In a Republic, the interests of citizens are represented in their legislature by representatives, rather than individually and the United States of America is a Republic. That’s our centuries old system and when many people are represented by a few, the integrity of the few always comes into question. So our present state is not something new. Over a hundred years ago, Mark Twain wrote
It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress
Many presidents have run on trust-busting platforms, from Teddy Roosevelt (who actually busted them) to Barack Obama (who seems to have joined their team). So we still have money outperforming the public interest. The difference is that today, for a variety of reasons, the amplification of that power has escaped all challenges and, more importantly, is on the very edge of reducing our Constitutional Republic to an Oligarchy. What has changed is the methods by which the wealthy and powerful are now in virtual control of all three branches of government.
These few are not anti-American and they are not bent on destroying this fine nation for their own goals. They are sincere in their belief that they are right and that what serves their interests best serve the interests of the country. I think they are wrong and that there’s inherent danger in their political and economic goals, but that is only my belief and I must either make the case or leave the reader to disagree. If we disagree, that doesn’t mean we’re enemies and have to stop talking.
The differences between the Congress of Mark Twain’s time and that of today has its roots in
the Newt Gingrich-Tom DeLay subversion of lobbyists,
both parties abuse of legislative redistricting,
blatant congressional payoffs for legislative support,
the recent Supreme Court decision equating unlimited corporate campaign spending with free speech,
the growth of political action committees (PACs) and
the polarization of support bases in both parties that virtually demand deadlock in both the House and Senate.
The rest is largely emblematic of the history of our chosen political system over the life of the republic and has been with us since the beginning. Politics is “the art of the possible” and, by that definition, opens all sorts of opportunities for graft and fraud in the legislature. Of course, we no longer have graft and fraud in the United States. We have the world’s largest and most lucrative lobbying industry and the Congress (the receivers) have conveniently made this transfer of money directly to the pockets entirely legal. If you think there’s any possible way Congress is going to cut its own route to this honey-pot by legislative action on their part, don’t hold your breath. More on this later…
Subversion of Lobbyists
To get to the source of this largesse on their own behalf, let’s revisit the Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay association with the lobbyist hierarchy. DeLay, a representative from Texas, was an exterminator before he got into politics and that may provide a clue into his mindset. Killing insects and rodents is not all that far from a successful career in the House of Representatives, as he proved to great effect. According to a New York Times article,1
The quest by the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, for greater Republican clout in the lucrative world of lobbying is bearing an embarrassment of riches. Two Washington lobbyists with close ties to Mr. DeLay have harvested a cool $45 million across three years by selling lobbying and public affairs services to four Indian tribes flush with casino profits. This is such an eye-popping profit that Senator John McCain is planning hearings on what he calls ”disgraceful” suggestions of profiteering. Actually, the tribal contracts, reported by The Washington Post, exemplify the way the Capitol works. One of the enriched lobbyists had been a ranking staff assistant to Mr. DeLay, the other a close political ally.
Mr. DeLay declared last week that ”if anybody is trading on my name to get clients or to make money, that is wrong and they should stop it immediately.” But his attempt to disown the lobbyists seemed a bit strained in light of his long campaign to make Republican lobbyists more dominant. ”If you want to play in our revolution, you have to play by our rules,” he once famously declared.
Further along in the article, the Times goes on to say,
Across Washington, the amount companies report spending on lobbying has been rising steadily, to more than $160 million a month, according to Political Money Line, a watchdog group. It is clearly past time for a serious investigation of this industry.
That was as of eight years ago and in 2011 that already staggering amount ballooned to $278 million a month.2 That’s a considerable pork barrel in which the Congress is free to rummage around and makes it damned unlikely they will close it down of their own accord.
But the exterminator’s iron grip on the lobbying industry was born of something called the “K-Street Project,” that blossomed in the minds of DeLay in the House, Rick Santorum in the Senate and Grover Norquist, a behind the scenes operator I would put forth as a candidate for the unofficial ‘whip’ of the entire Republican Party. K-Street is to Washington lobbyists as Wall Street is to New York financiers; the heart and soul of the industry. So that’s the background. What were they up to with their ‘project?’
K-Street is constantly welcoming new lobbying firms and hiring to fill positions among those existing. The K-Street Project sought to fill those vacancies with Republican staffers and, further, to keep track of which lobbying firms contributed to which party politicians. Swept into a majority position in the 1994 mid-term elections, their first majority in forty years, DeLay meant to lock up the money that flowed from lobbyists to legislators and direct it specifically to his party. Those, he felt, were the spoils of victory and he wasn’t bloody well going to sit back and not take advantage. Thus the famous quote ”If you want to play in our revolution, you have to play by our rules” and he set out to accomplish that.
