BILL MOYERS: So what does it say about the state of democracy when public health is sacrificed to private profits because our political system has been bought out from under us? No two people are better qualified to answer that question than my next guests.
Sheila Krumholz heads the Center for Responsive Politics, based in Washington. That’s an organization of investigators tracking money in politics and its impact on elections and public policy. The center and its website, OpenSecrets.org, are invaluable resources for journalists and anyone who cares about campaign finance and the clout of Washington lobbyists.
Danielle Brian runs the Project on Government Oversight, otherwise known as POGO. Its mission: is transparency and accountability throughout the federal government. Its weapons: whistleblowers and a thorough knowledge of the Freedom of Information Act, exposing abuse, demanding answers, and looking for solutions.
Welcome to you both.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Thank you.
DANIELLE BRIAN: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: We just heard Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner describe how the lead industry buys the outcomes it wants in Washington. Now, the two of you have collectively been at this work of public watchdogs for more than 40 years.
What have you learned in all that time about how money works?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Money buys outcomes. It’s not that money is given as a quid pro quo to purchase a vote. But, well-placed contribution, money spent on lobbying, well-placed former aids now working to lobby are all assets that can be used by private interests to influence policy.
BILL MOYERS: Sheila, you came to the Center for Responsive Politics almost 25 years ago, 1989. How do you compare the amount of money in politics then to now?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Every cycle, cycle after cycle, the money climbs inexorably up. So it has more than tripled in just the last decade in terms of all told -- money going to candidates, political action committees and parties, and also the lobbying and now this secret dark money which is going to newly energized, newly formed political nonprofits that are actively trying to shape electoral outcomes.
BILL MOYERS: Hasn’t the buying of influence in Washington become so routine it’s now the norm?
DANIELLE BRIAN: Oh, there’s no question that it’s become the norm. And part of the problem with that is that people are less and less outraged. They get sort of used to it, journalists as well. And so I do think that what Sheila's pointing to in addition to the campaign contributions and lobbying, which people think of when they think of money affecting government, it is also that revolving door that goes on where jobs, where people are leaving the federal government either from the Congress or the agencies and going to the industries that they had been overseeing or vice versa where they are leaving those industries and coming into the federal government.
These are the kinds of things that are really affecting policies. And then you have those same lobbyists who are dealing with legislation who are in the agency level who are also affecting how rulemakings, which is really some of the details that matter most.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean rulemaking?
DANIELLE BRIAN: So when a law is passed you then have to get down to the details, or the agency has to figure out exactly what the rules will be that implement that law. So that is one way that rulemakings are established. Sometimes an agency will just establish what new regulations will be without legislation. And either way, those same lobbyists are dealing at the agency level to make sure that their interests are protected.
BILL MOYERS: The cliché is that you have to pay to play. What does that mean to the two of you?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: It means that organizations and mostly we’re talking about corporations, understand that Washington is often standing in the way of bigger profits for them. And so they see this as a perfectly legal, entirely common way for their companies to shape policy legislation, even regulation coming out of Washington that will ameliorate the damage and ultimately enhance their ability to turn a profit.
And so private interests if they are not successful in achieving their legislative agenda in Congress have other opportunities, many bites at the apple, to try to water down regulations that they see as onerous or to otherwise tweak laws as they are actually being implemented by the agencies.
Look at this headline: “After Aa Powerful Lobbyist Intervenes, EPA Reverses Stance on Polluting Texas County's Water.” That's a story from the news organizations ProPublica reporting that a big energy company wants permission from Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, for a large-scale mining project in Texas that would pollute a pristine supply of drinking water.
So the EPA says no, can't have it. The big company hires Heather Podesta who's a big time lobbyist, a big time fundraiser for Democrats who was married at the time to another big Washington Democratic fixer named Tony Podesta, who used to be president of the liberal organization People for the American Way.
Through their connections these two have become the king and queen of influence peddling. Lo and behold, some months after the industry hires Heather Podesta, EPA reverses itself and the company gets an exemption and is allowed to pollute the aquifer. To hell with the public health. This is routine, isn't it?
DANIELLE BRIAN: And it's exactly what you're talking about with the pay to play. So it's, in this case you have companies that have the money and the resources to hire the lobbyists or the lawyers who will go to battle for their clients endlessly. I mean, those of us who are working on the other side in the public interest realize that when we have our wins which we get industry is going to be there and they're going to keep going and fighting because they have those endless resources to keep battling back.
It's the question of who is paying those influencers, who is behind that which is often not transparent and part of what we really think is essential is to make these communications even at the agency level. For example, if we could get visitors logs, many of the agencies track electronically if we're going to visit an agency you're listed. Those logs are not public. If we could get a better sense of, who are these people who are coming through the door to meet with the people for example at the EPA, we would have a better sense of what was going on.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: And that's especially important because we do know that there are over 12,000 registered lobbyists advocating on behalf of their clients in Washington. And we can see who they are, whether they've already spun through revolving door coming from Capitol Hill or elsewhere in government to advocate on behalf of these paying clients and how much they're being paid. But we also need to see those senior advisors, others who are not technically registered as lobbyists but are in fact doing much the same work, advocating on behalf of a paying private client.
