Echoes from the fall’s Occupy Wall Street movement are still reverberating around the Berkshires.
In our survey of Eagle readers, a litany of issues brought to the forefront by protesters were raised in connection to the race to represent the 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House.
Calls for campaign finance and Wall Street reform came to the forefront.
In today’s installment of our Citizens Agenda series, incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, Middle Berkshire register of deeds Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr., and writer-activist Bill Shein share their views on issues.
In the absence of any Republican contenders in the redrawn 1st Congressional District, Thursday’s primary between the three Democrats will decide the November general election.
Q: Given the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, how can concerns about the role of SuperPACs and corporate money be meaningfully addressed short of passing a constitutional amendment?
Nuciforo: Certainly I would support a constitutional amendment, and I understand the difficulties associated with that and the time constraints. I also believe that full and immediate disclosure from those that are contributing to super PACs should be the law of the land. Even though the 5-4 majority in Citizens United said super PACs can exist and can spend an unlimited amount of money, the court did not preclude full transparency. ...
Shein: I don’t think a constitutional amendment is far off given the rapid pace of organizing for passage of an amendment and the understanding among a great majority of Americans that we have to address this question to protect our democracy. Before Citizens United, we already had an out-of-control problem with campaign money going directly to candidates and that problem still exists. We can’t hide behind Citizens United. We have to enact public financing of elections. We have to ban contributions from lobbyists and to elect people like me who make clear that they will not take any of that money. We need to not take any corporate money or large donations so we can be outspoken champions of meaningful reforms.
Neal: The process for amending the constitution would take years. Am I on the bill? Yes, I am. The most important thing we can do right now is change the Supreme Court, and you only need one vote to change it. I think it’s noteworthy that ... with Citizens United, it was a very conservative court that has enabled the argument that money enables speech. These are Supreme Court decisions. I have voted for every campaign finance measure that has come through Congress since I’ve been there. And every time that we embrace these reforms, somebody finds away around it, and Citizens United is the most recent example. I do think, another thing with Citizens United that would be very helpful is transparency. You should know whose giving this money.
Q: What further measures do you support to prevent another economic collapse at the hands of a banking system primarily motivated by the pursuit of profits?
Neal: That’s what bankers do. I think that in the Dodd-Frank legislation, there is a wind-down for the too-big-to-fail policy. And in addition I think transparency is important. I support the Volcker rule in terms of proprietary trading. I also think that managing risk is the big issue and trustees and others should know precisely what the element of risk is as some of these sophisticated, risky devices.
Nuciforo: The Dodd-Frank bill provided some meaningful Wall Street reform, but I don’t think it went far enough. I will be proposing a very tough Volcker rule. The Volcker rule in a nutshell is a restriction that appeared in Dodd-Frank on proprietary trading -- when a bank uses its own capital to make risky bets. ... So Dodd-Frank had a provision, the Volcker rule, that would prevent the banks from proprietary trading. Sounds good, right? It turns out that the various federal regulators have been delaying and denying and dragging their feet with respect the Volcker rule. So basically, I’m saying we need a tough Volcker rule to restrict proprietary trading and thereby protect the capital of the banks so the banks don’t fall part again.
Shein: Break up the big banks. An enterprise that’s too big to fail is too big to exist. We also need those campaign finance changes that are required to break the stranglehold of Wall Street money on our elections and our legislative process. We need to fully implement Dodd-Frank, recognizing that it doesn’t go far enough. And we need to have economic policy focused on giving advantage to small and local business rather than global businesses that are not owned by those in our communities.
Q: What issues raised by the Occupy movement do you think Congress most urgently needs to address?
Shein: Obviously, No. 1 is wealth and income inequality. We can not have the kind of fair society that we all want without a fair economy and shared prosperity. Secondly, Occupy Wall Street is about getting big money out of politics. I’ve made clear in this campaign that until we fix the way our legislative process works, we’re not going to make nearly enough progress on fairness in our economy and we’re not going to see the action we need on environmental issues, particularly climate change.
Neal: I think the Occupy movement is entirely accurate about income disparity. It is not, however, a one- or two-year phenomenon. It’s a 30-year phenomenon. And much of it has to do with education. Much of it has to do with skills training. And much of it has to do with automation. But there is no question that globalization is not going to retreat and we have to be mindful of it in making sure the young men and women who come out of Pittsfield High School and Taconic High School have the best skills available to them for the challenges that are going to confront the nation.
Nuciforo: Jobs and the economy. The Occupy movement was driven in part by young, educated Americans that were unable to find a job. I’m related to several of those people -- several family members who, having done everything right, having done well in high school, having gone on to college, having gone to graduate school -- found themselves in 2009 and 2010 unable to find work. And I think the Occupy movement has done a good job shining a light on that critical problem.