Crime/Corruption

It's not Congress. It's legalized corruption. Time to end it.

Former Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, is off to prison. In August, a jury told him that bribery, racketeering and money laundering were not acceptable behaviors for anyone, let alone a member of Congress.

As a felon, Jefferson has had equally despicable company: Rep. Andrew J. Hinshaw, R-Calif. (accepting a bribe); Rep. Charles Diggs Jr., D-Mich. (payroll kickback scheme); Rep. Michael Myers, D-Pa. (accepting bribes from FBI agents impersonating Arab businessmen); Reps. John Murphy, D-N.Y., Frank Thompson, D-N.J., John Jenrette, D-S.C., and Raymond Lederer, D-Pa. (Arab businessmen bribery scandal, a.k.a. Abscam).

And Rep. Mario Biaggi, D-N.Y. (extorting money from a defense contractor); Rep. Mel Reynolds, D-Ill. (sex with underage campaign worker, bank fraud); Rep. Walter Tucker III, D-Calif. (accepting and demanding bribes); Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill. (felony mail fraud); Rep. James A. Trafficant, D-Ohio (bribery, conspiracy and racketeering); Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (accepting bribes from defense contractors) and Robert W. Ney, R-Ohio (Abramoff scandal). I’m sure readers can name more.

The collective misfortune of these men is that they got caught. Each undoubtedly said to himself, “I am invincible. I am a member of Congress.” They all assumed membership in the biggest-of-all-members-only clubs provided a get-out-of-jail-free card. But the real reason they believed they could get away with accepting bribes and committing extortion is that members of Congress have been doing it legally for years.

Jefferson may serve 13 years. Prosecutors say he probably earned less than $400,000 despite seeking millions in illegal bribes from “oil, sugar, communications and other businesses, often for projects in Africa,” said The New York Times. But he’s raked in about $6.45 million in campaign contributions since 1990, half from political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics database. More than $600,000 came from lawyers and law firms. (Wonder if the sharks will return his calls now.)

Prosecutors focused on the $90,000 federal agents found in Jefferson’s freezer. The public should have been more focused on Jefferson’s legal sources of campaign bucks, in the same way it should have paid less attention to the penis of that other two-faced Louisiana legislative poseur, Sen. David Vitter, and more attention to the sources of his campaign funding.

We the voters, the people who have watched health-care costs starkly climb ever higher, who see taxes rising exhorbitantly at all levels, who witness the quality of education for our children wither, who watch jobs vanish overseas and unemployment rise, and who are frightened that decades-old safety nets are tattered beyond repair, have become so inured to the corrosive role of money in politics that we forget that politicians are continously but legally bribed by monied interests. And it should stop.

Ask Glenn Greenwald of salon.com. In a video for Larry Lessig’s change-congress.com, he explains how Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., are threatening to filibuster any health-reform plan with a public option. Lieberman, says Greenswald, is “drowning in campaign contributions” from the health-care industry — more than $2.5 million — and his wife landed a cushy job in 2005 with PR flacksters Hill & Knowlton, representing pharma giant Glaxo. Several months later, Lieberman sought to steer incentives to Glaxo to develop vaccines.

“This is the kind of legalized corruption, legalized bribery, that runs the United States Senate,” says Greenwald. “Only in this case it is particularly sleazy and transparent because Lieberman is ready to gut the major initiative of the Democratic Party.”

Bayh’s wife, says Greenwald, “sits on the board of directors of WellPoint, one of the largest health-insurance companies in the nation. [The Bayhs] own, by their own disclosures, between $500,000 and a million dollars in WellPoint stock. … When Sen. Lieberman threatened to filibuster the public option … the value of the stock of the health-care industry skyrocketed … and personally benefited the finances of the Bayh family.”

Bayh’s wife was paid more than $2 million between 2005 and 2008. Bayh, in 2008, received $500,000 in campaign contributions from the health-care industry, says Greenwald.

“It’s really clear corruption,” says Greenwald.

Politicians defend their financial associations with large corporations (and unions) and wealthy individuals. They call it “campaign financing.” Sadly, we’re too accustomed to this shameless dance now, aren’t we?

