Volunteers dressed up as George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Betsy Ross took to the streets in a trolley tour of congressional fundraising hotspots on Wednesday, decrying the corruption of the campaign finance system that gives special interests a far greater voice in American democracy than average working Americans. At targeted stops around the District, participants organized by Common Cause and Public Campaign demanded entry into closed-door meetings and high-dollar events, and were summarily denied.
"Today's events may cause some laughs, but the issue is serious," said Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign. "Our political system has become one that puts the interests of corporations and their lobbyists ahead of the needs of everyday Americans. We need to restore our government to one by, of, and for the people."
The tour planned three stops: First at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the fundraising headquarters of the Democratic Party; next at the Podesta Group, one of BP's hired hands in DC and one of the most successful lobbying shops in the city; then on to the Capitol Hill Club, the fundraising spot for Republicans where no less than 13 fundraisers were held Wednesday.
At the Capitol Hill Club protesters were turned out: "You are neither a Member nor a guest," said the doorman as he showed them to the sidewalk. On his way in, Congressman John Flemming (R-La.) stopped to chat with Dan, the volunteer dressed up as Benjamin Franklin, posing for photos and even laughing at Dan's jokes. But Flemming didn't say who he was meeting with or what it was about.
The Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 1826, S. 752) would end Congress's reliance on corporate campaign cash by allowing candidates to raise large numbers of small donations from people in their districts. Sponsors include Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) and Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.). The legislation has the support of 156 U.S. House members, including three Republicans and 21 senators.
The demonstration comes on the final fundraising day of the quarter -- lawmakers' last chance to flex their political muscles before reports come out -- and dovetails with Democratic leadership's conversations about the DISCLOSE Act, the legislation that would fill in the gaps in election transparency and disclosure laws created by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
"About today," said Nyhart. "What's July 4th?"
"Independence day!" cried the crowd.
"But today's June 30th," said Nyhart. "Do you know what today is?"
Silence followed. "Wednesday?" said Steve Jones, the volunteer dressed as George Washington.
"It's Dependence Day," said Nyhart. "For too long, corporate donors and high-priced lobbyists have held a stranglehold over the policy-making process. The barons of big oil like those represented by The Podesta Group have used their power to kill or weaken regulation, and now we see that as a result of those weakened regulations."
There is oil that continues to spill in the Gulf, Nyhart added, which is ruining the livelihoods of thousands and thousands of Americans. Billions of Americans lack access to health care, he said, yet health insurance companies did their best to water down health care reform in order to protect their bottom line. And the lords of Wall Street, he continued, are still here -- their recklessness left our economy reeling and they have spent billions of dollars in campaign donations to pay an army of lobbyists to carry out their work.
"Every day from Capitol Hill to K Street our democracy is being diminished daily by the money," said Nyhart. "And that's why we're here: to say that Congress has to pass the Fair Elections Now Act. It is bipartisan legislation that would put voters in charge of our political system. Our elected officials on a day like today, June 30th, shouldn't be making fundraising calls, they should be supporting the constituents they're supposed to serve. And they should be spending their time addressing our problems and our concerns, but today they're making phone calls for money. "
Watch live footage of the event here: