I’m going to come right out and say it, I’m no big fan of labor unions. By raising the cost of labor through thuggery and intimidation, they hurt both the companies they’re contracted to and the workers they claim to be trying to help in the first place. Don’t believe me? Try asking the employees of American Motors or Pan-Am Airlines. What?! Those companies went out of business over 20 years ago? Gee, I wonder how something like that could have happened.
But even with my lack of reverence for the current state of the labor movement, I will still admit that the rise of labor union as an institution was a natural reaction to what employees saw as abuse by management. The workers of the early industrial era felt that their bosses were mistreating them, so they banded together in order to use the force of numbers to try and push back. Where it ended up is an issue we can debate another time, but that was certainly the road they set out upon. And I think we’re seeing the same thing now with regard to the abuse of the people by our government, and the rise of the PAC.
PAC’s (which stands for Political Action Committee) are everywhere these days. In truth they are nothing more than an organized group of people who are pulling together to accomplish a political goal. They perform all the functions that you would normally attribute to an election campaign but are focused on an issue rather than a candidate. They arrange letter-writing campaigns, hold rallies, call potential voters etc. But most of what they do is they raise money, and then use that money to wine dine and otherwise “persuade” legislators toward their goals, or hire a lobbyist to do it for them. They aren’t lobbyists themselves exactly. But the only real difference between a PAC and a lobbyist is that the PAC is like the townspeople forming a posse, and the lobbyist is like the hired gun they bring in from out of town. The lobbyist is Clint Eastwood, while the PAC is an angry mob.
PAC’s make up the bulk of what is usually referred to as “the special interests” and much of the money that’s thrown around our centers of government comes from them. But what is and what isn’t a PAC can be confusing. As an example, I’m a member of the NRA, but that isn’t a PAC because it does things other than politics. They are engaged in promoting the shooting sports and are also involved in something called the “Civilian Marksmanship Program” which was designed to help the country keep up its rifle shooting skills during peacetime, like the Welsh bowmen of Henry V. And since these acts are not specifically directed at politics, the NRA itself doesn’t actually qualify as a PAC.
But while they themselves are not a PAC, they do have a PAC with which they’re “affiliated”. (In case you don’t work for the government, what “affiliated” means is that they pay for it.) The NRA-ILA stands for the “National Rifle Associate – Institute for Legislative Action” and it does qualify as a PAC because its goals are only political. And in a typically conservative tradition of nomenclature it is named for exactly what it sounds like. It’s an organization which is engaged in persuading legislators to vote in the interest of the National rifle Association. The NRA itself is a pro-gun organization which I’m proud to be affiliated. And since I’m an NRA member, by proxy then, I’m also a part of their PAC. And although there are lots of PAC’s on both sides of the aisle, if you looked at just their names would probably think otherwise.
Conservative PACs almost always name themselves in predictable fashion, choosing names that indicate exactly what they stand for. But for some reason that’s beyond my ken, liberal PAC’s typically choose names are in direct contradiction to their actual goals. “Planned Parenthood” isn’t about planning parenthood it’s about preventing it through widespread abortion. The “American Civil Liberties Union” spends much of its time attacking the freedom of religious expression, a constitutionally protected, civil liberty. The “American Hunters and Shooters Association” is actually an anti-gun group that promotes rigid government controls on firearms ownership, and a liberal group called “FAIR” (“Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting”) is dedicated to preserving exclusive liberal hegemony over the mainstream news media.
And then there’s my all time personal favorite along this delusional vein, the “People For the American Way”. PFAW is an extremely liberal organization, which is just fine with me as far as it goes. I disagree with them about most things but they’re still entitled to speak their piece, same as the rest of us. But the only way a reasonable person could describe their focus as “The American Way” would be if it turned out that “The American Way” was actually surprisingly similar to the “Soviet Russian Way” circa 1936. Likewise if you took what most people would traditionally view as “The American Way”, and scribbled it down as a manifesto, then the PFAW would fight tooth and nail against almost every bit of it.
I guess the people who run those liberal PAC’s think we’ll be dumb enough to support them just because of their name; As if we’d all support an organization called the “Organization for Responsible Government” even if their ideas amounted to nothing more than basing all our currency on arboreal lichen, giving the right to vote to monkey’s, and changing the official language of the US to Esperanto. But the “Style vs. Substance” debate between liberals and conservatives is good for at least one more essay so I won’t go into it further here.
I don’t know if there is a running count anyplace, but given the split on the last two presidential elections, I’m willing to bet that nationwide, the number of PAC’s is about evenly split on both sides of the aisle. And the same can probably be said of their relative budgets and spending. These days the idea of an elected representative being directly accountable to the actual citizens they represent is totally out of the question. I couldn’t find the direct quote to attribute to anyone, but all the same I can almost hear some elected official somewhere saying: “Well if they thought it was so important then they would have formed a PAC”.
