Every Voice


Rebekah, Ben, and Big Money Politics

January 21, 2015 | Francoise Stovall

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When President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address last night, he began with the story of Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minnesota. For many, Rebekah and Ben’s story sounded a lot like theirs – blue collar jobs, an economic meltdown, community college and job training, student debt, struggles with childcare.

But at every turn, when Congress could have acted to help people like Rebekah and Ben, they chose to protect special interests instead. In this way, Rebekah and Ben’s story embodies what is wrong with our big money political system.

For example, the president mentioned Rebekah waited tables at a restaurant to support her family. She was likely making $2.13 an hour; that’s the tipped minimum wage, which hasn’t been raised in more than 20 years. The federal minimum wage for other workers has stalled at $7.25 since 2009.

Congress has repeatedly failed to raise the minimum wage, despite seven in 10 Americans favoring an increase. So why isn’t Congress acting? Money.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) and its associated individuals spent more than $13 million in federal contributions over the past 25 years. And the NRA’s corporate members are also big political spenders: “Walt Disney, Coca-Cola and their associates have broken the $10 million threshold since 1989. Marriott, McDonald’s and Darden Restaurants (parent of Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Capital Grille) have each spent more than $5 million. And Wendy’s, Bloomin’ Brands (parent of Outback Steakhouse), and YUM! Brands (parent of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut) have all broken the $1 million mark.”

The NRA has consistently opposed raising the minimum wage. If Rebekah had contacted her member of Congress asking for an increase from $2.13 an hour, who do you think Congress listened to: a young waitress who only made $2.13 an hour or a lobbyist from the National Restaurant Association who just wrote a big campaign check?

Meanwhile, Ben was working in the construction industry. “If only we had known what was about to happen to the housing and construction market,” Rebekah wrote in her letter to President Obama.

The housing and financial crisis was precipitated by Wall Street banks gambling on risky mortgages. The economy has since largely recovered from the peak of the crisis in 2008, but not without new regulations for big banks to make another crisis less likely. The reforms are largely known as “Dodd-Frank” reforms, named for the authors of the bill regulating the banks.

Unfortunately, many of those reforms are already under attack, and some have been repealed entirely. As recently as in December, Congress passed a spending bill that included a section written by Citibank lobbyists dismantling key provisions of the Dodd-Frank reforms that kept big banks from taking the same risks that caused the financial crisis in the first place. Citigroup, meanwhile, gave $2.4 million in campaign contributions last cycle, and spent $9.6 million on lobbyists. Ben can’t hope to compete against that kind of money.

While Ben struggled to find work, Rebekah enrolled in community college in the hopes of ultimately getting a better job, taking out student loans to pay for her continuing education. When she took those loans, she was also committing to the incredibly high interest rates the loans carried. Last year Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) crafted the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, a bill that would have helped borrowers like Rebekah, allowing them to refinance public student loans.

Though nearly three in five Americans consider student debt to be a major problem, the Senate filibustered the bill last year. Sallie Mae’s PAC may have had something to with that; the PAC and its employees made over $7 million in campaign contributions over the last 20 years. One of the largest private student lenders, Wells Fargo has given over $15 million. Those big donors have a vested interest in keeping interest rates high so their profit margins go up, even if people like Rebekah get stuck with exorbitant interest rates.

The current playing field isn’t designed to help Rebekah and Ben get ahead. At every point in their story, when Congress could have done something to help them, special interests stood in the way. Congress listens to their political donors, not struggling families that can’t afford a large contribution. In fact, a study showed members of Congress are more likely to meet with campaign contributors than constituents.

Rebekah and Ben deserve to have a government that works for them, not big political donors. That’s why Congress should pass the Government By the People Act, a bill that would create a small donor centered, publicly financed system for congressional elections. This federal legislation would introduce a six-to-one match for donations under $150 and allow a $25 tax credit for small donors, allowing people like Rebekah and Ben to make a meaningful contribution to their elected leaders, spurring their leaders to listen to their needs. Reforms like these would fundamentally change the way Washington works and would give everyday Americans like Rebekah and Ben a voice in their democracy.

Francoise Stovall

Francoise Stovall is the digital director at Every Voice.

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