2006.02.27: February 27, 2006: Headlines: Figures: Staff: Journalism: Media Channel: Bill Moyers speaks on Restoring The Public Trust (Part 1)
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2006.02.27: February 27, 2006: Headlines: Figures: Staff: Journalism: Media Channel: Bill Moyers speaks on Restoring The Public Trust (Part 1)
Bill Moyers speaks on Restoring The Public Trust (Part 1)
"It is a Dick Cheney world out there – a world where politicians and lobbyists hunt together, dine together, drink together, play together, pray together and prey together, all the while carving up the world according to their own interests." Journalist Bill Moyers was the Deputy Director of the Peace Corps under founding Director Sargent Shriver.
Bill Moyers speaks on Restoring The Public Trust (Part 1)
Restoring The Public Trust
Submitted by editor4 on February 27, 2006 - 3:33pm.
By Bill Moyers
I will leave to Jon Stewart the rich threads of humor to pluck from the hunting incident in Texas. All of us are relieved that the Vice President’s friend has survived. I can accept Dick Cheney’s word that the accident was one of the worst moments of his life. What intrigues me as a journalist now is the rare glimpse we have serendipitously been offered into the tightly knit world of the elites who govern today.
The Vice President was hunting on a 50-thousand acre ranch owned by a lobbyist friend who is the heiress to a family fortune of land, cattle, banking and oil (ah, yes, the quickest and surest way to the American dream remains to choose your parents well.)
The circumstances of the hunt and the identity of the hunters provoked a lament from The Economist. The most influential pro-business magazine in the world is concerned that hunting in America is becoming a matter of class: the rich are doing more, the working stiffs, less. The annual loss of 1.5 million acres of wildlife habitat and 1 million acres of farm and ranchland to development and sprawl has come “at the expense of ‘The Deer Hunter’ crowd in the small towns of the north-east, the rednecks of the south and the cowboys of the west.” Their places, says The Economist, are being taken by the affluent who pay plenty for such conveniences as being driven to where the covey cooperatively awaits. The magazine (hardly a Marxist rag, remember) describes Mr. Cheney’s own expedition as “a lot closer to ‘Gosford Park’ than ‘The Deer Hunter’ – a group of fat old toffs waiting for wildlife to be flushed towards them at huge expense.”
At the heart of this story is a metaphor of power. The Vice President turned his host, the lobbyist who is also the ranch owner, into his de facto news manager. She would disclose the shooting only when Cheney was ready and only on his terms. Sure enough, nothing was made public for almost 20 hours until she finally leaked the authorized version to the local newspaper. Ms. Armstrong suggested the blame lay with the victim, who, she indicated, had failed to inform the Vice President of his whereabouts and walked into a hail of friendly fire. Three days later Cheney revised the story and apologized. Don’t you wonder what went back and forth with the White House that long night of trying to agree on the official line?
We do know someone from the hunting party was in touch with Karl Rove at the White House. For certain Rove’s the kind of fellow you want on the other end of the line when great concoctions are being hatched, especially if you wish the victim to hang for the crime committed against him.
Watching these people work is a study of the inner circle at the top of American politics. The journalist Sidney Blumenthal, writing on Salon.com, reminds us of the relationship between the Armstrong dynasty and the Bush family and its retainers. Armstrong’s father invested in Rove’s political consulting firm that managed George W. Bush’s election as governor of Texas and as president. Her mother, Anne Armstrong, is a longtime Republican activist and donor. Ronald Reagan appointed her to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board after her tenure as Ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Ford, whose chief of staff was a young Dick Cheney. Anne Armstrong served on the board of directors of Halliburton that hired Cheney to run the company. Her daughter, Katherine Armstrong, host of the hunting party, was once a lobbyist for the powerful Houston law firm founded by the family of James A. Baker III, who was chief of staff to Reagan, Secretary of State under the first George Bush, and the man designated by the Bush family to make sure the younger Bush was named President in 2000 despite having lost the popular vote. According to Blumenthal, one of her more recent lobbying jobs was with a large construction firm with contracts in Iraq.
It is a Dick Cheney world out there – a world where politicians and lobbyists hunt together, dine together, drink together, play together, pray together and prey together, all the while carving up the world according to their own interests.
Two years ago, in a report entitled Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality, the American Political Science Association concluded that progress toward realizing American ideals of democracy “may have stalled, and even, in some areas, reversed.” Privileged Americans “roar with a clarity and consistency that public officials readily hear and routinely follow” while citizens “with lower or moderate incomes are speaking with a whisper.”
The following year, on the eve of President George W. Bush’s second inauguration, the editors of The Economist, reporting on inequality in America, concluded that the United States “risks calcifying into a European-style, class-based society.”