A member of Congress, or someone who aspires to be one, gets on the phone and calls people who have lots of money. Often those people run very large enterprises, such as corporations (or unions). Those corporations, driven by the dictum “maximize shareholder income” (or, increasingly, “maximize CEO compensation”), would like members of Congress to make those tasks easier. Politicians say such donations only provide access to their ears, not their actions. The big corporate and PAC donors — or their hired lobbyists — say they’re only legitimately promoting the causes of their companies and clients.

Bullshit. It has been known for decades that lobbyists are often in the room, helping congressional staff write — or writing themselves — legislation. Earlier in this decade, tax-law experts from General Electric shaped an export tax reform bill that saved GE hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lobbyists’ dictation of politicians’ words and deeds has become even more blatant. New York Times reporter Robert Pear wrote Nov. 14 that lobbyists wrote and sought to have supportive statements about health-care reform placed by members into the Congressional Record prior to the Nov. 5 vote:

In the official record of the historic House debate on overhauling health care, the speeches of many lawmakers echo with similarities. Often, that was no accident. Statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies. … Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss drug giant Roche, estimates that 42 House members picked up some of its talking points — 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, an unusual bipartisan coup for lobbyists. [emphasis added]

A lobbyist created the messages and supporting documents and e-mailed them to members. Lobbyists denied any malevolent intent. Said one, quoted anonymously by Pear: “This happens all the time. There was nothing nefarious about it.”

In the past five years, Genentech has spent nearly $10 million on lobbying expenses. In the past decade, Genentech has contributed more than $1 million to federal candidates. Pear reports Genentech’s PAC has made contributions to some of the members who used its talking points and that company officials had hosted fundraisers for some.

And, of course, there’s no quid pro quo, right? Wrote Pear: “Evan L. Morris, head of Genentech’s Washington office, said, ‘There was no connection between the contributions and the statements.'” [emphasis added]

Bullshit again. It is, as Greenwald says, legalized corruption. Imagine if I, as an individual voter living in a rural district, had asked my congressman to insert under his name words I wrote about health-care reform into the Congressional Record. He would say no. (Or rather, the staff member I’d get shunted off to would say no.) But when Genentech said jump, 42 members of Congress asked, “How high?”

Don’t kid us. It’s legalized corruption. Remarks members of Congress revise and extend into the Congressional Record, we now see, have been actually written by lobbyists. So what do the clowns we elect to office do for the $174,000 we pay them (and with very nice health-care bennies, too)?

A handful of Republican senators, led by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C, think they have an answer — a constitutional amendment to limit how long a person may serve in Congress. Apparently, senators would get 12 years, while representatives would get only six years. (Imagine that bill’s conference committee, eh?) On his Senate website, DeMint writes:

As long as members have the chance to spend their lives in Washington, their interests will always skew toward spending taxpayer dollars to buy off special interests, covering over corruption in the bureaucracy, fundraising, relationship building among lobbyists, and trading favors for pork, in short, amassing their own power.

Don’t be misled. After all, what’s to prevent the current system of lobbyists, legalized corruption, and greed from buying new sets of politicians every six or 12 years? Being new, they’ll come cheap, too.

Members of Congress need mountains of money to obtain and retain political power. They spend hours each day dialing donors and asking for, or demanding, campaign contributions. That’s the extortion part of the equation. Donors demand at least an ear and now, we see, actual words printed in the Congressional Record. That’s the corruption part. All that separates many uncharged and unjailed members of Congress from Jefferson and his imprisoned pals is an FBI wiretap.

Changing the politicians through term limits has little merit. Instead, get rid of the current system of campaign finance. If members of Congress were willing to bail out banks with hundreds of billions of dollars, demand that they allow the public to outbid special interests. Lobby members of Congress (yep, I said lobby) to drastically and dramatically overhaul public election financing. Demand that members of Congress place in the federal budget each year sufficient billions of dollars to pay for every federal and statewide election in the country. Give incumbents and challengers alike plenty of public money. But cut them off at the financial knees if they accept a single dime of corporate, union, or PAC money.

If our politicians continue to insist on being bought, let the public do the buying.

20 replies »

  1. I’m under the impression (perhaps false) that if two thirds of state legislatures enact a law, then Congress must adopt it. So here’s my plan:

    We get referendums on ballots in all 50 states to force federal politicians to wear sponsorship uniforms, just like in NASCAR the biggest sponsor has the biggest ad. Further, the referendum’s will stipulate that all Congresspeople must wear their uniform to all public events attended in their official capacity (campaigning, town halls, at work, etc.)

