By Gregory Segal
What prompted you to found CREW? Was it one specific instance of corruption that shocked you or was it a general sense that Washington needed work?
It was a general sense that Washington needed work in the Tom DeLay era. It was really because of the way the former House majority leader was running Washington and the fact that most Americans had no idea what he was doing. In Washington, it was just considered the way things were done. If you told people some of the details outside Washington, they’d be shocked and it seemed like that needed to be highlighted. People’s complacency with the status quo needed to be upended.
Describe the typical methods of corruption in government?
It’s campaign contributions. It’s basically a system of legalized bribery. People routinely do favors in return for campaign contributions. Some of it is just human nature — you are likely to help the people who help you. For example, if there’s somebody who’s been a bundler for you, bringing in contribution after contribution for a decade and then suddenly they call and they have a problem, you’re at least more likely to listen to their problem. You
would give them a better hearing than the person on the other side of that issue, whom you’ve never met, who has never been to campaign functions, and who hasn’t been a supporter of yours for years. I think the system itself takes advantage of human nature. But then I also think there are more outright exchanges where members of Congress will introduce legislation or send letters in response for campaign contributions.
Do you believe public financing for campaigns is a solution to this corruption?
I do. I think public financing, which I don’t expect to see anytime in the near future, would be the answer. I think many politicians would be relieved if they didn’t have to spend a significant portion of each day raising money. They hate that. Lobbyists hate being hit up for campaign contributions all the time and attending functions every morning and every night. They’d rather be with their families. So it’s a system that everybody hates, but everybody has to jump at once and change it. It doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.
How have super PACs changed the relationship between candidates and donors — is there more corruption now or
less? Is this legalized corruption?
I think super PACs are one of the worst things for our democracy since Watergate. The amount of money that the super PACs can throw around is enough to cause politicians to quiver with fear. It’s important to make the distinction between the super PACs and the 501(c)(4)s. The super PACs are not quite as dangerous as the 501(c)(4)s, because at least you know who the donors to the super PACs are. For example, Americans for America is a super PAC, but you know who the donors to it are, so you can at least judge its statements and put them in some context.
When it’s a 501(c)(4) organization with anonymous donors and significantly more cash flow, then we as Americans really have no idea who is behind that. However, just because we don’t know doesn’t mean that the politician who benefits from super PAC-funded negative campaign ads doesn’t know, and then we don’t know what those politicians have promised and what they’re doing in return for all of the efforts to elect them. I think that’s been incredibly destructive.
There’s a very telling quote on your website that says, “It is always easier to tear something down than to build it up.” Do
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you believe that watchdog groups today try to tear down or build up?
Often, it is a criticism leveled at us that we create more cynicism on the part of the American people, but I think two things. First, we can’t all hide our heads in the sand and pretend that these problems aren’t going on so that we can all be happier about our government. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Second, perhaps if we can tear down the institutions that don’t work, we can make room for change so that we can see a better future
Do you believe mass media, specifically, cable news, plays a constructive role in your work, or do you feel that the media oversimplify issues and create more problems?
I think it’s a mixed bag. I think cable news likes its sex scandals better than anything else and will over focus on those. In part, it’s because we live in a tabloid culture and sex scandals are more immediately digestible and they’re titillating. Campaign finance scandals are long, involved, complicated, and often boring for people. But those are far more serious and pose a much greater threat to our democracy than any one member of Congress’s sexual indiscretions.
Let’s talk about the IRS. How was a government agency subject to oversight able to systematically target certain groups? How did the checks on executive power fail? Whom should we hold responsible?
Well, I think the scandal has been blown out of proportion, and it is not the scandal it’s made out to be. There were employees in the IRS who created this “Be on the lookout” list. It is not as overwhelmingly conservative as it was initially portrayed. It now turns out that there were also many progressive groups on that list. I think a significant part of the problem is that the IRS is basically a tax collecting organization, and they were put in a very difficult position of judging which organizations meet the standards to be a 501(c)(4), which is a political determination. I don’t think it’s appropriate for the IRS to be in that role.
We have a larger problem with the role of 501(c)(4)s, some of which are, in fact,
not following the law. I think some IRS officialsrecognizedthatpeopleareabusing this status and tried to make sure they weren’t approving more organizations that would violate their c4 status. Obviously, the whole thing didn’t go well.
The way they made their judgments was improper, but I think this is a larger problem that Congress needs to solve and this is a problem Congress is showing very little desire to solve at this point. The law regarding 501(c)(4)s should be amended, because otherwise this problem is just going to happen again.
In terms of transparency, how do you rate the Bush Administration? How do you rate the Obama Administration? Do you believe there has been real change?
The Bush Administration prided itself on its secrecy, so it had a policy where it would fight every Freedom of Information Act for press. They said that they would defend that. The Obama Administration
came in promising a new level of transparency, and I don’t think they’ve met that promise. In some areas, they’ve been better. Some agencies are more transparent than others. But for example at the Department of Justice, they’re at least as secretive, if not more secretive than the Bush Administration, so I would say that there’s no change there.
