Open the Debates

by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

Dissident Voice

October 13, 2003


Is it viable for the United States to provide health coverage to every person in its borders?


Could the economy transition quickly from fossil-fuel addiction to reliance on solar energy and other renewables?


Of course.


As the presidential campaign heats up in 2004, will we hear about such challenges to the interests of the corporate goliaths?


That depends.


In part it depends on the structure of the presidential debates.


Right now, those debates are managed by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which is controlled by the Republican and Democratic Parties, and funded by major corporate donations. It's co-chairs are Frank Fahrenkopf, chair of the Republican Party, and Paul Kirk, chair of the Democratic Party. Thus, when it comes to presidential debates -- guess what? -- alternative views are routinely blocked out.


But this year there is hope. A new, truly nonpartisan organization, Open Debates (www.opendebates.org) has been formed.


Its board is an alliance of agitators: former independent presidential candidate John Anderson, Angela "Bay" Buchanan (Pat's sister), former Reform Party vice presidential candidate Pat Choate, Harvard Law Professor Jon Hanson, Harvard Law student George Farah (and Open Debates' executive director), executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics Larry Noble, American University law professor Jamin Raskin, the founder of TransAfrica Randall Robinson, and Paul Weyrich, chair of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.


According to its web site, Open Debates will seek to expose the "fundamental and irreparable problems" of the CPD and promote the creation of an alternative presidential debate sponsor – the nonpartisan Citizens' Debate Commission -- comprised of national civic organizations committed to maximizing voter education.


"We want the Commission on Presidential Debates to be exposed for what it truly is: a tool of the national Republican and Democratic parties that undermines voter education," said George Farah, executive director of Open Debates.


Open Debates slices and dices the CPD.


They point out, for example, that most board members of the CPD have close ties to multinational corporations. Five are partners of corporate law firms, and collectively, the directors serve on the boards of more than 30 companies, ranging from gambling to pharmaceutical to agricultural to insurance companies.


According to the Open Debates web site, Fahrenkopf and Kirk, who absolutely control the CPD, don't just profit from corporate America as partners of corporate law firms and directors of corporations. They are also registered lobbyists for multinational corporations. Kirk has collected $120,000 for lobbying on behalf of Hoechst Marion Roussel, a German pharmaceutical company.


As president of the American Gaming Association (AGA), Frank Fahrenkopf is the lead advocate for the nation's $54 billion gambling industry. He earns $800,000 a year lobbying on behalf of 18 corporations directly involved in the hotel/casino industry -- ITT, Hilton -- as well as most of the major investment banking firms -- Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch.


And the debates themselves are now primarily funded through corporate contributions. Phillip Morris was a sponsor in 1992 and 1996. Anheuser-Busch sponsored debates in its hometown of St. Louis in 1992 and 2000.


In 1992, after providing some $250,000 in contributions to the CPD, cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris won the right to hang a large banner that was visible during post-debate interviews. For the third 2000 presidential debate, Anheuser-Busch, which contributed $550,000 to the CPD, set up several information booths to distribute pamphlets touting the benefits of consuming beer, denouncing "unfair" beer taxes and calling on the government to "avoid interfering" with beer drinking.


When corporations donate to the CPD, they consider it a contribution to the major political parties.


When the League of Women Voters ran the debates, things were a bit different.


"One of the big differences between us and the commission was that the commission could easily raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions," Nancy Neuman, former president of the League of Women

Voters told Open Debates. "They did it very quickly in 1988. Even though I would go to some corporations, I would be lucky to get $5,000. Why? Because under the commission's sponsorship, this is another soft-money deal. It is a way to show your support for the parties because, of course, it is a bipartisan commission and a bipartisan contribution. There was nothing in it for corporations when they made a contribution to the League. Not a quid pro quo. That's not the case with the commission."


Next year promises to be a hot election year, a year of change and hope for a better world.


Fulfilling the promise will require bypassing the CPD and creating a citizens' debate commission not controlled by corporate interests. Keep hope alive. Check out www.opendebates.org.


Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter, http://www.corporatecrimereporter.com. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press; http://www.corporatepredators.org).


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