This is not what democracy looks like, to revise the chant embraced by Occupy Wall Street. After a popular movement rose up against the proposed Keystone XL project--over a thousand people were arrested at one protest outside the White House, and 12,000 people joined hands around it at another--president Barack Obama announced that he would delay the tar sands pipeline until another environmental review was carried out.
That makes sense. People demonstrate vocal opposition to a measure, politicians respond. Cause and effect. It is, if I might be so bold, how democracy is supposed to work. So why is the tar sands pipeline back in the game? Why are Republicans suddenly fighting to get a measure approving the Keystone XL tacked onto an otherwise bipartisan payroll tax cut bill? One main reason: The oil industry wanted them to.
We have, in essence, a two-part example of the best and worst attributes of modern federal governance in action: A peaceful mass protest brings people into the streets to send a clear signal to their leaders, and those leaders responded. Shortly after, industry interests quickly corralled the politicians whose campaigns they've funded to ram through their project in a back room maneuver. Now, which part looks more like how you'd like democracy to work?
"I know I'm a little naive, but I'm surprised at how out in the open the whole thing is," said Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and a chief organizer of the protests against the Keystone XL. McKibben had called me to discuss the unfortunate events, which threatened to overturn environmentalists' recent victory.
"It's shocking how blatant it is, that Big Oil can just call up these politicians to do their bidding. There's no pretense for debate," he said.
McKibben is right. And here's why: The fossil fuel industry has reportedly dumped a total of $42,000,000 into the campaign coffers of the 234 House members who voted in favor of adding the Keystone provision to the tax cut bill, according to OpenSecrets.org. Speaker of the House Rep. Boehner raked in $1,100,000 alone. With that kind of cash flowing, it's no surprise that when the oil industry asks the GOP to jump, they say 'how high'? (Read McKibben's recent piece in the LA Times for more details on this culture of corruption)
After meeting with oil lobbyists, canny Republican strategists undoubtedly knew that they could create gridlock on the tax cut bill by including these unpopular provisions (along with the Keystone approval, there are cuts to health care and a slackening of air pollution rules), and make Obama and the Democrats look bad for opposing a bill that they'd asked for in the first place. Of course, all the Dems really wanted was to keep the payroll tax cuts in place--but the devil is in the details, and the GOP is counting on most of the public tuning those out.
What we're left with is a severe imbalance; one that constitutes business as usual in Washington. The rich and powerful get unprecedented access to the lawmaking process, and average people--even those who had traveled hundreds of miles to D.C. to protest something they were truly passionate about--get shut out.
This is why #Occupy Wall Street has organically risen up against the power and influence held by the 1%. This is why scholars like Lawrence Lessig are arguing that it's high time to take unique and immediate measures to get money out of politics. This is why activists flocked to John Boehner's office to carry out elaborate protests. Our supposedly democratic system is no longer functioning the way it's intended to; money really does buy influence, and enough to override the demands of ordinary constituents.
The only reason anyone is fighting for the Keystone XL is that they're getting paid to do it--and unfortunately, 234 of its most sympathetic mercenaries sit in the U.S. House of Representatives.