This week, thousands of Americans sick and tired of big money in politics and unfair voting laws are descending on the nation’s capital, ready to go to jail, if necessary, for their cause.
Some just arrived from a ten-day, 140-mile march that began in Philadelphia on April 2. Many others joined on Monday morning in Washington, D.C., kicking off a week of rallies and sit-ins at the Capitol building and its grounds while demanding that Congress take action to curb big money in politics and institute free and fair elections. Over 3,500 people have confirmed that they’re ready to risk arrest.
The Democracy Spring network of over 100 groups is demanding that Congress pass four bills to restore protections against voting discrimination, expand voting accessibility, overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and match small political contributions with public funds. The activists also want Congress to hold hearings and an up-or-down vote on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.
Groups such as 99rise and Avaaz are joined on the Democracy Spring steering committee by the Energy Action Coalition, a network of youth-led environmental and social justice organizations that trains and mobilizes youth climate activists. Environmental groups and young activists will play a significant role in the week of demonstrations centered on repairing America’s broken democracy.
Fixing the dominance of big money in politics is essential for America to get on the right track in fighting climate change. Dirty energy companies have a strong presence on the national and state political scenes, donating large amounts of cash to campaigns and outside political spending groups and investing huge sums in lobbying.
Lydia Avila, executive director of the Energy Action Coalition, told DeSmog, “We can’t truly combat climate change and enact the strong policies we need to stop it as long as fossil fuel companies continue to buy our politicians, who then provide massive subsidies for the industry.”
According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, 63 percent of Americans are represented by at least one member of Congress who denies human-made climate change. The deniers in Congress have received far more in campaign contributions (nearly $890,000 per senator and close to $275,000 per representative) from fossil fuels interests than those who acknowledge human-made climate change.
The fossil fuels industry spends even more on lobbying. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, oil, gas, and coal mining companies spent $138 million on federal lobbying in 2015. Those millions turn into billions in tax breaks and subsidies from the government, a huge return on investment.
“Too often the focus is only on money flowing into politics,” said Collin Rees, a campaigner with Oil Change International, a research and advocacy group focused on fossil fuel costs and a clean energy future. The group is a close partner of Energy Action Coalition and a participant in Democracy Spring.
There’s some bipartisan interest in reining in the subsidies, Rees said. “We spend too little time focusing on what fossil fuel companies get for that money, the huge return on investment. We need to stop the entire cycle of dirty energy money.”
Fossil fuels interests also have a hand in the 2016 presidential race. From January 2015 through January 2016, mega-donors tied to the fossil fuel industry combined to give $107 million to super PACs supporting presidential candidates. And oil, gas and coal mining company employees have given large sums to the contenders’ campaigns, with the bulk going to Ted Cruz, followed by Hillary Clinton.
“Our democracy is being held hostage by billionaires who are also wrecking our climate and planet,” Energy Action Coalition’s Avila said on a conference call for the media.
Climate justice day
Energy Action Coalition and Oil Change International are collaborating with other environmental groups including SustainUS, Rootskeeper, Friends of the Earth and U.S. Climate Plan on a “climate justice day” on Saturday, April 16, when rallies will focus on climate-related democracy issues and climate activists will take part in Capitol sit-ins. Energy Action Coalition alone has mobilized over 180 participants, many of them millennials and roughly half of whom will risk arrest.
These groups have come up with four demands of their own: repudiation of campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry by all politicians and candidates; transparency in campaign donations and fossil fuel subsidies; an end to all fossil fuel production subsidies no later than 2020; and disclosure of political spending by federal contractors, something for which numerous good-government groups have been advocating for for months.
Other environmental groups supporting Democracy Spring include Center for Biological Diversity, Elders Climate Action, Human Earth Animal Liberation, Interfaith Moral Action on Climate and WildEarth Guardians.
April 16 will also see the launch of an affiliated three-day event, Democracy Awakening, which will feature panels, film screenings, rallies, a march, mass direct action and an “advocacy day,” when activists will visit their Congressional representatives’ offices. Numerous additional environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and 350.org are part of the organizing coalition.
The democracy events in Washington mark the beginning of a new phase in money in politics, voting rights and environmental activism.
“I’m really excited for how this will play out in the public narrative,” Avila said. “The best thing to come out of huge actions is a changed narrative, the way people think and talk about these issues.”
“I think it will be a great chance to raise these issues on a national scale,” Oil Change International’s Rees said. “It will take a people-powered movement to change things, and we need more people.” After Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening, “a lot of others around the nation will want to take part.”
US Capitol Building and peace marchers. Photo by Jonathon Colman / Flickr.com