And by god he did, as he and Rick Santorum over in the Senate sat down with lobbyists and laid out the rules. It should be said that lobbyists don’t much care what the rules are, as long as they accomplish the goals of lobbying and those goals are uniformly to bring home the legislative bacon for their clients. DeLay kept a notebook on his desk in the Speaker’s Office that kept score on every lobbyist dollar spent on Republicans and Democrats (those numbers are on public record). Any lobbyist coming in to see DeLay, and there were hundreds of them, was confronted with that book and the message came through loud and clear.
Meanwhile, back in Kansas, Wisconsin, California or Florida, the voters presumed Congress was acting in their best interests and waited innocently for their next chance to vote.
When you control the money, you control legislation. Books have been written on the lobbying-legislative relationship, but the bottom line is that it was very effective until guys like Jack Abramoff came along and pissed at the picnic. 3He was at the heart of an extensive corruption investigation that led to his conviction and to 21 persons either pleading guilty or being found guilty, including White House officials J. Steven Griles and David Safavian, U.S. Representative Bob Ney, and nine other lobbyists and Congressional aides.
During 2011, 10,519 lobbyists distributed $3.3 billion dollars across the offices of Representatives and Senators. We no longer call that graft and fraud and no legislators go to jail for taking it, because they themselves have legislated laws that feed the trough, making graft, fraud and corruption absolutely legal as lobbying in our modern-day version of The Best Government Money Can Buy.
And the Supreme Court has thus far supported that chicanery by decisions that make a mockery of constitutional representative government. How different is that from the dictatorial authorities in third-world countries?
Redistricting is the process by which the number of Representatives in the House of Representatives are determined. It normally follows the ten-year census results and, without it, there would essentially be no way of allocating the proper number of members in the House. After the census determination, some states lose a Representative or two and others gain, all in an orderly manner and all according to the Constitution.
Where the rub comes is in the gerrymandering4 of districts. This unfair division to serve a particular candidate’s advantage runs counter to the intent of the law and serves to craft districts into weird and convoluted district lines. These ‘redistricted’ areas serve to maintain a particular political party’s hold on the area’s seat in the House.
5Each state has its own standards for creating Congressional and legislative districts. In addition to equalizing the population of districts and complying with Federal requirements, criteria may include attempting to create compact, contiguous districts, trying to keep political units and communities within a single district, and avoiding the drawing of boundaries for purposes of partisan advantage or incumbent protection.
Well, we would hope, but the creativity of personal and party advantage has boundless resources for meeting the letter, if not the intent of the law. The 4th Congressional District in Chicago (shown below6) is a great example.
Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez, a Democrat in Democratic Machine dominated Chicago, has held that particular seat since 1993. One cannot help but wonder what he (apparently) fears in the densely populated center of what would be a more contiguous district. Anyway, it’s an intriguing example of map-drawing with a purpose and its purpose is easy to see at a glance.
Again, the heavy hand of our highest court gets into the act with a decision that subverts the will of the many to the advantage of the few.
7The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Pennsylvania gerrymander effectively cemented the right of elected officials to select their constituents by eliminating most of the grounds for disenfranchised constituents to challenge gerrymandered lines.
Somehow, I naively thought it was the purpose of the Supreme Court to defend and protect the disenfranchised. Apparently not.
Blatant Congressional Payoffs for Legislative Support
It’s a pretty discouraging task to highlight just who got what to push through special interest legislation, but the fact is (and not surprising) that our leaders in the House and Senate have their heads deepest in the trough. As you scan the bi-partisan list, bear in mind two facts;
These are ‘campaign contributions,’ yet any and all unspent sums become available to the candidate for any purposes he may deem appropriate.
The recent 2010 decision by the Supreme Court (Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission) opens the floodgates of corporate spending on elections. The data below does not reflect the opening of the money-pump following that decision.
Harry Reid (Dem. Nevada), in the six years prior to June 30, 2010, raked in over $22 million.
Mitch McConnell (Rep. Kentucky), during the same period raised nearly $20 million.
John Boehner (Rep. Ohio), in a mere two years prior to June 30, 2010, pumped $9.5 million from the contribution well, considerably out funding his Senate contemporaries.
Nancy Pelosi (Dem. California), took in $2.3 million in a single year, but her seat is so secure she doesn’t need to spend on a grand basis.