BILL MOYERS: Is it even possible to track how a Heather Podesta would do her work for that company, which Congress people she sees, who she talk might talk to if she did at the White House or within the administration?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Unfortunately the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which governs disclosure of lobbying activity does not mandate that lobbyists disclose whom they're meeting with. So they only say, "We lobbied the House of Representatives, or we lobbied the Senate," which is ridiculous. That doesn't provide us with a roadmap to exactly who their targets are in Congress
DANIELLE BRIAN: But there's an example, well, that did work with the Recovery Act, where they actually did increase for that one time the disclosure of these contacts and it was, and it worked. So we know that there are models where you can have the disclosure of who is meeting with the federal agencies. And that is an essential tool for people like the Center for Responsive Politics to have.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: And it's an essentially tool for the public because there are people who are active in their locale and interested in specific fights, maybe at the federal level but governing business or development in their state. And if they want to know what they're up against they can only see part of the information. They need to get the full picture to be able to connect the dots and to be able to adequately contest what the money is buying private clients in Washington.
BILL MOYERS: The EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, says that that did not influence their decision to grant the exemption to the energy company. But as a journalist I have to say “verify,” right?
DANIELLE BRIAN: Yeah, and how can they say that when their position had been that this should not have gone through, right, until Podesta was hired. So I'd like to understand why they changed their mind.
BILL MOYERS: Look at this headline from The Nation magazine. “The Reverse Revolving Door: How Corporate Insiders Are Rewarded Upon Leaving Firms for Congress.” In this article Lee Fang reports on how corporations and lobbying firms award six figure bonuses to staff who leave to take powerful positions in government.
For example Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, got an exit package worth over $1 million from Citigroup shortly before he joined the Obama administration. The contract from Citigroup made explicitly clear that his bonus was contingent, and I'm quoting, "on his securing a ‘full time high level position with the US government or regulatory body.’" Make sense of that for me.
DANIELLE BRIAN: It's really I think the revolving door is maybe the most important corrupting element of in Washington because of-- you have what we call, in this case that's a reverse revolving door, right. But either way what you've got is people who are coming to the government or to be in public service with an incentive coming from their prior employer in this case.
You know, you're not forgetting your friends who just gave you a multibillion or a multimillion dollar deal. Or you have people who are in the public service who are anticipating their next step, you know, their public service is essentially a stepping stone in their résumé to make more money. I don't want that kind of person in my government. I would rather see that we have policies that really slow down the assumption that the reason you're in government is to help go make money for yourself and for your next business afterwards.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: It's also damaging because it used to be, I think, that one could aspire to be a senior congressional advisor and that would be the pinnacle of your career, that would be a real achievement. Now young staffers are looking to trade on their investment in public service to leave work on Capitol Hill to go work on K Street for much more lucrative jobs very quickly. They're not investing that time in public service. So I think that has had a damaging effect and means that the lobbyists are the ones that have the expertise. We're losing expertise that's not being developed on Congress, on Capitol Hill, it's the seat of that is in some cases in K Street.
BILL MOYERS: Which brings me to another headline. “Wall Street Hiring More Ex-Government Prostitutes” this column says, but then it crosses it out—it says “Officials to Assure it Gets its Way.” That's actually based on a story from Politico whose headline is “Wall Street Hires Washington.”
And the headline I mean, the story is that these big banks, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, JPMorgan Chase, are paying these government and political officials big bucks to come to work for them so that they can influence the very agencies and politicians they once worked for. That's an old practice, isn't it?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: The financial industry is the largest source of campaign cash and money on lobbying for many years in Washington. That changed during the healthcare debate, during the debate of Obamacare and the health industry, especially pharmaceutical and insurance companies, became the biggest spenders on lobbying during that period. So you see how it shifts as legislation comes and goes. They're, you know, the money follows power and influence. They're, so this is, I think evidence of that.
DANIELLE BRIAN: But there's, you know, the people who are working for example at the SEC, at the Securities and Exchange Commission are quite handsomely paid. They are not on the civil service schedule. So it's important when some people say, "Well, how could you ask someone not to take, you know to be underpaid for the rest of their lives when they could make so much more money on Wall Street." In fact they're actually quite well paid in order to keep try to keep people in the public service.
And frankly for many decades being in public service as a lifetime career as Sheila's talking about was considered a very honorable profession. And I think that is the kind of thing we need to try to work back to is seeing this as the end in itself. Being in public service is a great thing.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: I think that is a large part of the cynicism that's developed around government. People don't see it as an honorable profession because the money is playing such an important role. Across the board from left to right people, Americans believe that government has been purchased, that it's been corrupted by the money.
And I think in specific cases you know, the headlines day after day show elements of that where someone leaves Congress to go lobby for a special interest that gets a sweetheart deal stuck into a big omnibus spending bill and no you know, none's the wiser until it's too late. That happens time and again and it's been happening for so long. And it happens it's important to note it happens with Democrats and Republicans, nobody's pure in this.
BILL MOYERS: Here's another headline. “What Does Millions in Lobbying Money Buy? Five Congresspeople in the Pocket of the Private Prison Industry.” Reporting on how the for-profit prison industry uses its money to influence politicians to send more people to jail because that’s the way the industry makes more money.
