That’s how much money residents of Washington State donated to the “No” campaign in the 2013 initiative concerning genetic engineering. The vote was not about banning the use of gene splicing techniques, nor about regulating them. It was not about warning consumers away from genetically modified products. It wasn’t even about studying the practice. All it proposed to do was require food products to indicate on their packaging whether they contained genetically altered ingredients. Not, you would think, the stuff of all-out war. In fact, it’s a rather milquetoast policy change.
Yet Big Ag treated the measure like Pearl Harbor; it sought to make an example of Washington’s I-522. The NO committee buried the proposition in $22 million of campaign cash. The biggest checks came from the Grocery Manufacturers (which collected it from Coke, Pepsi, and other junk food brands), Monsanto, and the agricultural arms of Dow, DuPont, and Bayer.
That’s more money than any initiative campaign, pro or con, had ever spent in the Northwest. It’s more than Jay Inslee or Rob McKenna spent running for governor. In fact, it’s not far off from what those two men spent together. It’s substantially more than the collective campaign budgets of every single candidate for the state house in 2012. And every one of those $22 million went to decide whether Coke bottles, for example, might have to say somewhere on them, “Partially produced with genetic engineering.”
This story neatly encapsulates the state of initiative politics in the Northwest nowadays. In the words of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Joel Connelly, dean of Cascadian political reporters, “Citizens have a right to put something on the ballot, and special interests have the right to spend a fortune beating up on it, which usually works.”
It worked for Big Ag in 2013. Saturation advertising pushed public opinion from large majorities for “yes” in September to a slim “no” vote in November, just as it had in California in 2012. But Big Ag failed in its larger ambition of kneecapping the entire GMO-labeling movement. I-522’s sponsors announced immediately after the election that they’d be back to try again in 2016 when a presidential election might turn out a bigger, younger electorate more skeptical of corporate claims.
This year, Oregon citizens have put a similar measure on the ballot. Big Ag is keeping its powder dry so far, with no money yet spent, but a full-on political carpet bombing is in the forecast. The No committee is formed, co-directed by a local lobbyist for the pesticide and gen-tech industries and the DC-based chief lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the owners of radio and TV stations across the Beaver State smacking their lips in anticipation of the impending ad sales.
The SCOTUS-Populism Trap
The money spent in Northwest candidate races is an obscenity, as I’ve said. It converts would-be tribunes of the people into glorified telemarketers who spend their lives begging for alms from 1 percenters. It filters who runs and what they think about every subject, bending every issue through the lens of the donor class. It converts democracy to oligarchy.
“SCOTUS has us trapped on one side; voters do on the other.”
But the money in the initiative process has become an obscenity on an even grander scale: a reeking mountain of corporate and billionaire manure trucked in from every corner of the nation. Citizens initiatives, originally conceived as a means for the public to bypass a legislature in the clutches of Big Money, are now often just a way that Big Money can itself bypass a legislature. Todd Donovan, professor of political science at Western Washington University in Bellingham, says, “it’s lobbying by other means.”
Or, in the words of former Republican Washington State legislator Toby Nixon, “If you’ve got money, you’ve got two options for getting your will done.”
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That’s a problem, and it’s compounded by another problem, arguably a bigger one: most of the obvious solutions are blocked.
The Supreme Court of the United States has written itself into a head-smackingly myopic view of political spending, in which money is always protected free speech, and the only kind of corruption that legislators can regulate is the kind in which cash is exchanged for votes. Consequently, there is shockingly little that Oregon or Washington can do about these periodic deluges of mass-lobbying cash.
Richard Ellis, professor of politics at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, describes the trap that Oregon initiative reformers are in (Washington reformers are similarly stuck):
Those who wish to reform the initiative process in Oregon face two imposing obstacles: the courts and the state’s political culture. The reforms that most voters readily endorse—banning paid signature gatherers and restricting funding—have been prohibited by the US Supreme Court as violations of free speech rights. The reforms that the courts apparently will allow—increasing signature thresholds, adding geographic requirements [so that shares of signatures must be collected in each county or Congressional district], and requiring supermajority votes for passage—run headlong into two powerful strains in American political culture: libertarianism and populism. Suspicion of government and faith in the people converge in a profound distrust of legislators.
SCOTUS has us trapped on one side; voters do on the other: they won’t agree to reduce their own rights to use the initiative process, by making the initiative process any more demanding. This article and its successors describe the most promising ways to escape this trap.
Next time, I will describe the history of initiatives and how their price has inflated.
Thanks to Jane Harvey for researching this article. In addition to the $600 donated to the No on 522 campaign, the campaign also received various in-kind contributions from Washington residents. The Grocery Manufacturers raised about half of the No campaign’s funds through a separate PAC. A very small share of these funds—no more than 2.5 percent—may also have come from Washington sources.
Alan, your thesis — “money contributed by the donor class turns democracy into oligarchy” — both fails to identify the big sources of political donations around here AND dilutes the meaning of “oligarchy”.
I-522 was an anomaly because the “anti” spending came from interests around the country. Most of the money in state/local politics around here comes from entities with a large local presence.
