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Government of the people is barely clinging to life

WASHINGTON – Three-term Gov. George Pataki of New York is in the race for Republican nominee for president. Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina is likely to announce Monday.

Of the dozen contenders, only Independent Democrat Bernie Sanders of Vermont appears to be serious about dealing with the most pressing issue of the day.

Dealing with ISIS? The economy? Peace in urban streets? Not necessarily. This column votes for democracy, really representative government. It is on life support. Cascades of secret, unlimited cash overwhelm our system.

This is the direct result of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, and later decisions. Sanders is the only candidate fully committed to a litmus test for any nominee to the court that he or she would vote to overturn Citizens.

The mention of Sanders is not an endorsement of him, necessarily. Only a statement of fact. Hillary Rodham Clinton followed Sanders with a similar vow of her own. It is left, as always, to the voters to decide whether to believe her.

Pataki said nothing about Citizens when he announced last Thursday. Graham, alone among the Republicans, has been critical of the ruling.

Signals large and small show that our government has slipped back no less than 45 years, maybe 145 years into an era of the power brokers, where federal officers again become pawns of the oligarchs.

Small: Where else but Washington would, according to a federal indictment, lobbyist and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., a retired high school wrestling coach, find a spare $3.5 million in hush money to pay off a blackmailer?

Large: The Center for Responsive Politics reported recently that in 2014 only 32,000 donors accounted for $1.18 billion given to federal candidates. That amounts to only 1 percent of 1 percent of the total population of the country. “A small subset – barely five dozen [of these donors] … earned the distinction of giving $1 million each,” the center said. “A minute cluster of three individuals contributed more than $10 million apiece.”

The $1.18 billion accounted for nearly a third of all reported donations in 2014, the center said.

The top two donors were liberals, giving $73 million and $28 million each. What chance does a large contributor under the old scale of say $5,000 or $10,000 per cycle have of really influencing anything here? Is oligarchy too strong a word?

Comparisons with the 1870s era of robber barons come to mind. But real campaign finance reform followed the disclosures of corruption in President Richard Nixon’s administration. Strict limits on giving were imposed in the 1970s, and the decade following. Campaign strategists found limited pathways around these.

Now, thanks to rulings by the Internal Revenue Service, totally secret “dark” money has reared its head, where the names of donors may never be revealed.

A word about Clinton: Her pledge about a litmus test can be viewed in light of her embrace of a super PAC that will raise up to $500 million of her planned $2.5 billion campaign, and her meetings with potential contributors, as reported by Nonprofit Quarterly. President Obama declined to meet with his super PAC donors, the quarterly said.

Chickens coming home. Thirteen months ago, experts predicted 1,000 Veterans Affairs employees would lose their jobs in the wake of reports that dozens of veterans died waiting for treatment at some hospitals. This column predicted hardly any would be terminated. Recent investigations showed only three VA workers were fired.

And, as predicted, the Environmental Protection Agency ignored farmers’ and householders’ complaints about a rule expanding the EPA’s jurisdiction over “navigable waters” to include country ditches and ponds.