The Guardian is featuring a story about West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, who purports to be a Democrat but behaves very much like a Republican. Right now, he is fighting tooth and nail to delay, dismantle, or destroy President Biden’s climate change and social justice agenda before heading down to Texas to attend a fundraiser hosted by big Republican donors, many of who are oil billionaires.
There’s a lot not to like about Joe Manchin. Prior to his time in the Senate, he was the chairman for the West Virginia chapter of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which promotes model legislation in all 50 states, much of it promoting right wing causes such as reducing regulation and individual and corporate taxation, combating illegal immigration, loosening environmental regulations, tightening voter identification rules, weakening labor unions, and opposing gun control, according to Wikipedia. Not exactly a progressive, then, is our Joe.
What he is, though, is a symptom of everything that is wrong with American government. He is heavily invested in coal and has created a personal fortune for himself and his family from Enersystems, a coal brokerage he founded in 1988. Last year, he received $50,000 in compensation from the company and gave a speech in May of this year to the Edison Electrical Institute promoting the use of coal.
The issue is not that Joe Manchin is rich. In America, having lots of money is considered a good thing. No, the issue is that Manchin is the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, which means he can use his position to promote his personal business interests. If you think that is illegal, guess again. It is common practice in the hallowed halls of Congress, where self-interest and self-dealing have been raised to a high art.
Because he is a critical swing vote in an evenly divided Senate, Manchin has had a powerful impact on the For The People Act proposed by the Biden administration, whose purposes include expanding voting rights, changing campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, banning partisan gerrymandering, and creating new ethics rules for federal officeholders.
Joe Manchin gutted the proposed legislation by eliminating the ethics reforms. In other words, he used his position to benefit himself personally. Sludge reports, “On ethics reforms, Manchin does not mention supporting S. 1’s provisions that would bar U.S. representatives from serving on boards of for-profit companies, a practice in which over a dozen representatives currently engage. He leaves out language that S. 1 would add to federal statute prohibiting lawmakers from working on bills primarily for furthering their financial interests.”
Martha Stewart went to prison because she got a stock tip. Joe Manchin gets to enhance his personal wealth not because of insider information but because he is the insider. Under current US law, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that and Manchin intends to keep it that way.
When it comes to addressing an overheating planet, reducing the burning of fossil fuels is vital. But that would mean less money for Joe Manchin, so he is opposed to any plan that affects his wallet. The citizens of the country (and the world) can suffer from extraordinary heat, raging floods, and punishing drought, but Manchin says getting rid of fossil fuels could make things worse.
“Because if they’re eliminating fossils, and I’m finding out there’s a lot of language in places they’re eliminating fossils, which is very, very disturbing, because if you’re sticking your head in the sand, and saying that fossil (fuel) has to be eliminated in America, and they want to get rid of it, and thinking that’s going to clean up the global climate, it won’t clean it up all. If anything, it would be worse.”
How exactly we would be worse off without fossil fuels, Manchin doesn’t say. Perhaps he has a plan to use coal-fired facilities to suck carbon dioxide out of the air? Anything that will continue to add to his personal wealth is OK with Joe, the needs of his constituents by damned.
Citizens United Is The Disease
The US Supreme Court in its 2010 Citizens United decision effectively ruled that Congress cannot limit the influx of money into political campaigns in any way. (The same court has also never found an electoral map so distorted that it can’t pass judicial muster.) The ruling in that case was about corporate donations but since corporations are more powerful than people, it effectively put an end to very idea that was at the heart of the US Constitution — that the people are the holders of the nation’s sovereign power.
After Citizens United, corporations hold the sovereign power of the country. The people have been relegated to second class status and with each passing day, as the oligarchs solidify their stranglehold on the government, there is little the people can do about it. It’s hard to believe this is what George Washington and the people who drafted the Constitution had in mind.
Citizens United stood American democracy on its head. It enshrined the idea that only people with money should be heard. It encouraged people like Keith McCoy, the Exxon lobbyist who bragged recently that he was in contact with Manchin weekly, to pervert the process of government with impunity.
Joe Manchin is a symptom of the disease that is rotting American politics from the inside. Citizens United gives corporations so much power, they can thumb their noses at principle. What’s good for Exxon is good for Joe Manchin, but it’s not necessarily good for the rest of the country, especially those who suffer the most from the effects of burning fossil fuels but have no voice in their government because they don’t have the resources to hire lobbyists or sponsor inauguration ceremonies.
These distortions to the political process threaten to exacerbate global heating and that is fine with the Supreme Court. Better the planet be destroyed than a dollar of campaign contributions go uncollected. The United States has a highly evolved legal system. What it lacks is a justice system. Without one, its efforts to address climate change in any meaningful way will be blocked by people like Joe Manchin who have learned how to leverage the political process for private gain at the expense of the public good. What a sorry end to the vaunted “American experiment.”