Consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader criticized Congress for watering down energy and campaign finance legislation and railed against corporate influence on politics at a UC Berkeley appearance Friday afternoon.
Nader said the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation, which banned soft money contributions to national parties, will have little effect because corporations will simply funnel money to state and local parties.
“That’s not much of a change,” said Nader, who called for public financing of campaigns.
Nader, speaking before a friendly crowd, also attacked Senate Republicans for stripping the energy bill of provisions that would have required higher fuel efficiency for vehicles. The Senate passed the bill Thursday.
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But the consumer advocate focused most of his speech, sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, on a more general theme.
“Corporations are essentially taking over our government,” he said.
Nader talked of an army of 15,000 corporate lobbyists in Washington, D.C., outspending citizen lobbies and affecting every aspect of government policy.
Nader said the pharmaceutical industry spent $250 million lobbying politicians between 1997-2000, while his health research group fielded a staff of seven.
Nader said heavy corporate campaign contributions are producing “a one party country,” where Democrats and Republicans alike assent to business interests.
But one student in the audience said recent events on Capitol Hill suggest that Nader’s analysis may be flawed.
“When push comes to shove, there have been significant differences between the parties,” the student said, asking Nader, who ran as a Green party presidential nominee in 2000, why he should cast a ballot for third party candidates and take away votes from progressive Democrats.
Nader countered that progressive Democrats have little say in the direction of the national party. He said progressives should build a third party movement to force the larger party to respond to their concerns.
Nader also took a swipe at reporters who asked him, during the 2000 campaign, if he was concerned about taking away votes from Democratic nominee Al Gore.
Nader said that logic would never fly in business, asking the audience to imagine a reporter asking a small technology firm: “Aren’t you concerned you’re taking revenue away from Microsoft?”
Nader said the federal government needs to shift its spending priorities. Instead of spending billions of dollars in Western Europe and South Asia “to defend prosperous countries against non-existent enemies,” he said, the government should fund every American student’s college education.
Nader also called for greater civic education in the schools, more public and less commercial programming on the nation’s airways and a growth in civic associations.