America knows that, for the most part, Big Money controls our elections and public policy. In the beginning of my new book, Breaking Big Money’s Grip on America: Working Together to Revive Our Democracy, I state the following premise:

While some individuals would argue that climate change or income inequality are the great challenges of our time, the chances of our successfully resolving them, or any other major problem, are virtually zero unless we break Big Money’s grip on our government. In fact, according to one bipartisan political organization, 74 percent of all voters agree that it is necessary to fix our broken political system first, before anything can be done to solve other important national issues.1

For example, take the issue of renewable energy. The extractive energy industry spends millions of dollars lobbying Congress to get its way with our government. As noted in my book:

Americans do not have an abundance of clean, inexpensive, renewable energy because the extractive energy industry—oil, gas, and coal—has a stranglehold on Congress. Former Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-LA) raised over $1.5 million in campaign contributions from the extractive energy industry from 1999 to 2014. In her 2014 bid for re-election, she received over $250,000 as of spring of that year. Landrieu supported the Keystone Oil Pipeline, tax breaks for big oil, and oil and gas exploration subsidies while she opposed alternative energy subsidies, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, limitations on toxic emission for power plants, and increasing tax incentives for oil companies to develop alternative energy programs.

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), the former ranking member of the Subcommittee on Energy, Natural Resources, and Infrastructure, received over $375,000 in campaign contributions from the extractive-energy industry for his 2014 re-election bid. Since 1999, Cornyn has received $2.54 million in contributions from that industry. Cornyn supports the Keystone Oil Pipeline, tax breaks for big oil, and oil and gas exploration subsidies. He opposes: alternative-energy subsidies and tax credits, hydrogen fuel cells, clean-energy achievement criteria, and an increase in tax incentives for oil companies to develop alternative-energy programs. He has a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters. Many more members of Congress could be added to the list of officials who help keep Americans chained to the extractive-energy industry.2

Unfortunately, the same holds true here in New Mexico. The oil and gas industry is consistently one of the largest contributors to New Mexico legislators’ election campaigns, giving a combined total of over $7.6 million directly to candidates in state races from 2004 through 2012. According to a 2013 Common Cause New Mexico report, the industry has never fallen below third place among the top contributors to candidates. As a result, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Act, which sets fines and penalties for violations of the act and conditions for bringing suits against the violators, has not been updated since its enactment in 1935. Clearly, the fines and penalties for failure to abide by the act determined over 75 years ago are much less of a deterrent by today’s standards.3

In 2013, New Mexico HB 286 would have updated the 1935 Act. Proponents of the bill contended that the current penalties were thousands of dollars lower than penalties in neighboring states like Texas and Arizona. The oil and gas lobby strongly opposed the bill, as it had a similar bill sponsored by Senator Peter Wirth in 2009. In 2012, the year prior to the introduction of HB 286, New Mexico Representatives who voted against the bill received an average of $5,810 in contributions from the oil and gas industry, nearly three-and-one-half times more than those who voted for the bill.4 As with prior attempts at revising the 1935 Act, the bill was subsequently defeated.

This is just one of many examples of Big Money’s ability to override the common good. While the oil and gas industry is important to New Mexico’s economy, doesn’t it stand to reason that the public interest of protecting our vital water supply from oil and gas contamination, as the 1935 Act intended, not take a backseat to commercial interests? The New Mexico legislators who continue to do the oil and gas industry’s bidding by refusing to update the statute are more concerned with obtaining the industry’s financial support than they are about protecting the citizens of New Mexico against industry violations that could harm our water supply or create other serious problems.

Many of our representatives, both state and federal, are beholden to Big Money. Consequently, it is up to us, the people, to fix a broken political system that benefits special interests at the great expense of the true needs of the vast majority of Americans. I propose that we form a democracy movement to take control of our government away from Big Money and put it in the hands of the people. That movement would consist of thousands of Democracy Organizing Committees, or DOCs, in town and cities across New Mexico and the nation.

DOCs would be nonpartisan and diverse, comprising representatives of business, civic organizations, education, government, labor, minorities, and religious groups. They would include community leaders from the left, right and center, from the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, League of Women Voters, church groups, environmentalists, peace activists and others. Participants would not be active members of a political party because this could represent a conflict of interest. Rather, DOC members would be civic-minded individuals whose primary political concerns are eliminating the corrupting influence of money in politics, developing political equity so every citizen has an equal voice, and creating a political process in which our policymakers are accountable to the people and the public interest.

In New Mexico, DOCs might take up the cause of updating the 1935 Oil and Gas Act. For instance, they could conduct a petition drive where voters would pledge to only vote for candidates in the 2016 election who agreed to support and vote for a modernization of the 1935 Act.

It’s time we united against Big Money. Breaking Big Money’s Grip on America provides a workable strategy for building a democracy movement and taking control of our government.

Bruce Berlin, a retired public-sector attorney, has worked on bipartisan approaches to such issues as United States-Soviet relations, the Nicaraguan War and the diversification of Los Alamos National Laboratory. For more information about his new book, visit www.breakingbigmoneysgrip.com

1 Patrick Caddell, et al., “Americans Consensus: Fix the Corrupt System,” PopularResistanceOrg, July 5, 2014, http://bit.ly/1zNKGX1

2 Breaking Big Money’s Grip on America, pp. 21–22.

3 See http://www.commoncause.org/states/new-mexico/research-and-reports/NM_100113_Lobbying_in_the_Land_of_Enchantment.pdf

4 Ibid.

BOOK PROFILE

Breaking Big Money’s Grip on America:
Working Together to Revive Our Democracy
By Bruce Berlin, PenPower Book Marketing, 2015, 160 pages www.breakingbigmoneysgrip.com

This book is a call to all Americans to focus on a critical issue: huge sums of money unjustly influencing U.S. elections and public policy. Some people see the United States as a plutocracy run by and for the very rich. Breaking Big Money’s Grip on America provides convincing evidence to support this view and explores how a nationwide Democracy Movement can overcome Big Money’s control and convert our government into one that serves the needs of the American people. It also demonstrates why breaking Big Money’s grip is critical to solving other critical issues like gun violence and income inequality. Santa Fe-based author Bruce Berlin says that whatever your political persuasion, your participation is vital for fixing our broken political system.

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