Special interests don’t have to win

Photo: Pete Souza

Photo: Pete Souza

As Americans — and Illinoisans in particular — we should be used to governmental dysfunction by now. Both sides of the aisle draw lines in the sand miles apart and fail to accomplish even the most basic compromise; the result is, well, nothing. Yet recent developments show that even when the public is firmly behind one side of an issue, special interest influence still halts progress in its tracks.

At the national level, that issue is gun control. President Barack Obama on Jan. 16 announced 23 executive orders aimed at curbing gun violence that kills nearly 30,000 people each year. The president can only do so much without Congress, and in his press conference Obama correctly stated that only when citizens speak up would legislators take action.

Back here in Illinois, the contentious battle for marriage equality still rages on. Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have both urged legislators and the public to show their support for gay marriage. Quinn even called it a “paramount” civil rights issue of recent years.

Since executive leaders in government cannot themselves create laws, their biggest power is in expending political points to persuade legislators to act. Unfortunately, these three Democratic leaders are standing up against some of the most powerful special interest groups in the country; groups accustomed to having sway over lawmakers.

Obama knows quite well that the National Rifle Association wouldn’t let tougher gun laws go into effect without a vicious fight, which was why he seemed a bit skeptical Wednesday. Before Obama’s presser, the NRA had already released a despicable ad using the president’s daughters as political pawns.

The boogeyman in Illinois’ marriage saga isn’t an association of hobbyists, but the largest religious institution on Earth. Chicago Cardinal Francis George recently said that gay marriages go against nature and personally urged legislators in Springfield to vote against the marriage bill — it ultimately stalled the General Assembly’s lame duck session early this month.

The problem is, on both of these issues, the public sides with the Democrats. A CNN poll released the day of Obama’s announcement showed that 56 percent of Americans favored a ban on semi-automatic weapons; 58 percent favored a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips; and 69 percent favored requiring all gun owners to register their firearms with the local government.

According to a recent Southern Illinois University survey, a plurality of Illinoisans — 43.6 percent — support gay marriage. That’s a 10-percentage point jump from the same poll conducted in 2010. Only 20.2 percent of respondents said there should be no legal recognition for same-sex couples at all, down considerably from 25.6 percent two years ago.

If the public broadly supports a measure, then why have lawmakers failed to act? That’s where special interest groups come in.

The NRA, the Catholic Church — and an unrelenting tide of other groups — all put pressure on legislators behind the scenes to vote in their favor. It’s incredibly undemocratic, but it’s legal. Today, lawmakers are more afraid of lobbyists than they are of actual voters.

It shouldn’t be that way, and it doesn’t have to be. As Obama stated in his speech Wednesday, citizens have the power and the responsibility to change how things are done. We all have the ability to contact our representatives and rally in the streets. I don’t like giving the group any praise, but the Tea Party is a good model to look to in this regard.

The public outcry against the Affordable Care Act and stimulus bills led to huge changes in the way politics are played in America. Yes, FOX News used its enormous influence to fuel the Tea Party, but it was still the people standing out in ridiculous Paul Revere hats who actually changed lawmakers’ minds.

If we truly care about these issues, we cannot just respond to surveys or talk amongst ourselves. Don’t let special interest groups make the laws of the land — contact your representative today and tell them how to vote. Give the NRA and the Catholic Church a run for their money, at the very least.

What do you think?