But don’t our legislators still right wrongs and fight injustice? Aren’t they still even a little interested in what the people who vote for them actually want? In his movie about a grifter turned congressman, even Eddie Murphy helped the little girl who went bald from the power lines behind her house. Isn’t that the way that government still works? In a word, no, and it hasn’t been that way for a very long time (and it might never have been that way in New Jersey). The days when government officials worked to make citizens lives easier went out of style before WWII, and now it’s all about the expansion of their power in ways that offend the least number of people.
For instance, let’s have a look at the legislative agenda of my favorite Democratic Party drone, ex-ambulance chaser turned State Assemblyman Mike Panter of New Jersey. Mr. Panter has been a fairly busy boy, but the work he’s been doing isn’t exactly described as heroic. The website of the NJ State legislature shows him as being the sponsor of 20 bills currently before the assembly and co sponsor of another 20. But of the 40 pieces of legislation he’s involved in, the vast majority is being offered in response to the efforts to one of the several PACs, which help Panter raise funds to get re-elected. It may be the local teachers union PAC that works hand in glove with the Democratic Party, or the HSUS, a radical animal rights PAC, but someone somewhere is paying him to do their bidding, or the bidding just doesn’t get done. And the honest truth is that the remaining percentage of his legislative calendar may be in response to a PAC as well, but the actual legislation is such cryptically worded minutiae that I lack the patience and legal deciphering skill to be able to figure it out for sure.
In other words, he’s long ago stopped caring about “what the people want” unless the people are willing to pony up a little dough for the sake of gaining access to the discussion. And since this is the “way things get” done for Panter’s esteemed colleagues as well, this process has created a sort of “government of the highest bidder”, where the PACs that have lots of members and foster lots of deep commitment get lots of authority over the legislative agenda. And to be fair (but not too much… after all Election Day approach-eth) it’s not just the slip and fall Democrats like Panter who are getting into the game. In fact, I think one would be very hard pressed to find even a single elected official on either side of the aisle who isn’t in the pocket of one PAC or another. It’s just the way things work these days.
But politicians have always been crooked, so that’s hardly news. The real issue is that PAC’s and “special interest” are a de-facto part of the legislative process now. And since they represent someone’s actual interests, they are still a part of “the people”, but they’re the part that’s willing to legally bribe politicians to do what they want. And personally I think it’s a shame that it has finally come to that.
We’ve entered a phase of our grand experiment in self-rule where we no longer get to rule ourselves. We’ve handed so much control of our lives over to the government, and it has become so completely unresponsive to our will, that we can only make it work now by throwing money at it. And the way we’ve come up with to throw money at it without joining our politicians in federal prison is to form a PAC. The PAC’s allow us to use our numbers to directly push back against the people, who look at us more like a resource to be used up than an interested party in their actions. And it’s all because the people who run our government no longer see us as their partners; they see us as their property. The PAC’s have arisen, like the unions, as a desperate attempt to make them pay attention.
So if I try to peer into the future just a little, I can see how this whole PAC and 527-committee thing could end up just like the unions did as well. Rival PAC’s will be bumping off each other’s lobbyists, and dynamiting each other’s cars. They’ll be self appointed “commissions” of approved PAC’s and the FBI will be spying on them. Your local gun club PAC will have to pay a percentage of funds raised to “the higher ups” at the national in Washington. They’ll be lending big money to Casino’s, fixing elections instead of sporting events and being accused of sneaking bombs into Hugo Chavez’s cigar box. And eventually, they’ll be stuffing bodies into trash compactors and hiding others under the “assault weapons only” bullet trap at Manhattan’s new “Charles E. Schumer” memorial rifle range.
Well OK that’ last bit might be a little wishful thinking on my part. But just because I’ve become my government’s servant instead of the other way around, doesn’t mean I can’t imagine the good guys winning one or two somewhere along the line. You see now that it’s fully out in the open that government can be bought; it conjures up a whole new set of variables. Issues that used to be about principle (however misguided) will now be open for purchase. Eventually we’ll all be in a PAC, maybe several, and it will be the only way we communicate our will to our government. The elected officials will all be the same breed of crafty ex-attorney and the political parties will be exactly the same, but the people who buy them off will be as diverse as America. And when it gets to that point, those who will pay the most will get the most. And when we get to that day, I’m sure the NRA would be willing to pay far more to get Chuck Schumer’s name on a rifle range, than “Planned Parenthood” would be willing to spend to get Sam Brownback’s name on an abortion clinic.