What advice would you give to aspiring political activists today?
Never simply accept the way things are. If something seems wrong, you can change it, and the idea that because things are a certain way, they must always be a certain way is simply wrong.
In fact, if we see problems in our society, it is our responsibility to do something about it and not wait for others to try and fix those problems.
At this point, the odds of boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are extremely low. In July 2013, U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Patrick Sandusky remarked, “While we acknowledge the seriousness of the issues at hand, we strongly oppose the notion that a boycott of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is in our country’s best interests.” The following month, President Barack Obama said, “I do not think it’s appropriate to boycott the Olympics. We’ve got a bunch of Americans who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed.” Nevertheless, the debate over the Sochi Olympics carries on, regarding either a boycott or a potential other means of expressing displeasure over Russia’s recent politics.
While the arguments on both sides of this conversation are compelling, the persistence of this debate is even more fascinating. Moreover, the continued debate over the Sochi Olympics is less about the 2014 Winter Games and more about the dissatisfaction over the current state of U.S.- Russia relations. The sentiment that the U.S. must assert itself more strongly against Russia, on issues both diplomatic and social, is being channeled into the debate surrounding the upcoming Winter Olympics. With this framework in mind, the Sochi Olympics serves as a prism through which to view the state of this relationship, reflecting the increasing tension between the two countries and a desire on behalf of the U.S. to proactively change the current status quo.
As the U.S. struggles to find an appropriate means with which to respond to Russia’s recent behavior, this frustration is brought into the discussion over the Sochi Olympics. In recent months, there have been a variety of headlines featuring Russia that appear to publicly challenge the U.S. These include Russia’s granting of temporary asylum to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden despite U.S. efforts to bring him back to the America to face trial, Russia’s frequent stances counter to the U.S. on the Syrian crisis, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in The New York Times in September 2013, which criticized American calls for intervention in Syria and accused the U.S. of “relying solely on brute force.” Other than America’s cancellation of bilateral talks with Russia before the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, it has been difficult for the U.S. to find formal avenues for responding to Russia’s actions. Enter the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, during which the eyes of the entire world will be on Russia. Whether through a boycott or other protests, the Sochi Olympics provides a stage for responding to Russia’s behavior. With so much debate over how the Winter Olympics could be used as such a platform, it is clear that there is a strong desire to take a stronger stance regarding America’s relationship with Russia.
The idea that the U.S. should boycott the Sochi Olympics over Russia’s
gay rights policies not only reflects the shift of opinion on this issue in the U.S., but also demonstrates a desire that the U.S. attempt to affect Russia’s domestic policies. In June 2013, Russia passed a law “prohibiting propaganda of homosexuality to minors.” According to Russian news source RT, “If found guilty of promoting ‘non-traditional sexual relationships,’
individuals could face fines of up to 5,000 rubles (USD$150).” Without question, this law has formed the core of the debate over the 2014 Sochi Olympics. President Obama touched on the issue of gay rights as a main theme of this discussion. In August 2013, he stated, “Nobody’s more
offended than me by some of the anti-gay and -lesbian legislation that we’ve been seeing
in Russia…one of the things I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we’re seeing there.” The issue of marriage equality serves as a divisive moral issue between the two countries, with American progress on the issue on one side and Russia’s recent law on the other. Notice the goal that President Obama articulated for the Sochi Olympics — bringing Russians closer to “rejecting” this policy. Dissatisfied with Russia’s policies, the Sochi Olympics is being treated as an avenue to bring change inside of Russia. With this social issue in mind, the U.S. is illustrating a desire to be more active in bringing Russia’s domestic policies into line with U.S. public opinion.
Nevertheless, this focus on the upcoming Olympics runs the risk of making relations even more tense in the short term. By focusing on an event so far into the future, it takes energy and attention away from issues that are more important in the short term, such as the crisis in Syria. Using the Olympics to rhetorically take a stand against Russia brings with it many unintended connotations. For instance, drawing parallels to the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow drags present- day dialogue back into Cold War patterns and implies that relations with Russia resemble those of the superpower rivalry with the U.S.S.R. Connections drawn to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany (thus far made by prominent U.S. politicians such as Senator Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina) only serve to make current talks more adversarial.
Because of the tremendous focus placed on the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it is clear that the event will serve as a turning point in Russo- American relations. Whether it leads to positive or negative developments depends on several key questions. How will the Obama Administration approach these Olympics? Will President Obama attend? Will there be protests in Sochi, either by athletes or by civilians, from Russia or from other countries? While it is difficult to gauge the long-term impact without knowing exactly how these Olympics will take shape this February, the attention that has been placed on these Games intensifies their importance as a moment during which the U.S. will have the crucial opportunity to alter the status quo of Russo-American relations.