01/12/2012 02:21 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

The 1% Control Our Congress -- What Will We Do About It?

A friend lost his job just before Christmas. He's almost 50, has two children, no college degree, and worked 20 years for a company that 'de-hired' him by phone while on vacation. He faces a long struggle to find a new job -- and in today's economy, he's not alone. Our politicians, however, have little interest in average Americans' concerns. They focus instead on their large campaign contributors' needs. The only way to redirect our politicians' focus is comprehensive campaign finance reform.

The Republican Presidential debates are shocking for how little interest they show in the problems of average Americans. They ignore that:

  • Reported unemployment for Americans with just some high school education is ~15%. With labor force participation around 40% for this group -- the real unemployment rate is probably much higher (Source:
  • '[O]ne in every three homeless adult men in America is a veteran... [unemployment] for veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 is ~40%'. (1)
  • Real median wages barely changed in 30 years, while top income group earnings soared (Source:

Despite these and other problems of middle America, Republican Presidential candidates (e.g., Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and so on) are concerned chiefly with cutting taxes on the most affluent -- even though most Americans favor RAISING taxes on this group:

'63 percent [of Americans] support raising taxes on households that earn more than $250,000'
New York Times/CBS News Poll (August 2011) .

Why this contradiction exists -- between what most Americans want, and what our politicians do -- becomes clear when we realize Congress represents the interests of America's most affluent. (For this group, the recession is basically over -- e.g., S&P 500 companies' profits have reached pre-crisis levels.) (2)

The assertion that Congress represents the affluent is not based on anecdotal observations -- it's supported by significant statistical analysis. Peer-reviewed academic research demonstrates that Senators are:

'responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents [more] than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, ... opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their... vote.' (3)

This conclusion derives from correlating Senators' votes on specific issues, with survey results for some 10,000 U.S. citizens across all income groups. Again, views of bottom income group voters had NO statistical impact on their 'so-called' representatives.

Another study using a similar statistical approach, but a different data set, found:

'when Americans with different income levels differ in their policy preferences, ... policy outcomes... reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle-income Americans.'(4)

BTW other peer-reviewed academic studies found that financial benefits from corporate lobbying and campaign contributions are 6-20 times the money spent. (5)

Clearly, the available statistical evidence demonstrates that: 1) Congress works for the '1%', and 2) the powerful receive an excellent return on their investment in campaign contributions.

Our ideal of representative government is seriously distorted. This distortion results from political campaigns -- financed by contributions from the rich and powerful. Politicians are responsive to those who put them in office. America would be a stronger country if we broke this relationship through campaign finance reform. We must create a system where our politicians aren't beholden to narrow special interest groups, but instead are responsive to the American people.

One approach to create broader-based campaign funding sources would allow Americans to direct $50 of their taxes to political parties/politicians of their choice. Other approaches are certainly possible, but we must take action soon. BTW the only Presidential candidate seriously addressing this issue is Buddy Roemer (Follow him on Twitter: @BuddyRoemer).

I hope you'll join the fight for comprehensive campaign finance reform, and for more suggestions about what we can do, I recommend Lawrence Lessig's book Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress -- and a Plan to Stop It.

Acknowledgements: Much of the above analysis is derived from Lessig's book, but I am solely responsible for any errors and opinions in this essay.
About the Author: Steven Strauss was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. He is an Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University for 2012. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University. Follow him on Twitter @steven_strauss.

  1. 'A Hard Homecoming', Economist, Dec 17th 2011
  2. Prof. Robert Shiller,
  3. Larry Bartels, 'Economic Inequality and Political Representation', Princeton University, August 2005 (Working Paper)
  4. Martin Gilens, 'Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness', Public Opinion Quarterly, Special Issue 2005
  5. Steven Strauss,' Actually Corporations That Lobby and Make Campaign Contributions Get Special Benefits', Huffington Post, December 2011