Dave Camp (Rep. Michigan) is someone no one outside his voting district has probably ever heard of, but he’s Chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and thus found himself the proud owner of almost $4 million in the two years prior to June 30, 2010.
The first four are the top dogs in the House and Senate, but Dave is just a nice guy with a major committee chairmanship. And so it goes in the Best Government Money Can Buy. But fasten your seatbelts, our Supreme Court has loosed the dogs of corporate money and it will surge from a steady and lucrative flow, to an absolute torrent.
It’s a good time to be in office (at least money-wise), but probably a nearly impossible time to run as a new candidate.
Political Action Committees (PACs)
Political Action Committees are the major conduit of money in the interest of affecting elections. While various lobby interests directly spend on their own behalf, they indirectly support broader issues relevant to them by contributions to PACs. The same goes for private citizens. They may well support a Tea Party or environmental PAC to promote their goals beyond the election of their Representative or Senator.
So let’s define the term;
8A political action committee (PAC) is any organization in the United States that campaigns for or against political candidates, ballot initiatives or legislation. At the federal level, an organization becomes a PAC when it receives or spends more than $1,000 for the purpose of influencing a federal election, according to the Federal Election Campaign Act. At the state level, an organization becomes a PAC according to the state’s election laws.
On a personal note, at one particularly frustrated time in my own life, I suggested the organization of a PAC specifically focused on support for the goals of common American citizens. I waggishly named it the Buy Back America PAC and even went so far as to buy the domain name (www.buybackamerica.com), offering to give it to anyone who would take up the task. No one ever applied, which either speaks to the narrow range of my audience or the more probable fact that it’s an unworkable idea. The domain name has long since lapsed, but may be available even today.
Political Action Committees haven’t actually been with us all that long and they were invented shortly after the 1947 Taft Hartley Act prohibited unions from spending money to influence elections (an earlier Tillman Act had kept corporations out of the honey-pot since 1907). Taft-Hartley was passed by the House and Senate, which means that the two branches of the legislature must have thought money in elections, at least from that source, was a bad idea. Since 1947, they have apparently changed their minds.
It’s for you to judge whether their original intent was correct, or things are just fine, as those in the know predict nearly $10 billion will be spent in the 2012 elections. You might reflect though, on the fact that ten billion dollars pumped into media ads makes your and my humble efforts at the voting booth look pretty pale. Further reflection reveals that party-centric ads demonizing the opposition serve to polarize rather than bring together a Congress already frozen in the headlights of deadlock.
Anyway, the unions specifically came up with PACs to get around the letter of the law and take contributions from members. Not to be outdone, corporations followed suit and independent groups began to form as well. In 1971 Congress again got into the act, limiting how much and from whom money could be gathered and how much and upon whom it could be spent. Even with these restrictions, the money was a major influence, as candidates became ‘branded’ like laundry soap and opponents were targeted as ‘dirty laundry.’
It’s no coincidence that since PACs, both parties have inflamed their perceived bases and thus, Republicans and Democrats alike, withdrew into the safe shell of their base and stopped talking to one another. In either party, when you see a legislator making a ‘statement’ before the cameras, they address their base and not the American public. Nor is it an accident that approximately 40% of voters now identify themselves as ‘Independent,’ rather than Democrat or Republican. We have increasingly become a polarized, party-centric government, represent-ing an increasingly frustrated, fractured electorate.
As circus barkers once cried out, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.” Yet once conceived, how long would it possibly be before PACs became Super PACs? Not long.
In 2010, our conservative dominated Supreme Court (one member of whom, in 21 years sitting on the court has never asked a question from the bench) found, in the matter of SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, that PACs not contributing to candidates, parties, or other PACs could take in unlimited money from whoever the hell they pleased and spend it however the hell they wanted, as long as it was not directly for specific candidates, parties or other PACS. The barn door was now permanently off its hinges and thus we look forward to our very first, historic, hysteric ten billion dollar election year.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.9
1 New York Times, March 4, 2004, Tom DeLay and the Lobbying Game
2 Open Secrets.org, Lobbying Database
3 Wikipedia, Jack Abramoff
4 Wikipedia: Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing district lines to achieve political gain for legislators. The practice of gerrymandering involves the manipulation of district drawing in aims to leave out, or include, specific populations in a legislator’s district to ensure his/her reelection.
5 Wikipedia, Redistricting
6 Map design by Andy Proehl (www.maproomblog.com)
7 Wikipedia, Redistricting
8 Wikipedia, Political Action Committee
9 Sir Walter Scott, poet
published: 19. 10. 2014