Economy Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader: Going for Big Watch on Big Budgets

Ralph Nader outlines how $1 billion per year could be spent lobbying Congress for a people’s agenda.
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By Ralph Nader /

What if $10 billion were raised over ten years for civic action to transform Congress and make it do what it should be doing for the people (See: Think Big to Overcome Losing Big to Corporatism 1/7/22)? In a more recent column, Facilitating Civic and Political Energies for the Common Good 2/2/22, I started a series of columns to outline how $1 billion per year could be spent lobbying Congress for a people’s agenda.

First $100 million per year would be used to get through Congress long-overdue legislation such as full Medicare for All, with emphasis on prevention of ailments and price gouging, a living wage, reducing corporate abuses, etc. The second $100 million would be devoted to creating facilities to make it easy for people to band together in their various roles (e.g., workers, consumers, patients, savers) so they could counter corporate bosses who band together their investors and many lobbying trade groups.

The third article dealt with the $100 million per year to make Congress change the disgracefully unfair, wasteful, and inefficient tax laws (See: Going for Tax Reform Big Time 3/11/2022).

Now I propose the fourth $100 million per year to be used to gain control of the enormous, amorphous federal budget. Shining sunlight on congressional budget shenanigans is the first step in making it reflect public priorities and needs instead of corporate greed.

Start with the first “twistification” (Jefferson’s word) of Article I, Section7, Clause 1, of the Constitution, which states, “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; …”  Congress has rendered this a formality.

The reality is that budgets originate from the President’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), after it receives the budgets prepared by federal departments and agencies.

Until the 1920s Congress directly received these various budgets, and the congressional committees used to go through a double check – a sequence of first authorizing expenditures, then appropriating the monies. For the most part, unlike earlier decades, the authorization process that started this double check is usually skipped. Today appropriations hearings are little more than perfunctory – with few exceptions.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees would go through the respective budgets line by line. No more. Now the White House sends Congress a multi-thousand-page annual budget, corrupted by corporate lobbyists. Then the House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader, after great delays and backroom deals, signal their agreements and ram the budget through the legislative process. During the delays, Democrats and Republicans pass continuing resolutions (CRs) to fund the government.

It has gotten so bad that since 1997, the Pentagon asks for a ton of money under the name of an “Overseas Contingency Operations Transfer Fund” – essentially a slush fund for wars in general. Year after year, starting at the time of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions (2001-2003), requests for $50 billion or more at a time would just go to Congress, unexamined, and be whooped through, producing a blank check for the Defense Department.

President Obama launched a war against Libya taking unappropriated money from these dark pots of Pentagon cash. President Trump defiantly also spent money illegally on the Wall and for other purposes.

At every juncture, one powerful group knows what’s going on. Commercial corporate lawyers and other influence peddlers operate inside the budget process and push for their demands of special budget favors and secretly insert loophole legislative language. The people back home are often clueless about this subterfuge and become cynical because they feel powerless about what is being done with their money.

More and more of these huge expenditures are not being paid for by tax revenues. They are being added to burgeoning deficits on our children and grandchildren. This form of “child abuse” lets billionaires pay only an average of 8 percent in federal taxes and giant profitable companies pay less or no federal income taxes at all. That is one reason the super-rich liked Trump.

With a $5.3 trillion federal budget, it is important to separate the so-called “discretionary” operating budget – to run the government – from the “non-discretionary” social insurance budget, for programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

It is the operating budgets which are sloshing around billions of dollars without public review, without strict standards and proper oversight by Congress – except for the oft-ignored reports of the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO). Increasingly, the public budget is under the allocative powers of federal bureaucrats who are besieged by corporate lobbyists.

In 1990 Congress made an attempt to require annual auditable budgets from each government department. Only the biggest operating budget by far – that of the Pentagon – has violated this requirement every year, despite promises by U.S. Secretaries of Defense to comply. It has not sent an auditable budget because no one knows where all the DOD money goes. Budget watchdogs, however, do know that much of the DOD budget is spread all over the world with warehouses of uninventoried supplies, cargo planes of $100 bills to grease or bribe influentials, and to pay for staggering overcharges by the insatiable military munitions manufacturers and other contractors.

