Cash and Congress: The Tie that Binds

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Congress Recess
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

“I miss Congress like an abscessed tooth.”

That’s what former Rep. Steven LaTourette told National Journal the other day. He was quoted in an article that asked the question, “Is Congress Simply No Fun Anymore?”

No, it isn’t.

Not that it was ever a vacation trip to Busch Gardens (on his honeymoon, an ex-in-law of mine spent a day at that European-themed park in Virginia and came home convinced he’d actually been to six countries). And certainly no one truly misses the 19th century days when members of Congress thrashed other members with canes (although I can imagine the reality show any day now on The Learning Channel).

But seriously. “Although partisanship is an enduring part of American politics, the type of hyper-partisanship we see now — I can’t find a precedent for it in the past 100 years.” So sayeth Bill Galston, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and co-founder of No Labels, which has herded 82 Democratic and Republican lawmakers into a “Problem Solvers Coalition.” Boy, is that ever the triumph of hope over experience.

“If your desire is to get something done, then you’re going to be very frustrated,” Galston explained to National Journal. Those members “who came to Washington to wage ideological war on what they see as a bipartisan status quo, if you ask them, they will say that gumming up the works is not part of the problem, it’s part of the solution. They’re actually happy when legislation doesn’t pass, unless it’s the kind of legislation that they approve of.”

Like passing umpteen useless resolutions to kill Obamacare while Detroit dies, bridges crumble and starving kids can’t get food assistance. Uselessness to the point where even former House Speaker Newt “Let’s Build a Moonbase” Gingrich says most Republican lawmakers have “zero answer” for what they’d do instead of Obamacare: “If we’re going to take on the fight with Obamacare, we have to be able to explain to people what we would do to make your life better.”

He was speaking at the Republican National Committee meeting in Boston. “We are caught up right now in a culture — and you see it every single day,” he said, “where as long as we are negative and as long as we are vicious and as long as we can tear down our opponent, we don’t have to learn anything.”

Okay, GOP, what have you done with the real Newt?

But despite what you’ve heard, the spirit of bipartisanship in Washington is not dead. Simply look past the vitriol, bombast and gridlock, then listen for the ka-ching of the nearest cash register, made flesh by friendly lobbyists and special interests. Their fat wallets and deep pockets bring together Democrats and Republicans like no one else in a collegial spirit of kumbaya as they dive for dollars in exchange for their votes and influence.

Just the other day, The New York Times reported that one of the plushest places at the table in the capitol is a seat on the House Financial Services Committee, the one that allegedly regulates the banks and Wall Street. In the first half of this year, political action committees “set up by lobbying firms, unions, corporations and other groups trying to push their agenda in Congress” have given more money to its members — nearly nine and a half million dollars — than any other committee.

So many members are clamoring for a seat at the trough that extra chairs had to be installed in the committee room. Freshmen members from both parties, wide-eyed and ripe for the picking, are particular targets for the money machine. One lobbyist told Times reporter Eric Lipton, “It is almost like investing in a first-round draft pick for the NBA or NFL. There is potential there. So we make an investment, and we are hopeful that investment produces a return.”

As Washington journalist Mark Leibovich (an upcoming Moyers & Company guest) writes in his bestseller, This Town:

“Getting rich has become the great bipartisan ideal: ‘No Democrats and Republicans in Washington anymore,’ goes the maxim, ‘only millionaires.’ The ultimate Green party. You still hear the term ‘public service’ thrown around, but often with irony and full knowledge that self-service is now the real insider play.

Having fun yet? Retiring lawmakers may rightfully be fed up with the institution of Congress, but that hasn’t stopped many of them from using their experience there as a stepping stone to the home version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Many reporters have cited last year’s article in The Atlantic, noting that in 1974, “3 percent of retiring Congressmen became lobbyists. Now it’s 50 percent of Senators, 42 percent of House members.”

An August 11 USA Today article by Fredreka Schouten references a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics:

“30 House members and senators who left office during the last Congress now work for lobbying firms or for interests that lobby the federal government. They account for nearly two-thirds of the former lawmakers from the 112th Congress that the center has identified as having new jobs.”

Ronald Reagan’s image of Washington as a shining city on a hill, rarely seen these days except at moments of pomp and pageantry, has succumbed to the reality of down and dirty, lucrative deal making. The yeas and nays of Congress yield not to the voice of the people but to the urgent, seductive whisper of the dollar.

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  • Felice Linder

    In reading this, I kept hoping for an optimistic sentence, or at least a call to action, that reveals a possibility of change. None. With no motivation to overturn Citizens United or to reform campaign finance laws, the US will be run by corporate interests for the foreseeable future. The worst consequence of this, IMHO, is the environmental impact. Our food supply, the water we drink and the air we breath are being poisoned at ever increasing rates. Pipelines and fracking are literally destroying the planet. So we just wait. For the end.

  • Elaycee

    I wish I could find a reason to argue with Mr Winship. I got nothin.

  • Noblerot

    Those who feel the need for an “optimistic sentence” in everything they read are failing to look to the hope and change in themselves. I notice there is an entire section of the Moyers website called “Take Action.” Check it out and then do something.

  • Anonymous

    One partial solution would be greater openness about contributions to political campaigns. Right now a lot of the money is completely hidden from public view. There are groups working for that, like the Center for Public Integrity, but you could just write to your congressmen and women.

