Monday, December 11, 2006

Public financing
This is as good an argument for public financing and spending caps in elections as any that I could think of.
Over the past 40 years, the industrialization and centralization of our food system has greatly magnified the potential for big outbreaks. Today only 13 slaughterhouses process the majority of the beef consumed by 300 million Americans.

And the fast-food industry's demand for uniform products has encouraged centralization in every agricultural sector. Fruits and vegetables are now being grown, packaged and shipped like industrial commodities. As a result, a little contamination can go a long way. The Taco Bell distribution center in New Jersey now being investigated as a possible source of E. coli supplies more than 1,100 restaurants in the Northeast.

While threats to the food supply have been growing, food-safety regulations have been weakened. Since 2000, the fast-food and meatpacking industries have given about four-fifths of their political donations to Republican candidates for national office.

Now that Democrats are in charge of congress, will things change? You bet they will! These industries will fire their well-connected Republican lobbyists, hire well-connected Democratic lobbyists, and direct about four-fifths of their political donations to Democratic candidates. Those of us who actually consume food don't have well-connected lobbyists to hand out buckets of cash, so we will continue to have no voice in the safety of our food.

Things won't be quite as bad as all that. For a variety of reasons, not as many Democrats will sell their souls (and their constituents' health) to the corporate food industry as did the Republicans. Some Democrats have very real principles and will try to undo the damage that the Republicans have done to our regulatory infrastructure over the last decade. Some Democrats will refuse their money just to hold a grudge against those industries that so strongly supported the Republican Party in the past (though an equal number will take the money just to show that they are not anti-business).

It would be nice if our representative could reject these fair weather friends and do what is best for the least powerful among their constituents. But the sad truth is that running for office is an insanely expensive business. We no longer have a limited election season; raising money is a full-time occupation for national office holders. Night after night, they debase themselves by calling deep pocketed donors to beg for a few bucks. How tempting is it to accept those buckets of money being handed out by lobbyists? All they have to do is see the corporate side of things. After all, the companies are also American. They have interests, too. And if they are profitable, doesn't some of the wealth trickle down to their employees? Taking the corporate side is really a populist thing to do if you turn you head and squint just so.

If our representatives didn't have to raise money every moment of every day, they might save their consciences from being twisted like pretzels. If our representatives didn't have to raise money every moment of every day, they might have more time to educate themselves on the issues that they legislate. It's much easier to keep a clear head when there aren't hundreds of people making it very profitable for you to have a muddy head. There are plenty of people in Washington who are willing to hurt us just for the hell of it, wouldn't it be nice if we could keep just a few on our side for a little while.

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