In the midst of all these Niagaras of budgeted money, there are very few citizen groups investigating, monitoring and pressing Congress to represent the public interest. The closest are the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which is mostly an excellent think tank critically analyzing budget allocations for domestic social service programs and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonprofit organization that investigates and exposes government waste.

One Hundred Million dollars a year could unleash legions of lawyers, accountants and other knowledgeable people, who worked inside government, to challenge the status quo and the excesses of the executive branch agencies. The low-hanging fruit is truly everywhere and available for plucking. The structural budget process failures would require broad overhaul legislation to wake up Congress and hold its members electorally accountable.

People back home aren’t receiving the outrageous facts. Remember how shaken the Pentagon was when it was caught paying $435 for a simple claw hammer that its corporate vendor brazenly described as a “uni-directional impact generator.” Public outrage fueled by exposes reaching the citizenry could be organized to turn around members of Congress.

Unfortunately, spurts of indignation can only be converted into a grassroots movement by (polls show) left/right alliances of Americans joining together against combinations of unfettered waste, greed and power, which suck away huge revenues that could be used to rebuild America. With organizers in each of the 435 Congressional Districts assembling small (say 500 people in each District) who are informed and determined real change will come about.

From all angles, the obscured federal budget is broken, pillaged and suffused with grotesque, often criminal payments. Taking on such indefensible violations of the public trust by skilled civic action would fill the near vacuum existing today. There is not one fulltime individual citizen pressing for an auditable Pentagon budget, as required by law. Against such widespread inaction, there is nowhere to go but up!

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is an American political activist, author, lecturer, and attorney noted for his involvement in consumer protection, environmentalism, and government reform causes. The son of Lebanese immigrants to the United States, Nader attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School.


  1. Ahh, so the country for, by. of the people has to charge the people a billion $ to demand social safety nets and supporting and building up infrastructure and services to protect health, community, state and country? This is most bizarre. I guess Ralph wants Mitt Romney as the lobbyist for the people!

    RE: $1 billion per year could be spent lobbying Congress for a people’s agenda.

  2. capitalism has nothing to do with inequality, nor does socialism or communism—Marxist despise equality

  3. People back home could use an education in our monetary system, and the best way to learn it is by learning Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
    Even you, Mr. Nader, repeat the myth that “the taxpayer is paying for this.” That’s old, gold-standard thinking. The United States went off the last of the gold standard when Richard Nixon took us out of the Bretton Woods Accord in 1971. We have been using fiat currency ever since.
    Fiat currency means that Congress can create any amount of currency at will. If our taxes paid for anything, we could refuse to pay our taxes to stop them, but with a fiat currency, we are powerless.

  4. In their deference to Democrats, middle class liberals swept our poverty crisis under the carpet, and replaced it with the vague “inequality” meme. They periodically assure low-wage workers that they “feel your pain,” and have no cognizance of all those workers left jobless. In the world of the capitalists, everyone is able to work, and viable jobs are available for all. But that’s not reality.

  5. that’s rather down stream thinking. why not just invest 10 billion in a free University for Peace, Politics and Justice.

  6. Yes, I notice Repub’s. have completely purged “budget deficit” from their reasons to oppose any & all social programs. And, we are sneaking up on a $1 Trillion/yr. Defense budget, with both parties clamoring for increases due to Ukraine war (which we are not even fighting). We are soon to be Lebanon, where retailers can’t mark prices because they go up so fast.

    This is urgent & critical & certainly should be bi-partisan.

  7. Thank you, Attila. Typical great Nader article, with the long view of history, and showing how aspects of government and capitalism deteriorated – then suggesting well-researched solutions.
    When I was a teenager, I went with several of my high school friends to UCLA and saw Ralph Nader speak. Very memorable.
    This is going to sound egotistical, but it’s a strange fact (fluke?) that the third time Jeffrey St, Clair published one of my articles on CounterPunch, it was placed immediately above Ralph Nader’s! Not that it was better…
    Again, thank you for Nader on Scheerpost – another one I really like.

  8. Ralph’s right: “From all angles, the obscured federal budget is broken, pillaged and suffused with grotesque, often criminal payments.” Which is why it’s wrong to take on “such indefensible violations of the public trust by skilled civic action,” especially if this means little more than joining the political theater of budgetary or any other federal branch of regulation over organized crime operations by which we the people have come to be governed.

