An editorial that examines who politicians truly represent from their elected office.
|We hear it all the time from politicians: “I have an obligation to my constituents.” And while the New Oxford American Dictionary defines ‘constituent’ as (1) “being part of a whole,” or (2) “being a voting member of a community or organization and having the power to appoint or elect,” what does that really mean? I suspect politicians want us to assume that they’re referring to us since we clearly fit the definition. And yet, based on the decisions made by many politicians, I wonder if their use of the word ‘constituents’ isn’t actually intended to mean an entirely different group of people.
In most cases, elected officials are elected to represent the people - all the people - of a certain geographical area. The United States Representatives and Senators elected in California are supposed to represent the interests of the people of California. The Mayor of Chicago is supposed to represent the interests of the people of Chicago. The Governor of Maryland is supposed to represent the interests of the people of Maryland.
But are politicians really representing the majority of the people, or only a specific subset of them? Politicians have often been accused of catering to special interests (i.e. people who pay big money in both lobbying and campaign contributions) in return for special consideration and preferential treatment when it comes to legislation about their specific concerns. Let’s take a look at a recent bill and see how much truth there is to that accusation.
House Resolution 933, officially called the “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013,” is often referred to informally as the “Monsanto Protection Act” because of a very specific piece of the legislation – Section 735 – that protects a multibillion-dollar agricultural biotech company from litigation.
Here’s a little bit of background on Monsanto: 20,000-plus employees, nearly $12 billion in annual revenue, key products include pesticides and genetically-modified crop seeds. Monsanto shows up frequently in courtrooms, often as a plaintiff filing suit against independent farmers for “violating their patent” by growing crops that sprout from their genetically-modified seeds (including some incidents when strong winds carried the seeds from Monsanto farms into the fields of neighboring farms, unbeknownst to those independent farmers).
Monsanto has time and time again proven to be a danger to independent farming, much the same way Wal-Mart is accused of being a danger to mom-and-pop retail stores in rural areas. Their size and scope and aggressive business practices run off smaller independent businesses.
One would think that the “Monsanto Protection Act” would be something that a lot of politicians would oppose, especially for states that rely heavily on agriculture. Five U.S. states (California, Texas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota) are responsible for over one-third (35.05%) of all of the country’s agricultural revenue. Surely those states would be opposed to a bill like this, right? Of the 104 total U.S. Representatives who voted from those five states, only 30 of them voted against this piece of legislation. That’s more than 2-to-1 in favor of a bill that protects big business and, by extension, threatens local independent farming... in the five most agricultural states.
Over 250,000 Americans signed a petition protesting the Monsanto Protection Act on the basis that it protects the mega-corporation from litigation arising from the use of genetically-modified seeds, including those charges that stem from health risks and safety issues discovered in their product. In response to the public outcry, many politicians fell back on two tried and true excuses. First, that legislation is complicated - that it involves many different issues - and that they were actually voting for the “good parts” of the bill. Second, especially with this bill, there were a lot of claims that few people even knew about Section 735 and that it was included without their knowledge as part of a backroom deal between Monsanto and a few select politicians.
Let’s not get into a debate about the way legislation is written (that’s an entirely different editorial), but let’s instead focus on one very important issue; even if the bill introduced this legislation in some backroom deal, that deal still had to be made with at least one legislator willing to work it in there. And that legislator... that elected representative who is supposed to be acting in the best interests of his or her constituents... was he or she acting on behalf of us and our best interests, or was that legislator’s true constituent Monsanto?
I’m not naïve enough to believe that campaign contributions and lobbying money don’t play a role in the way politicians make their decisions. But rather than voting based on whether someone’s a liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat... it might be worth looking at their voting record and determining the real beneficiaries of a politician’s influence. They can call the American people their “constituents” on the campaign trail all they want, but one of the best ways to determine who they really support is to see who benefits from the votes they cast and the legislation they support.