A hidden Washington that works

Sam Smith

It is easy these days to give up on Washington ever doing anything right. Which is one reason I’ve enjoyed being on the board of the Fund for Constitutional Government for the past quarter century. The fund, started by the late Stewart Mott, has helped create and support groups that have blown whistles, gone to court, raised hell, saved citizens and exasperated tormentors in an extraordinary variety of ways.

Its board and its fundees are a walking Wikipedia of what’s wrong with Washington but also what to do about it. To sit with these folks for four and a half hours several times a year makes you feel that maybe there is still a chance for this fair land. And it can make a difference. One day I picked up the New York Times and found three articles and one editorial that cited the groups FCG helps to the fund.

This week I was struck by executive director Conrad Martin’s description of the numerous legal technicalities of accounting for different non-profits – some of which we merely fund and others we parent. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if those at the top of our government were as diligent at enforcing the Constitution as the IRS was at enforcing minor details? But it’s the way Washington works: one form can get you in trouble, while, if you’re important enough, what happens to 55,000 emails is just another media problem.

At our meetings there are always some surprises. At the last FCG gathering we had talked about the work of the Government Accountability Project in providing legal representation to Edward Snowden. This time, however, GAP president Louis Clark spent more time talking about its work in attempting to end the abuses at meat processing operations. How many people do you know who can take on NSA and Hormel all in the same day’s work?

And that’s far from all. Back in 2011, with the help of GAP, the SEC established a whistleblower program as part of the Dodd Frank law. Since then more than 6500 whistleblowers from 68 countries have approached the agency and scores have received significant monetary awards from the money that the government has recovered.

Of course, the bad guys can still get worse. For example, corporations are now coming up with things like draconian nondisclosure agreements to keep their wrongdoing secret and some banks have threatened to bring criminal charges against employees who release their documents, even if they reveal criminal activities.

Our afternoon goes on. I learn that Open the Government, along with other groups, got the Senate Committee on Intelligence to release a summary of its investigation into the CIA torture program The Project on Government Oversight revealed that a top Treasury nominee was going to receive more than $20 million from his Wall Street firm if he took a government job. The nominee, Antoni Weiss, eventually withdrew his nomination albeit sadly taking a job with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew that didn’t require Senate confirmation.

The Tax Justice Network continues to work on ways to reduce the amount of offshore tax avoidance. And the Peace & Security Funders Group brings together the backer of peace groups to discuss common problems and possible solutions.

Finally, as I’ve come to expect, Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center raises some issues I hadn’t expected. Like the possibility that the Siri lady and my Samsung TV might be listening to me. As well as some issues that are sadly familiar, like EPIC trying to find out what the unconstitutional FISA intelligence court is really up to.

All the foregoing are just a few examples that probably took up less than a third of the afternoon, but it gives you the flavor and is a comforting reminder that there are still some people in Washington working on your behalf.

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