    How could such civic action compete with bottomless bribery alone which characterizes the influence peddling of K Street, for instance? If “only the super-rich can save us” (Nader) by funding the means of their own own undoing, then that looks like a design for no more than more philanthropic fronts of NGOs and the nonprofit industrial complex lending progressive pretenses to the protection rackets already serving their interests.

    As Ralph more or less acknowledges, we the people are on a need-to-know basis next to nil when it comes to the real contents of PR packages promoted as rule of law by representative government of, by, and for the corporate state. This captured government machinery has become utterly fascist and completely secretive and dark over the past decades of neoliberalism; what Sheldon Wolin aptly described as an “inverted totalitarianism” which maintains ideological facades of liberal democracy like a social contract or constitution representing (informed) consent of the governed while actually pursuing dictatorial agenda and goals of ruling class elites.

    A conservative estimate of the amount of money over the past 20 years that has disappeared down the black holes of federal wheeling and dealing on and off the books is reckoned around 20 trillion dollars. That’s likely just a fraction of the financing for vast and largely unknown apparatuses of control over general populations within advanced capitalism, from mass media’s manufacture of consent to mindless consumerism and mass marketing campaigns engineering consumers into digital surveillance, to fusion of military and medical industrial complexes for the now more fully institutionalized biosecurity state, as with the covid coup we reap the full dystopian dimensions of what has been sown under our eyes, hidden in plain sight with such fronts as health care (and to push for Medicare for All in this set-up is to beg for our own demise).

    We live under occupation to a shadow state operating at least 330 ‘biolabs’, aka bioweapon bases, across the planet, with heavy concentrations surrounding competing centers of oligarchic power (e.g., 25-30 around the Ukrainian-Russian border) in ‘our’ so-called emerging multipolar world under a single techno-totalitarian system far beyond Wolin’s model, which already had long left (illusions of) representative democracy behind.

    Yes, “there is no way to go but up” as Ralph concludes. But if we are to rise from our abject state of compliance with the full scope and nature of control called living nowadays, we will have to get up off our butts far beyond falling for more warmed over reform movements to bargain with our captors in a kind of Stockholm syndrome for ‘citizenry’ irrelevant to this technate, out to measure our every move in energy allowances for the privilege, forget the right, to live on this earth.

    That will require, for one, a revolutionary recovery of autonomous zones for humans to remain human in a world increasingly colonized and commodified by biotechnological means like non-vaccination campaigns of class war to convert current resources of labor – outside useless eaters marked for depopulation – into genetically and digitally modified organisms subject to ownership and remote control of AI algogarchy.

    “Whether the mask is labeled fascism, democracy, or dictatorship of the proletariat, our great adversary remains the apparatus—the bureaucracy, the police, the military. Not the one facing us across the frontier of the battle lines, which is not so much our enemy as our brothers’ enemy, but the one that calls itself our protector and makes us its slaves. No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this apparatus and to trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in ourselves and in others.” (Simone Weil)

  9. capitalism thrives where there is the least income, wealth disparities—USA has the most excepting a few African, 2 Latin American nations (gini-coeffecient)…in US monopoly capitalism as Lenin, Baran Sweezy, Mandel, Domhoff, etc imperialism is required to extend the life of empire since an impoverished consumerist public cannot satisfy over-production—the curse of capitalism per Marx and others. the 1 true amerikan Marxist per Kojeve, Henry Ford wrote, “if amerikans comprehended the US money and banking system there would be a revolution”

  10. Why don’t we start lobbying anteaters to stop eating ants? Or for storm clouds to stop raining on our Sunday picnics?

    As much as I admire Ralph Nader, he’s just perpetuating the cluelessness that drives the destruction of representative democracy here. To have representative democracy work for the people, you have to have representatives to report to, are accountable to, work EXCLUSIVELY for the people. The crooks and liars now in office work for their puppet master ruling class patrons. PERIOD! They make promises to voters, then when elected ignore the PEOPLE and do the bidding of the oligarchic ruling elites. NO, RALPH! You don’t LOBBY a bunch of two-faced traitors to get the job done. YOU REPLACE THEM! All 535 members of the House and Senate. Pink slips! Put them on a cruise ship. Send it to the South China Sea or Antarctica or the Black Sea. Then you elect a PEOPLE’S CONGRESS using candidate contracts as the line in the sand … https://no-contract-no-vote.us

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