Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Interview: Represent.Us's Josh Silver explains why Americans should not give up on curbing corruption

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in April 2017.

This is the second of three articles spanning my discussion with Josh Silver. The first piece is available here.
Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
Most Americans think that their government is corrupt.
According to a 2014 Gallup study, the number is 75 percent, a jump from 2009, when only 66 percent of Americans believed the same.
When this represents the good old days, where does the present-day stand?
Many a citizen now look back on that time before Citizens United as a golden age which must be revisited. However, I would caution anyone from growing too nostalgic. Pay-to-play corruption has long been part-and-parcel of Capitol Hill.
If you have ever seen the film Amistad, you might remember that Spaniard nobleman who advised Queen Isabella II: Angel Calderon de la Barca y Belgrano.
Less than a decade before his death, he told American writer Orestes Brownson the following: "The government struck me as strictly honest, and your statesmen as remarkable for their public spirit, integrity, and incorruptibility. I was subsequently sent to Mexico; and when, recalled from that mission, I was offered my choice between Rome and Washington, such was my high opinion of the American republic, and the honesty and integrity of its government, that I chose Washington in preference to Rome, though the latter was more generally coveted.
"I have been here now for several years a close observer, and I have seen every thing change under my eyes. All my admiration for the republic and for republican government has vanished. I cannot conceive a government more corrupt than this government of yours. I see men come here worth only their salary as members of Congress, and in two or four years return home worth from a hundred thousand to two hundred thousand dollars." 
Brownson pointed out that these words were "said in 1852, when corruption was very little in comparison with what it has become."
This last sentence was written in 1873.
In many respects, little has changed in Washington, DC throughout the ages. Those of us who wish to see cleaner, more responsive federal politics would be wise to consider Belgrano's words very carefully.
The entire system is flawed. Checks and balances might separate the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government, but they cannot produce an entity which functions as -- supposedly -- intended: "Of, by, and for the people."
Despite such a daunting scenario, a vocal band of activists has not surrendered hope -- quite the opposite, in fact. They are pushing stronger than ever before so a new day might dawn on American polity; even though this amounts to pushing a giant boulder up the highest Smoky mountain.
Represent.Us is, as its website declares, gathering "together conservatives, progressives, and everyone in between to pass powerful anti-corruption laws that stop political bribery, end secret money, and fix our broken elections."
Inline image 1Its leader is Josh Silver, who "is a veteran election and media reform executive. He was the campaign manager for the successful 1998 Arizona Clean Elections ballot initiative, and is the cofounder and former CEO of Free Press, a leading media and technology reform advocacy organization," Represent.Us explains on-line. "Silver has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal and featured in outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, NPR, and CBS Sunday Morning."
Silver recently spoke with me about many issues relative to American electioneering. Some of our conversation is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: The DISCLOSE Act has been raised as a remedy to Citizens United. What are your views on it?

Josh Silver: Disclosure is a key part of any reform effort, but it only address one narrow part of the problem. True reform needs to be far more comprehensive, and include campaign finance, lobbying and ethics reforms. To say that disclosure is the answer to Citizens United is like underwear is all you need to wear to work. It’s seriously incomplete.

Cotto: Do you think that the DISCLOSE Act, or similar anti-influence peddling measures, stand a reasonable chance of becoming law in the near future?
Silver: Ever since the Koch Brothers network -- and their billions in political giving -- announced their opposition to disclosure, the GOP has abandoned their previous support for it. And they are fighting state and local efforts as well, as they did in South Dakota a recent Anti-Corruption ballot measure in that state. However, transparency enjoys roughly 90% support from the American people, progressive and conservative. Expect to see more transparency laws passed at the state and local levels via ballot measure, but don’t hold your breath waiting for politicians to act.

Cotto: Regardless of whatever legislation is set forth to regulate lobbying practices, some say that government corruption is inevitable. Given the lack of progress made on curbing corruption at the federal level, many folks might resign themselves to this perspective -- specifically those who once campaigned against influence peddling. What do you have to say about the matter?

Silver: While the situation in Washington, DC is bleak, this is real cause for optimism at the state and local levels. In 2014, voters approved a bold ethics and campaign finance reform law in the city of Tallahassee. Similar measures have since passed in Seattle, the states of Maine and South Dakota, and in cities and counties across the nation. We are seeing a movement that is similar to gay marriage, gun rights and marijuana: with no prospects for reform in the Capitol, reformers are taking the fight local, and winning. And they are doing it with unprecedented, right/left coalitions that defy assumptions that progressives and conservatives have nothing in common in 2017. 

Indeed, it’s the politicians and the special interests who fund them who are polarized. The American people are less so.