My Turn: Volunteers push for an end to governing under the influence

For the Monitor
Thursday, January 21, 2016
For most of the political operatives and reporters paying attention to the looming Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the focus is on the political horse race; when the dust settles, they will tell us about the winners and runners-up, and how that changes the political calculus for the next contest.

However, many other people in Iowa and New Hampshire have been speaking above the noise of the horse race – to lift up prospects for a different type of change. Among them are the activists and volunteers working with the nonpartisan American Friends Service Committee “Governing Under the Influence” project, for whom this election is all about challenging the undue influence of corporate money on public policy.

The response so far from candidates and the public gives us confidence that we can overcome the corrupt system that enables powerful companies to drive American policy toward more wars, more weapons and more prisons.

Consider: A thousand people have been “bird-dogging” all the presidential candidates for more than a year. They’ve asked hundreds of questions about the excessive influence of Pentagon contractors and the for-profit prison industry. And they’ve placed GUI banners before tens of thousands of people to jumpstart their thinking and acting on this issue.

The questions from GUI bird dogs are grounded in facts and realities, unpleasant though they may be.

The reality is that wars, including the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, fuel migration and extremism. Wars also fuel arms industry profits, which boost the industry’s capacity to influence public policy and generate more sales. For example, the U.S. Air Force has already fired so many (more than 20,000) missiles and bombs at ISIS positions that it is on the verge of running out, USA Today reported on Dec. 3. That has to be good news for Lockheed Martin, which makes the Hellfire missile.

The military-industrial complex uses its lobbying clout and PAC contributions to win contracts for weapons production. Weapons used overseas drive people from their homes and create more enemies. Enemies capture weapons and turn them against U.S. targets. Desperate migrants seeking safety provoke heightened waves of xenophobia, leading to more violence at home, especially against immigrants. More fear and more violence create more markets for weapons makers. More sales provide more funds to spend on lobbyists, election campaigns and pro-war think tanks. It is no coincidence that stock values in such companies as Raytheon, General Dynamics, Booz Allen, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman all rose steeply the day after last year’s Paris attacks, according to The Intercept.

President Eisenhower warned us to guard against the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex. Fifty-five years later, Pentagon contractors spend billions on lobbying and campaigns and hire retired generals and admirals to help them get at hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.

So the GUI team asks each candidate: What specific steps will you take to make sure our nation’s national security policies are not warped by the military-industrial complex?

The for-profit prison industry follows the same pattern in the case of immigrant detention quotas. The Homeland Security budget includes a provision mandating the detention of 34,000 immigrants every day. Most of them are held in for-profit prisons run by corporations that actively lobby and contribute to congressional election campaigns.

This abomination did not just appear out of thin air. According to a recent Fusion investigation, “without a single vote in Congress, officials across three administrations: created a new classification of federal prisons only for immigrants; decided that private companies would run the facilities; and filled them by changing immigration enforcement practices.” One-hundred percent of these facilities, known as “Criminal Alien Requirement” prisons, are operated by private corporations.

So the GUI team asks each candidate: How will you stop private prison corporations from setting our immigration policies to the detriment of families, communities and our moral standing as a country?

Their persistence is paying off. Republican and Democratic candidates alike have been listening, taking stands and talking about the effect of corporate money on public policy. For example, Marco Rubio said he wants more accountability for Pentagon spending. Hillary Clinton questions spending $1 trillion on nuclear weapons. Jeb Bush thinks the immigrant detention quota policy should change.

We can break this cycle by ending wars, welcoming refugees and interrupting the unwarranted influence of those who profit from violence. We can bring about change when active citizens raise their voices and demand it. We commend the dedicated GUI volunteers and staff who are working to maintain their presence and our message in this final frenzy of the caucuses and the primary.

Together we’ve started a national conversation that can change the country, by interrupting politics as usual and insisting on a government that works for all of us.

(Arnie Alpert in New Hampshire and Kathleen McQuillen in Iowa are co-directors of Governing Under the Influence, a project of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker nonprofit working to build peace with justice in 35 cities and countries around the world.)