DANIELLE BRIAN: You know what I found really shocking about the private prison industry is that recently you know, POGO tracks the top government contractors and their misconduct because the government hasn't until recently actually done that which is shocking in itself. But only in the last couple of years suddenly two of the top government contractors are private prison corporations. That was pretty shocking to me.
And this is happening at a time where we see that there's all kinds of legislation that is moving in Congress, that is criminalizing at a federal level, especially when it comes to immigration. We are very fascinated by that nexus. And I think it's really terrifying. It raises the point that we haven't touched on yet in terms of money in policy which is how much of what used to be done conducted by the federal government, by federal employees has been privatized to government contractors.
And that's a whole separate way that money is influencing policy where entire agencies are essentially relying on employees that are private sector employees with private sector interests. And they are in many cases really pushing the agenda of those agencies.
BILL MOYERS: Here's my last headline, it's from Common Dreams. “Tax Rates Down, Havens Thriving: Corporations Win, Workers Pay.”
And the sub headline is, “Despite tough talk corporations receiving increasingly friendly treatment from governments as working people carry the burden.” The point to me is how do everyday citizens stand up against this overpowering interlocking grip that money has on our government?
DANIELLE BRIAN: Well, people need to see it, but then they need to do something about it. And I think that the most important thing for people to remember is that they can do something about it, it is I worry that people become despondent and walk away from government.
BILL MOYERS: Cynical, I can tell you the cynicism is oceans deep.
DANIELLE BRIAN: Yeah, I think that's our biggest danger. Because in the end as we've talked about how industries will have endless lawyers and money to pursue lobbying. But they don't have the numbers of people. Our side has the numbers of people. And if we can just remind people that getting engaged still is what's going to put pressure on the public figures who don't want to be embarrassed. Media matters. Bad press matters. Going to town halls and having people yell at you for doing something corrupt matters. And that's what we need to remember to empower people to take action.
BILL MOYERS: Okay, I'm engaged. What do I do now?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: There are organizations like ours which are both credible, offering credible information, non-partisan information through which you can be informed and servicing opportunities to get involved, to take action on specific issues that are happening now--
DANIELLE BRIAN: That's--
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: --so--
DANIELLE BRIAN: --I think that's the key is those specific moments of time where it really will matter. And so we have at our website, at pogo.org we have a signup list for people who are joining what we're calling our good government army of people who really-- are willing to join us in being nerdy sometimes and saying “okay, now is the time.” And we get not just the one person, but the one person times 10,000 making a point, the people in that agency will say, "Wow, I didn't know anyone other than Heather Podesta was looking."
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: And whether it's agency staff or whether it's members of Congress, they're not going to risk the liability of being seen as allied with the moneyed interests against the public interests, particularly for elected officials. They know what side their bread is buttered on and it's the voters who hold, kind of the cards here. We need to make sure that they understand that we are paying attention. Because it's those secret deals that are most powerful. When we can expose the money and the players we help neutralize their impact.
BILL MOYERS: We know why the Heather Podesta’s of Washington do what they do. They get well paid for it. Why do you two keep doing what you're doing?
DANIELLE BRIAN: Well, one reason is when we have our victories. And those are really fantastically exciting and--
BILL MOYERS: Which one are you most excited about right now?
DANIELLE BRIAN: Right now I'm very excited that we got the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act passed. It's hard to get--
BILL MOYERS: Which means?
DANIELLE BRIAN: --legislation passed.
BILL MOYERS: Which means what does that act do?
DANIELLE BRIAN: What it's doing is helping federal employees finally have genuine protections when they raise dissent inside their agency of waste or fraud. They're now going to have state of the art protections. It has been a law that has been whittled down by hostile courts to be almost meaningless.
That's going to help all of society. This is not just an altruism for those federal employees. That means people in the agencies who are trying to do the right thing (and agencies are full of people trying to do the right thing), are going be more comfortable in raising their concerns. That's a big deal.
BILL MOYERS: You push data. And how do you win victories with data?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: We win by making sure that our data is accurate, unassailable, absolutely unbiased so that people know they can trust it as a source of information about how many really influences politics and policy. And by doing that we're not just informing the voters, we're helping the press do a better job of covering complex issues.
Money in politics at the federal level alone, to say nothing of the state and local level where it's also influential, is complicated. And so our-- we feel good about making it intelligible to the average American. Because it's so important that they understand how this really works and in some cases what they're up against
BILL MOYERS: So as we close tell my viewers, our viewers how they reach the Center for Responsive Politics.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Go to OpenSecrets.org, sign up for our weekly newsletter and pay attention to our opportunities to take action.
BILL MOYERS: And how do people reach POGO?
DANIELLE BRIAN: At pogo.org is our website and we're also on Facebook and Twitter which I know CRP is also. And so there are various ways of social media people can find us. But pogo.org is the central vehicle for us.
BILL MOYERS: Danielle Brian and Sheila Krumholz, thank you very much for being here, and thank you for what you do.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Thank you.
DANIELLE BRIAN: Thank you.