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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Voter Turnout and Expectations of Congress

The November Congressional elections are coming up and the polls say that voters are either yawning or cynically withdrawing. Previous off year elections have drawn about 38% of the eligible voters to the voting booths. That is, more than 6 out of 10 eligible voters did not bother to exercise the franchise that earlier Americans fought so hard to secure for them throughout our history.

This year, the turnout could be the lowest yet. As the difference between the Republican and Democratic Parties become less and less, one Corporate Party, with two names, is emerging on more and more economic regulatory and other national policies which come from the Treasury, Federal Reserve, State Department and Commerce Departments.

With the two Parties converging, voters are not stimulated to choose. The public debate becomes flaccid. Speeches drone with slogans instead of spark with resolves for expanding justice.

Then the really awful happens — public expectations for Congress fall into the basement. Once the. expectations by the American people of what Congress can contribute to the pursuit of happiness with liberty and justice for all hit bottom, the corporate-political complex takes over both the government and the marketplace.

The expansion of public cynicism provides the perfect vacuum for the power brokers to expand their plutocracy. Cynicism leads to abandonment of civic engagement. While skepticism leads to resurgence of the citizenry to throw the rascals out and clean up the corrupt activity that weakens voters, taxpayers, workers, consumers and small savers — the five roles we play in the civic arena.

Let’s reverse directions and see what a high expectation of Congressional performance would do for the country and its people.

1. Congress could easily strengthen our operational democracy by requiring, as a condition of deregulation (e.g. telephone companies, utilities, etc.) or taxpayer subsidies to industry and commerce, that consumer be sent insert notices in billing or other company envelopes to joining their own state by state consumer associations with full time staff to balance off corporate power and negotiate better terms of exchange. Congress could also require federal agencies to send these inserts.

The state government of Illinois sends inserts to residential ratepayers of electric, gas and telephone services. The consumer group — CUB — has 200,000 members and a staff. In just one negotiation 5 years ago, Commonwealth Edison refunded $1.3 billion to families in northern Illinois.

2. Congress could cancel some of the big weapons’ boondoggles — like the B-2 Bombers, which are faulty and strategic ally obsolete though costing $2 billion each — and apply these savings to rebuilding America’s public works. Look around our country — inadequate drinking water and sewage systems, crumbling schools, libraries and clinics, ancient mass transit systems, undulating city roads and sidewalks — to mention a few necessities for public investment.

3. Congress can move toward cleaner elections by advancing a publically financed system for public elections based on a voluntary checkoff up to $100 on the 1040 Tax Return. Candidates who choose public financing, and most of them will, would not be allowed to receive money from private interests. Now, we have a government of the Exxons, by the General Motors and for the DuPonts and the people are shut out.

4. Congress can legislate a strong ‘law and order’ program to catch the corporate crooks who cheat consumers, raid taxpayers swindle the government and squeeze workers.

5. Congress can stop the corporate welfare bandwagon and its loads of subsidies, giveaways of natural resources and taxpayer-funded research to companies.

6. Congress can make the corporations and the rich pay their fair share of taxes. Corporation tax laws are so full of loopholes and national jurisdiction escapes that some very profitable large companies have paid federal taxes at a rate below 10%, sometimes 2%, and sometimes, as under Ronald Reagan, they paid zero taxes and got a refund by assuming the liabilities of other firms. Ridiculous.

7. Finally, Congress can help us to be alert to the future and its often risky trends by using its investigative and informing functions, beamed over the mass media, for a more alert citizenry. Mass media? Yes, we have a right to our own cable channels, our own audience networks, as befits a people who already legally own the public airwaves but have no air time for themselves.