As great wealth has accumulated at the top, the rest of society has not been benefiting proportionally. In 1960 the gap between the top 20% and the bottom 20% was thirtyfold. Now it is seventy-five fold. Thirty years ago the average annual compensation of the top 100 chief executives in the country was 30 times the pay of the average worker. Today it is 1000 times the pay of the average worker. A recent article in The Financial Times reports on a study by the American economist Robert J. Gordon, who finds “little long-term change in workers’ share of U.S. income over the past half century.” Middle-ranking Americans are being squeezed, he says, because the top ten percent of earners have captured almost half the total income gains in the past four decades and the top one percent have gained the most of all – “more in fact, than all the bottom 50 percent.”
No wonder working men and women and their families are strained to cope with the rising cost of health care, pharmaceutical drugs, housing, higher education, and public transportation – all of which have risen faster in price than typical family incomes. The recent book, Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity , describes how “thirty zipcodes in America have become fabulously wealthy” while “whole urban and rural communities are languishing in unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, growing insecurity, and fear.”
This is a profound transformation in a country whose DNA contains the inherent promise of an equal opportunity at “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” and whose collective memory resonates with the hallowed idea – hallowed by blood – of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The great progressive struggles in our history have been waged to make sure ordinary citizens, and not just the rich, share in the benefits of a free society. Yet today the public may support such broad social goals as affordable medical coverage for all, decent wages for working people, safe working conditions, a secure retirement, and clean air and water, but there is no government “of, by, and for the people” to deliver on those aspirations. Instead, our elections are bought out from under us and our public officials do the bidding of mercenaries. Money is choking democracy to death. So powerfully has wealth shaped our political agenda that we cannot say America is working for all of America.
In the words of Louis Brandeis, one of the greatest of our Supreme Court justices: “You can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, or democracy, but you cannot have both.”
Some simple facts:
The cost of running for public office is skyrocketing. In 1996, $1.6 billion was spent on the Congressional and Presidential elections. Eight years later, that total had more than doubled, to $3.9 billion.
Thanks to our system of privately financed campaigns, millions of regular Americans are being priced out of any meaningful participation in democracy. Less than one half of one percent of all Americans made a political contribution of $200 or more to a federal candidate in 2004. When the average cost of running and winning a seat in the House of Representatives has topped one million dollars, we can no longer refer to that August chamber as “The People’s House.” If you were thinking of running for Congress, do you have any idea where you would get the money to be a viable candidate?
At the same time that the cost of getting elected is exploding beyond the reach of ordinary people, the business of gaining access to and influence with our elected Representatives has become a growth industry. Six years ago, in his first campaign for President, George W. Bush promised he would “restore honor and integrity” to the government. Repeatedly, during his first campaign for President, he would raise his right hand and, as if taking an oath, tell voters that he would change how things were done in the nation’s capitol. “It’s time to clean up the toxic environment in Washington, DC,” he would say. His administration would ask ”not only what is legal but what is right, not what the lawyers allow but what the public deserves.”
Since Bush was elected the number of lobbyists registered to do business in Washington has more than doubled. That’s 16,342 lobbyists in 2000 to 34,785 last year. Sixty-five lobbyists for every member of Congress.
The amount that lobbyists charge their new clients has increased by nearly 100% in that same period, according to The Washington Post, going up to anything from $20,000 to $40,000 a month. Starting salaries have risen to nearly $300,000 a year for the best-connected people, those leaving Congress or the administration.
The total spent per month by special interests wining, dining, and seducing federal officials is now nearly $200 million. Per month .
But numbers don’t tell the whole story. There has been a qualitative change as well. With pro-corporate business officials running both the executive and legislative branches, lobbying that was once reactive has gone on the offense, seeking huge windfalls from public policy and public monies.
One example cited by The Washington Post: Hewlett-Packard, the California computer maker. The company nearly doubled its budget for contract lobbyists in 2004 and took on an elite lobbying firm as its Washington arm. Its goal was to pass Republican-backed legislation that would enable the company to bring back to the United States, at a dramatically lowered tax rate, as much as $14.5 billion in profit from foreign subsidiaries. The extra lobbying paid off. The legislation passed and Hewlett Packard can now reduce its share of the social contract. The company’s director of government affairs was quite candid: “We’re trying to take advantage of the fact that Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House.” Whatever the company paid for the lobbying, the investment returned enormous dividends.
I want to point out here that I believe in equal opportunity muckraking. When I left Washington for journalism I did not leave behind my conviction that government should see to it that we have a more level playing field with one set of rules for everyone, but I did leave behind my partisan affections. Anyone who saw the documentary my team and I produced a few years ago on the illegal fund raising for Bill Clinton’s re-election, knows I am no fan of the Democratic money machine that helped tear the party away from whatever roots it once had in the daily lives and struggles of working people, turning it into a junior partner of the Chamber of Commerce. I mean people like California’s Congressman Tony Coelho, who in the 1980s realized that Congressional Democrats could milk the business community for money if they promised to “pay for play.” I mean people like Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee Chairman, who gave Bill Clinton the idea of renting the Lincoln bedroom out to donors, and who did such a good job raising big money for the Democrats that by the end of his reign, Democrats had fewer small donors than the Republicans and more fat cats writing them million-dollar checks.