The largest pools of potential campaign money come from unions (and most of those dues are from public spending), PACs funded by municipalities, PACs funded by corporate interests, and only then do we get to the “1%” and its contributions.
That’s a large and diverse enough group that you can not call its members “oligarchs”.
Don’t cheapen the term “oligarchy”! Want an example of a REAL oligarchy? Sound Transit. It is a statutory oligarchy. A mere three individuals — the county executives — select 15 of the 18 policy-making boardmembers of that municipality. People can not control the board or legal policies of that statutory oligarchy by any political means.
The real problem with big spending on campaigns by PACs and industry groups around here isn’t when initiatives go on the ballot, it’s when propositions are put on ballots.
One recent example is Seattle Prop. 1 earlier this month. Lots of money was spent by public/private partnerships that would gain financially from the passage of that property tax hike. Those entities included the Aquarium, the zoo foundation, and the democrats/other public entities that would have to share less of the city’s general fund pie if the MPD got a dedicated property tax revenue stream. Those self-interested entities WAY overspent, compared to the middle-class homeowners primarily targeted by that tax hike measure.
We have another example of this coming up in November — yet another Seattle Prop. 1. This one is being pushed hard by the very rich ATU Local #587 AND all the downtown business industry groups. Again, the lower middle class and working poor targeted for the heavy financial impacts of that proposed sales tax and property tax hike don’t have a voice because it is drowned out by the self-interested spending of that public/private consortium.
Obviously Seattle’s government is not an “oligarchy” (like Sound Transit’s). It is a representative democracy, but one that is not functioning well because of the ease with which the relative handful of rich interest groups around here foster propositions hiking dedicated taxes that target the households with the least economic means.
“the relative handful of rich interest groups” is a definition of oligarchs.
That particular subset of public activities here — regressive tax hikes due to municipal propositions — indeed is driven by a handful of rich self-interested interest groups. Those entities spend huge amounts on the “pro” sides, and the lower middle class has no means of financing opposing media buys. However, that recurring phenomenon does not make Seattle an oligarchy.
The people here still control who sets policy for Seattle by political means. For example, if Seattle were a de-facto oligarchy controlled by the wealthy public and private interest groups there is no way Sawant would have been able to take Conlin’s seat — he was one of the moneyed-interest’s tools, in spades.
Did the outsider money on the pro-labeling side escape your notice? Mercola–who is outraged that the Feds might demand labels in his products–was not a WA resident. Neither was Dr. Bronner’s.
But that said, I will agree with your take on the lip-smacking of the media, the only people who actually benefit from this stupid exercise. Well, that and some activists who suddenly get some salary money. Such a giant waste of energy and effort for a useless label.
The thing that really confuses me, though, is how much the label folks denounce the government. Ok–the system sucks. Why do you want to do this thing that will also suck because they don’t care about it and don’t want to do it? If you would learn from the Kosher labeling history–you’ll see: using the government for labeling this philosophical issue will fail.
If pro-label folks would just put their money and time into a system like Kosher, this would all be done. It would all be in your own hands to set the rule, deliver the enforcement, and solve the whole thing.
Why you think an untrustworthy system should be trusted for this is beyond me.
“The thing that confuses me, though is how much the label folks denounce the government.”
I think you may be putting all the people who supported GMO labeling in a box that certainly would not fit all of them. For many people the reason to vote yes was not because of lack of trust in the government so much as lack of easily accessed information within our food system.
For these individuals, the initiative was a way to force food producers to communicate with consumers about the content of their food products.
In Alaska a little more than a week ago we had a vote on whether or not to repeal SB21, commonly known as the governor’s oil tax giveaway. The proposition failed by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin (about 6,000 votes total, with absentees and challenged ballots not counted). The No side raised about $15 million, almost entirely from oil companies and oil field support companies. I think I heard only nine individuals actually ponied up some cash for the No side. Meanwhile, the Yes side only raised about $600,000, and it didn’t even have that much cash until an Anchorage grocer provided a big funding boost toward the end of the campaign. At one point the funding battle was about 100-1 for the No side, before it finished about 25-1. And the Yes side still almost won. FYI, SB21 was proposed by our governor (a former Exxon lawyer and ConocoPhillips lobbyist) and it only passed because two state senators who voted for it were high-level ConocoPhillips employees who didn’t recuse themselves from the voting because of their conflict of interest (SB21 passed 11-9 in the Senate, and it would have failed with a 9-9 tie). The bill effectively gave the oil companies about $8 billion in subsidies over five years without any guarantees of increased exploration, development or jobs. When this bill passed, Alaska went from a state with a budget surplus to one with a significant deficit.
Weezy, I am having trouble following your train of thought:
“A mere three individuals — the county executives — select 15 of the 18 policy-making boardmembers of that municipality. People can not control the board or legal policies of that statutory oligarchy by any political means.”
How does the decision making process of three elected officials not count as a political means?
“democrats/other public entities” WOW!
The “people” referenced in that sentence are the qualified voters within the RTA’s boundaries.
Sound Transit is a statutory oligarchy because only three individuals — the three county executives — select a supermajority of the board.
Hope that clears things up for you!