It was one of those uncomfortable moments when you suddenly realize you're in the wrong place, that you're a rube from the sticks in a sophisticated city whose customs you don't quite understand.
Politico was sponsoring a "Washington Year in Review" symposium last week, and they'd invited me to be part of the energy panel. So even though I'd spent barely three weeks in Washington this year (and the most memorable nights were spent in its central cellblock for protesting outside the White House to block the Keystone XL pipeline), I found myself traveling down from Vermont to share a stage with Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.).
I was a little nervous, because Terry had recently introduced a bill to force the rapid approval of the Keystone pipeline, overriding the president. But we talked back and forth amiably enough, as I explained why the jobs figures for the proposed project he kept repeating were wrong. Markey pointed out that the Canadian tar sands oil that would be transported through the pipeline, far from enhancing U.S. energy security, was destined to be sold abroad. It was all "agree to disagree" harmony.
But then, in passing, I said something that to me seemed so obvious it didn't even occur to me anyone would object: that it was clearly Big Oil that wanted the pipeline revived, and that it was using the congressmen it funded heavily to make it happen.
Beside me, I could feel Terry bristle. He quickly interjected, something to the effect of, are you saying that we're "bought off"? And I suddenly felt bad, as if I indeed had said something wrong. I stammered; I tried to say I didn't know anything about him in particular, that I was sure he'd eventually be part of the solution and so on. But the frost stayed in the air; he seemed genuinely hurt that anyone could think he had a conflict.
Is it really possible that people in Washington don't understand what the rest of the country — left, right and center — believes about them: That they take campaign money from corporations in return for doing their bidding?
I went home and looked up Terry in the database of the Dirty Energy Money Campaign, compiled by Oil Change International. Koch Industries had given him $15,500. Exxon Mobil had given him $25,500. The Petroleum Marketers Assn. had tossed in $12,500. ConocoPhillips, Chevron, BP — all in all since 1999, he'd gotten $365,798 from the fossil fuel industry, and in the latest tally the site states he'd "sided with "dirty energy interests in 100% of selected votes."
The same was true for all the other sponsors of the legislation to thwart the review of Keystone and build it fast, climate be damned. I understand that this kind of corruption is bipartisan, and also that it's entirely legal; but I also understand that everyone, and I mean everyone, that I've ever met outside of Washington thinks it stinks. I mean, sitting there on the dais, I was feeling rude but also stunned. You really think this is OK? To take money from people whose interests you'll then judge?
It's no different from going to a football game where one of the teams is paying the referees. Middlebury College pays my salary. It wouldn't occur to me to, say, judge a scholarship contest involving students from the school. I wouldn't trust myself to do the right thing.
Fighting this pipeline over the last few months has given me new insight into D.C. When the battle is out in the open — when people are hearing from scientists explaining that heavily tapping the Canadian tar sands would mean it was "essentially game over" for the climate — we have a chance to prevail. But when the action disappears behind closed doors in Congress, money rules.
That's one reason we should have public financing of campaigns or figure out some other way of getting money out of politics. All that cash leads to bad policy choices, driven by corporate interests instead of public good. But there's another reason, which struck me up there on that stage. The honor of these men and women is at stake; it's unfair to ask them to rise above temptation the rest of us couldn't surmount. It's not just me; at some level every one of us owe Terry and his colleagues an apology. By letting this system persist, we've put them in an impossible situation.
I'm aware Washington considers that impossible situation normal and my position naive. But an October poll showed only 9% of Americans approved of Congress (compared with 11% in June who think polygamy is a good idea, and an inexplicable 16% who approved of BP during the 2010 oil spill). It's time to rescue the institution, and the obvious place to start is with the money-changers in the corridors.
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and a founder of the global climate campaign 350.org.