Ending the Inside Game

Good afternoon! My name is Barbara Burt, and I work for Common Cause, a national, nonpartisan, citizen advocacy organization. Our motto is, “Holding Power Accountable.” As you probably know, the president and CEO of Common Cause is Maine’s Chellie Pingree. I bring you warm greetings from Chellie, who regrets not being able to be here today.

What I what to talk about with you is the “inside game” of Washington politics, how that got us into Iraq, and how we can stop it. Here are a few facts to start us off:

Halliburton and its subsidiaries have received contracts in Iraq worth up to $18 billion. Its first contract was for $1 billion and was awarded with no competitive bidding. Competitive bidding has now been introduced, but often the deadline to receive bids is three days, which puts smaller, less well-connected companies at a severe disadvantage.

Despite several investigations into Halliburton’s conduct in Iraq, including criminal investigations by the Department of Justice, the company recently won another billion-dollar contract from the U.S. government.

From 1995 to 2000, before leaving to run for office, the CEO of Halliburton was, as you know, Dick Cheney. Since the start of the 2000 election cycle, Halliburton has contributed $580,000 to the Republican Party. It has also spent $2.6 million sending lobbyists into the offices of members of Congress and other government personnel. Of course, with Cheney in the White House, Halliburton has actually been able to reduce its lobbying costs.

Bechtel is another company that has been a long-time Republican contributor and has also received huge contracts in Iraq, now totalling almost $2 billion. Since the beginning of the 2000 election cycle, Bechtel has donated more than $700,000 to Republicans, and spent $1.3 million on lobbying.

George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, has started a company called New Bridge Strategies. According to its own Website, it’s “a unique company that was created specifically with the aim of assisting clients to evaluate and take advantage of business opportunities in the Middle East following the conclusion of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.”

Lobbyist and former Appropriations Committee Chair, Republican Bob Livingston, recently secured a contract for a British client to print the new Iraq currency.

Examples of inside-game war profiteering such as these are plentiful. Check out commoncause.org for more.

So, what is an “inside game?” It’s a decision-making process that relies only on a closed circle of like-minded advisors. These advisors are often lobbyists whose companies have paid thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. It’s back-room deal making. It is the opposite of democracy.

We now know that the Bush Administration came into office intending to attack Iraq. According Paul O’Neil, former Secretary of the Treasury in the current Bush Administration, at the first National Security Council meeting, on January 30 of 2000, a mere ten days after the inauguration, the idea of attacking Iraq was broached. One month later, Dick Cheney had maps showing the oil reserves. Quickly, the discussion turned to logistics.

Make no mistake, this war was about money and oil. Because of the inside game, we have sent 674 coalition soldiers (574 of them American) to their death, wounded thousands of others, killed an estimated 10,000 Iraqi civilians, according to Amnesty International, reduced a country to rubble (which we will now have to pay to rebuild), and increased the threat of terrorism around the world.

There’s another, equally harmful side to the “inside game” that can be illustrated by the timid opposition to the Iraq Resolution in the U.S. Senate and House. Too many of our elected officials relied on the self-interested advice coming from the administration while ignoring the reports from impartial experts, not to mention the huge outpouring of protest from their constituents and people in other countries. Our representatives in Washington listened to the insider voices they recognized instead of the voices that challenged authority.

And the media feeds into this inside game by neglecting to do its homework, shying away from hard questions, and refusing to report the opposition’s perspective. Where are the media today at this event?

There’s only one way to break up the inside game, and that’s by trumping its power. The only power that can overcome money is the power of the vote. Luckily, in a democracy-and we still have a democracy-that is a power available to all of us. Same as influence peddling, it’s all in the numbers.

I know that some of you are skeptical about this. Do not underestimate the power of your vote. As an example, let me read you this excerpt from an article on global warming by Bill McKibben from the spring issue of Onearth, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council. McKibben is recounting a story about the aftermath of the first Earth Day as told to him by former Republican Congressman Paul McCloskey.

“About two weeks after Earth Day,” McCloskey says, “there was an article on the sixth or seventh page of the Washington Star-some of the Earth Day kids had labeled 12 members of the Congress the Dirty Dozen and vowed to defeat them. Nobody paid much attention. On the first Wednesday in June, though, everybody in Washington opened the paper to find that the two Democrats on that list-one a powerful committee chairman, the other a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee-had lost primary fights by fewer than a thousand votes. Within 24 hours, seven of the 10 Republicans on the list had come to me, even though I was despised, against the war and all. ‘What’s this about water pollution, about air pollution? What can you tell us?’ That fall, five more of the dozen were defeated. With seven of them down, when the next Congress convened, everyone raised their hand and said, ‘I’m an environmentalist.’ And in the next three years we passed the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and most of the rest of the major environmental laws.”

Isn’t that a heart-warming story about the power of the vote? As Senator john McCain says in theat same article, “If there’s one thing that everyone here’s an expert on, it’s getting elected.”

Here today we need to ask ourselves, are we also playing an “inside game?” I would bet that all of us here vote. We probably also write letters to the editor, contact our representatives, follow the news closely, and sign petitions. But, in order to take back our Democracy, we need to do more. We need to spread the word. We need to build our numbers.

So, here are some suggestions:

Organize a neighborhood Democracy party-invite everyone, not just your like-minded friends. Have photocopies of articles available to hand-out. Get voter registration cards from your town office and have them available. Create a list of contact information for your elected representatives. Invite your elected representatives to stop by to answer questions. Organize study groups to discuss particular issues in depth. As a group, plan a 100% voting participation effort for your neighborhood in November’s election.

Whether in your neighborhood or in the activist organizations you belong to, keep the media informed of your activities. Take pictures, send out press releases. Create positive buzz. Make your activities the “main stream.”

Don’t make assumptions about other people. Aim for dialogue, not demagoguery. Find common ground and common cause! Consider yourself an ambassador for democracy and be diplomatic.

As you build your list of contacts, keep the pressure on your elected officials. Common Cause and other public interest groups can send you e-mail updates on current issues before governmental bodies. Be knowledgeable. Write short, to-the-point letters. Send in those letters signed by a group of people.

Finally, and this is the most important part of my speech, I ask you to pledge to bring five new people to the polls on November 2. Bush has his Pioneers and Rangers; we need to create a counterweight to those sorts of influence peddlers. Let’s call ourselves Democracy Leaders. Stop for a minute and think about all the people you know-relatives, friends, business associates, acquaintances, young people-since we know that some 5 out of 10 people don’t vote, there are sure to be some non-voters in your list. Consider leaving your comfort zone and talking to folks you don’t know. Carry a pile of voter registration cards with you at all times. For more ideas, go to VoteforAmerica.org.

This is going to be a tough campaign season. By going negative so early in the game, the political parties have signaled their intention to decrease voter turnout. Negative ads effectively depress voter interest in all candidates. Of course, at the same time, the two major parties are working like mad to ensure that their most fervent voters show up at the polls.

Let’s make this election about more than single-minded rabid party loyalty. Let’s make it about the fate of our country and its people. Let’s make it about peace, truth, justice, and our place in the world. Let’s make it about holding power accountable.

So, everybody, hold up your hand and show me how many new people you’re going to bring to the polls.

Bring all five; keep Democracy alive!

[Speech given in Augusta, Maine, on March 20, 2004. This piece was published on the website Common Dreams.]