This week, thousands of progressive groups and individuals will descend on Philadelphia for the annual Netroots Nation conference, the largest conference for activists, public officials and organizers to come together to advance justice, equality and community in American politics. How to make our government more responsive and accountable will be front and center at the conference as the 2020 Democratic primary season goes into full swing.
The corrupting, undue influence of corporate interests is a major contributor to the dysfunction of the US political process. Getting the money out of politics is crucial to cleaning up our government. The encouraging news is that in the past six months alone, we have seen growing momentum to curb pay-to-play politics and increase government accountability. At the federal level, HR 1, a sweeping anti-corruption and democracy reform bill, passed the House in March of this year. One of the bill’s main aims is to reduce the influence of powerful vested interests by strengthening laws on campaign finance and ethics.
Reforms to restore government integrity are also gaining traction at the state level, where political corruption is often rampant. New Mexico recently moved forward with the creation of an independent ethics commission to monitor and investigate the conduct of public officials, politicians and lobbyists. Last month, the Oregon House of Representatives passed a campaign finance reform measure that puts limits on contributions to political campaigns; the measure now goes to the Senate for a vote and if passed, voters in Oregon will decide whether to approve the measure in the 2020 election.
The conference’s host city itself, Philadelphia, has a rich history as a symbol of American democracy and independence. Yet, centuries later, Pennsylvania is afflicted by corruption and ranks poorly in state surveys of anti-corruption and ethics laws. The state has been marred by corruption scandals and legalized corruption that harms the public interest. It is one of a few states where lawmakers can receive gifts of hospitality and trips and where there are no limits on campaign contributions. There is now growing support in Pennsylvania for gift ban legislation that would help close some of these loopholes.
Oil and gas companies have immense power at both state and federal levels. Their enormous influence and ability to sway politicians with money is not only a threat to democracy and American values, but also a danger to the public. There is mounting evidence that fracking has harmful impacts on communities and public health and is linked to asthma, birth defects, neurodegenerative diseases and other health issues. This is a big issue for communities in Pennsylvania. Just 100 miles from where the Netroots Conference will take place, there are growing concerns that fracking could be linked to the high numbers of childhood cancer cases in rural communities.
Pennsylvania is the second largest gas producer in the US and has experienced a massive boom of fracking and pipeline activity over the past decade. According to the Marcellus Money Project, the natural gas sector and industries that benefit from it have spent $70 million since 2007 to lobby the Pennsylvania state government. The industry’s lobbying has paid off – while fracking has boomed, state funding for the Department of Environmental Protection has been reduced by nearly half and many regulations to protect public health and the environment have been poorly enforced.
Just last month there was a devastating fire at an oil refinery in Philadelphia. Residents had been alarmed and concerned about the heavily polluting refinery for many years. When it went bankrupt last year, it was bailed out by the Environmental Protection Agency under the leadership of its now disgraced former head Scott Pruitt. Now, a year later, the refinery is set to be closed. It was the biggest source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in Philadelphia, with 1,300 acres of toxic waste that could potentially find its way into the groundwater.
With the presidential election looming next year, many candidates have spoken out about the deep-rooted corruption in Washington and around the country. We call on all the presidential candidates to prioritize closing the loopholes that allow for legalized corruption. This can be done by strengthening campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws at the federal and state levels to improve democratic governance.
This week, we are excited to join thousands of activists in Pennsylvania and across the country in demanding greater accountability from our elected officials so that our government acts in the public interest to protect communities, public health and the environment.