Buying Congress in 2012
My resolution for 2012 is to be naïve — dangerously naïve.
I’m aware that the usual recipe for political effectiveness is just the opposite: to be cynical, calculating, an insider. But if you think, as I do, that we need deep change in this country, then cynicism is a sucker’s bet. Try as hard as you can, you’re never going to be as cynical as the corporations and the harem of politicians they pay for. It’s like trying to outchant a Buddhist monastery.
Here’s my case in point, one of a thousand stories people working for social change could tell: All last fall, most of the environmental movement, including 350.org, the group I helped found, waged a fight against the planned Keystone XL pipeline that would bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Canada through the U.S. to the Gulf Coast. We waged our struggle against building it out in the open, presenting scientific argument, holding demonstrations, and attending hearings. We sent 1,253 people to jail in the largest civil disobedience action in a generation. Meanwhile, more than half a million Americans offered public comments against the pipeline, the most on any energy project in the nation’s history.
And what do you know? We won a small victory in November, when President Obama agreed that, before he could give the project a thumbs-up or -down, it needed another year of careful review. (The previous version of that review, as overseen by the State Department, had been little short of a crony capitalist farce.) Given that James Hansen, the government’s premier climate scientist, had said that tapping Canada’s tar sands for that pipeline would, in the end, essentially mean “game over for the climate,” that seemed an eminently reasonable course to follow, even if it was also eminently political.
A few weeks later, however, Congress decided it wanted to take up the question. In the process, the issue went from out in the open to behind closed doors in money-filled rooms. Within days, and after only a couple of hours of hearings that barely mentioned the key scientific questions or the dangers involved, the House of Representatives voted 234-194 to force a quicker review of the pipeline. Later, the House attached its demand to the must-pass payroll tax cut.
That was an obvious pre-election year attempt to put the president on the spot. Environmentalists are at least hopeful that the White House will now reject the permit. After all, its communications director said that the rider, by hurrying the decision, “virtually guarantees that the pipeline will not be approved.”
As important as the vote total in the House, however, was another number: within minutes of the vote, Oil Change International had calculated that the 234 Congressional representatives who voted aye had received $42 million in campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industry; the 193 nays, $8 million.