Members of Congress who are articulate, photogenic and smart – and let’s face it, few of them meet all three of those criteria – become national figures if that’s their ambition.
Russ Feingold, a former Democratic senator from Wisconsin, is one who has become well-known outside of his home state. Feingold served 18 years in the U.S. Senate, before losing in 2010 to a tea party Republican.
Now he writes, teaches and lectures, and that’s why he was in Missoula recently – to speak at the University of Montana as part of this year’s President’s Lecture Series.
Feingold is an unapologetic progressive known for his advocacy of liberal causes and his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has a new book out called “While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post-9/11 Era.”
The book contends that right after Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. realized it needed to be a lot more aware of what’s going on in the world beyond our borders. But then, Feingold writes, the country got distracted by the war in Iraq.
He also argues mistakes were made that still need to be corrected.
“The Patriot Act and civil liberties is one,” Feingold said. “(Also) the changing of the understanding of what the commander-in-chief can do under the Constitution ... ignoring laws when it comes to wiretapping and torture.”
And Feingold believes foreign policy discussion has become trivialized when, for example, politicians like Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney repeat phrases like “American exceptionalism” and “America needs to lead.”
“What does leading mean?” said Feingold. “Does he mean we’re going to invade every country (like Libya and Syria) where we have a problem? To me leadership means ... figuring out how you can work with other countries so that we don’t have to invade.”
Feingold served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years, so he clearly has expertise and interest in foreign affairs. But he’s equally known for trying to fix America’s campaign finance system. The McCain-Feingold law that he crafted with fellow senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain was an attempt to limit the influence of big money on elections.
Recent court rulings have trumped that effort. Feingold calls the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns, “one of the worst decisions in the history of the court.”
“We now have a new system – which the people of Montana know better than anyone in the country – where suddenly all the (campaign) laws for the last hundred years in Montana and the country – are being destroyed,” said Feingold. “That’s going to ruin the notion of ‘one person, one vote.’ ”
Feingold thinks of it as nothing less than a constitutional crisis.
“The integrity of our political process is in free fall,” said Feingold. “We’ve always had problems, but this one is a difference in kind, not just a difference in degree.”
According to Feingold, the influx of money into American politics has transformed Washington, D.C., from a sleepy government town into a giant corporate headquarters.
“It has become the playground of the very wealthy and the very powerful,” Feingold said. “The lobbying power and the corporate power have merged, to create a corporate stranglehold on our nation’s capital. ... It’s not reflective of the rest of the country in the way that it should be.”
Feingold is hoping a future Supreme Court will overturn Citizens United. In the meantime, he’d like to see both the federal and state governments pass disclosure laws so we could all at least know who is spending these vast sums of money on the campaigns, to “flush out the corruption” he believes is occurring.
As for the stalemate and partisanship that have overcome Congress, Feingold thinks the solution to that must come from the bottom up.
“The people of this country used to demand bipartisanship,” said Feingold. “If they demand that, people work together, senators will. The senators don’t like screaming at each other ... it’s that they think the public will punish them for not being ideologues on the left or the right. And that is something the people themselves can say ‘Wait a minute, if I’m going to vote for you, you come back and tell me in two years who you worked with on the other side, and what you got done, or I’m not voting for you again.’ That is the most powerful thing.”
Sally Mauk is news director at Montana Public Radio, KUFM, in Missoula. She writes a twice-monthly column for the Missoulian.