    A more drastic solution would be to ban all private contributions to campaigns, which would be funded solely by public money. I understand a few countries have such a system, but I can’t find specifics.

  • Anonymous

    I share your pessimistic view and I’m very sad to admit it.

  • Strawman411

    I agree. There may be some sticky First Amendment issues (the Money = Speech crowd, especially), but with an informed electorate watching over a process of regulated campaign rules — and accepting that public funding is the only workable way — we might see a way out of the current nosedive into corruption.

    Two overarching problems, though: 1) the ideal of an “informed electorate” is only a pitiable fantasy, and 2) the powers-that-be will ensure that taxpayer-only funded campaigns will absolutely never happen.

  • tadv

    Educate thyself, inform others & by all means take action! This will only go away if enough voters/taxpayers/consumers (the ones who elect these “civil servants”) say enough & demand an end to money in politics. We can take by power from corporations when we are able to create a critical mass! Write letters, make calls & boycott as much as possible.

  • Anonymous

    Those are some good thoughts. The 1stA should not block greater openness about campaigns contributions, since there would be no prohibition on actually making those contributions.

    And it doesn’t have to be just an informed electorate watching those contributions. The opposing party will watch them too, and would try to make political hay out of them (“Look, the Dems are taking money from Vladimir Putin!”)

    I agree that 100% taxpayer-funded campaigns might be the best solution, but that is probably does have a problem with the 1stA.

    But I wouldn’t let its impossibility stop me from advocating for it. Even way-out-there proposals can shift the discussion. If legislators see that a substantial number of citizens really do want publicly funded elections, they may accept a weaker but still helpful alternative, like McCain-Feingold, as the lesser evil.

  • Anonymous

    Despair is exactly what they want you to feel. Speak up! Even if you don’t accomplish much, you will feel better for it, and you will also encourage all the other people who don’t speak up, but feel the way you do. :-)

  • Henry Norman

    How come this thing called “lobbying” does not qualify as bribery?

  • Felice Linder

    Noblerot, I appreciate your pointing me toward “Take Action,” something I already do in every aspect of my life. Your hostility is misplaced. Further, I believe strongly that “hope” is for assholes (something I learned in my EST training in 1980). Action is the only path to change.

  • dantynan

    You have to start locally in your district and state, try to roll back the redistricting abuse that has resulted in a republican majority in the house despite capturing a minority of the votes. we are seeing the effects of this in NC, where the American taliban have taken over state govt thanks to a series of relatively small but highly targeted contributions from groups controlled by Art Pope, who is closely allied with the Koch Bros.

  • Shaun Dakin

    Nothing will change with blog posts and tweets. Face to face in person activism to change the status quo is what will work.

  • Christine Curry

    Please Listen… He hits the nail on the head about these folks.
    Christine Curry

  • Truthspew

    It’s not just D.C. that’s a mess. I had opportunity to have a conversation with my state Representative the other day. He had formerly been on the City Council, Acting Mayor but jumped out. Then he went for Rep. I asked how he liked it – oh he’s not happy.

  • ccaffrey

    The Supreme Court pretty much squelched the first with the Citizens’ United decision. The second is the ONLY way to go. That and a ban on the revolving door to plum lobbying jobs, before and after….say, for 5 years minimum!

  • ccaffrey

    Boycotts by a coalition of groups worked well to get a number of corporations to pull out of ALEC. Money (or withholding thereof) talks. But we are sunk if the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement gets fast-tracked or passed by regular means. It would allow corporations to sue governments if they pass laws or regulations that inhibit future earnings of corporations included in the agreements. Decision to be made by an independent tribunal. Serious as a heart attack. APB on this one!

  • Anonymous

    In-person activism is great, but it isn’t the ONLY thing that will work. And blog posts and tweets might make a SMALL difference. Why not use as many types of pressure and activism as possible. :-)

  • Anonymous

    Because it isn’t money given directly in exchange for some kind of official action. It is INDIRECT money, given to a campaign generally, in exchange for “consideration” or just face time. It is still a kind of corruption, but a weaker form than outright bribery.

  • Anonymous

    You mean the SCOTUS *expanded* the First to apply to corporations, I guess? But a ban or ban period on lobbying jobs after public office is a good idea! I believe Obama asked all his own people to commit to such a ban, but that is just Obama, and just the Administration.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, is there any end to it?

  • Carol Bates

    Our government has been bought and sold by corporations and special interests. I thought that prostitution was illegal, but guess not.

  • Debbie Jaegle

    No surprise here. But what can be done about it?

  • Anonymous

    Believe it or not, I think just talking about it helps a little. It shows your friends and family that you care about the issue, and makes them more likely to talk about it too. Talking about it to your congressmen and women helps a bit more, and talking about it when their seats are contested helps even more (because they need to listen to their constituents more then.)

    And hey, Bill Moyers has a tab called “Take Action” on this very website! I found this there:

    Lawrence Lessig (who wrote an excellent book about this issue called “Republic, Lost) has started an organization to work on this issue. The article has a list of steps you can take. The Take Action page also has a list of other organizations, organized by topic.

    Your individual actions will only accomplish a little bit, but that is MUCH more than doing nothing. To me, doing nothing is not an option.