    The ballot referendum has proven its mettle in the medical marijuana sphere, mostly because it’s good at tying the hands of state legislatures. I think that such referendums would be plenty popular across party lines. And it would be pretty damned funny too.

    Yes, it would go for the President and Vice President. Think of the state visits where the President’s wearing a giant Goldman Sachs logo on his back and trying to pretend that he’s serious about financial sector reform.

    I suppose that a referendum model could be used to force corporate funding out of federal politics too, but i think it has less chance of working because it doesn’t appeal to the American pastime of making fun of other people.

    Thanks for laying this all out so clearly, Denny.

  2. Great post, Denny. My own idea for solving the problem is even more strident, perhaps. It goes like this. As you note, 100% public financing of all elections. No Congressweasel may accept a PENNY in donations from ANY source. If you are allotted $100K for the campaign, that’s what you spend. Period. Also, serious restrictions on franking by incumbents.

    Then you add this bit. You may not hold any committee membership that has oversight of any industry in which you have worked for five years prior to election. And you may not work, in any capacity, for any industry for which you’ve had official oversight for five years after leaving office.

    In other words, we create a ten-year graft-free zone around your official capacities. And we extend those restrictions to immediate family members.

    We’d have to raise salaries, of course, but that seems like a small price to pay…..

  3. If I ran a large corporation, I’d probably consider making campaign contributions to be the highest return-on-investment action I could take. I agree that the only way to fix this is to make all political campaigns publicly financed, but the devil is definitely in the details.

    For instance, who gets how much? If we divide the pot equally among all candidates, the incumbent will have a HUGE name-recognition advantage. That approach would pretty much guarantee a congressional job for life. We also have to figure out how to handle third, fourth, fifth-party candidates and the like. Do they get the same funding as the Dems and GOP? Suppose their following is tiny and their chances of winning about one in a billion? Suppose they’re members of the American Nazi Party using the public funds to buy overpriced campaign materials manufactured by their supporters, the profits from which would then go to fund the ANP?

    Who is a legit candidate and who is not? And how do we decide?

    I agree in principle. But I don’t know how to deal with the reality.

  4. Private financing of political campaigns is the primary tenet of Plutocracy, which is the defacto form of government we have in America.

    The plutocrat puppet masters of our “elected” politicians will never allow them to openly support 100% public financing of political campaigns. Why? Because it would disintegrate the iron grip of power that the Plutocracy has on our massively-corrupted government.

  5. All this talk of ‘public financing’ just frosts my cornflakes, y’know? It’s not that hard, people!

    Ask yourself, What do political candidates have to spend all the campaign money on anyway? Would that not be media advertising to promote their lame-ass candidacies for elected office?

    Well guess what, buckwheat. What licenses all of them big time media companies to operate?
    Would that not be US freakin’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC)? Well now, Imagine that!

    All we have to do is get the US freakin’ FCC to Require that the big media companies, in order to retain their precious licenses to fill our heads with crap and call it entertainment, Donate as much air time as necessary to all recognized political parties and candidates (those defined as able to gather signatures from, say, about 5 per cent or more of all the registered voters in any particular local, state or national electoral race), or else, it is so simple, they lose their stupid broadcasting license and have to shut down their flim-flam.

    As I recall, an FCC Chairman once proposed something like this and was quickly retired.

    That’s because it was a really simple, easy to implement, corporate ass-kickin’ great idea!

    Let’s do that. Then maybe we can work up to tar and feathers, etc.

  6. Public financing of federal elections is the only thing that will save our democracy, but due to Supreme Court rulings enshrining the notion that “money equals free speech,” it will have to be done by constitutional amendment.

  7. I would think that campaign donations would enjoy first amendment protection, but some disagree. I’m dismayed that Alcee Hastings was left offthe list, although he was a corrupt federal judge who was impeached, ousted, and successfully ran for congress. Reminds me of Marion Barry who was caught in a hotel room, smoking crack with a hooker, and managed to be re-elected. I guess some, like Charles Rangel just can be crooks and keep get re-elected. Something is wrong here.

  8. It was in the late 1960’s that someone painted a graffito on a wall in downtown Manhattan:
    ALL POLITICIANS ARE WHORES
    So it was and so it is. And now we learn that 44% of the members of Congress are millionaires. Whose interests are they looking out for?

    The system is hopelessly corrupt.

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