But let’s be realistic here. When the notorious Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he answered, “Because there is where the money is.” If I seem to be singling out the Republicans, it’s for one reason: that’s where the power is. They own the government lock, stock, and barrel. Once they gained control of the House of Representatives in 1994, their self-proclaimed revolution has gone into overdrive with their taking of the White House in 2000 and the Senate in 2002. Their revolution soon became a cash cow and Washington a one party state ruled by money.
Look back at the bulk of legislation passed by Congress in the past decade: an energy bill which gave oil companies huge tax breaks at the same time that Exxon Mobil just posted $36 in profits in 2005 and our gasoline and home heating bills are at an all-time high; a bankruptcy “reform” bill written by credit card companies to make it harder for poor debtors to escape the burdens of divorce or medical catastrophe; the deregulation of the banking, securities and insurance sectors which led to rampant corporate malfeasance and greed and the destruction of the retirement plans of millions of small investors; the deregulation of the telecommunications sector which led to cable industry price gouging and an undermining of news coverage; protection for rampant overpricing of pharmaceutical drugs; and the blocking of even the mildest attempt to prevent American corporations from dodging an estimated $50 billion in annual taxes by opening a PO Box in an off-shore tax haven like Bermuda or the Cayman islands.
In every case the pursuit of this legislation was driven by big money. Our public representatives, the holders of our trust, need huge sums to finance their campaigns, especially to pay for television advertising, and men and women who have mastered the money game have taken advantage of that weakness in our democracy to systematically sell it off to the highest bidders.
Let’s start with the “K Street Project.” K Street is the Wall Street of lobbying, the address of many of Washington’s biggest lobbying firms. The K Street Project was the brainchild of Tom DeLay and Grover Norquist, the right wing strategist who famously said that his goal is to shrink government so that it can be “drowned in a bathtub.” This, of course, would render it impotent to defend ordinary people against the large economic forces – the so-called free market – that Norquist and his pals believe should be running America.
Tom DeLay, meanwhile, was a small businessman from Sugar Land, Texas, who ran a pest extermination business before he entered politics. He hated the government regulators who dared to tell him that some of the pesticides he used were dangerous – as, in fact, they were. He got himself elected to the Texas legislature at a time the Republicans were becoming the majority in the once-solid Democratic south, and his reputation for joining in the wild parties around the state capital in Austin earned him the nickname “Hot Tub Tom.” But early in his political career, and with exquisite timing and the help of some videos from the right wing political evangelist, James Dobson, Tom DeLay found Jesus and became a full-fledged born again Christian. He would later humbly acknowledge that God had chosen him to restore America to its biblical worldview. “God,” said Tom DeLay, “has been walking me through an incredible journey…God is using me, all the time, everywhere…God is training me. God is working with me….”
Yes, indeed: God does work in mysterious ways.
In addition to finding Jesus, Tom DeLay also discovered a secular ally to serve his ambitions. He found out the power of money to power his career. “Money is not the root of all evil in politics,” DeLay once said. “In fact, money is the lifeblood of politics.” By raising more than 2 million dollars from lobbyists and business groups and distributing the money to dozens of Republican candidates in 1994, the year of the Republican breakthrough in the House, DeLay bought the loyalty of many freshmen legislators and got himself elected Majority Whip, the number three man in Newt Gingrich’s “Gang of Seven” who ran the House.
Here’s how they ran it: On the day before the Republicans formally took control of Congress on January 3, 1995, DeLay met in his office with a coterie of lobbyists from some of the biggest companies in America. The journalists Michael Weisskopf and David Maraniss report that “the session inaugurated an unambiguous collaboration of political and commercial interests, certainly not uncommon in Washington but remarkable this time for the ease and eagerness with which these allies combined.”
DeLay virtually invited them to write the Republican agenda. What they wanted first was “Project Relief” -- a wide-ranging moratorium on regulations that had originally been put into place for the health and safety of the public. For starters, they wanted “relief” from labor standards that protected workers from the physical injuries of repetitive work. They wanted “relief’ from tougher rules on meat inspection. And they wanted “relief” from effective monitoring of hazardous air pollutants. Scores of companies were soon gorging on Tom DeLay’s generosity, adding one juicy and expensive tid-bit after another to the bill. According to Weisskopf and Maraniss, on the eve of the debate 20 major corporate groups advised lawmakers that “this was a key vote, one that would be considered in future campaign contributions.” On the day of the vote lobbyists on Capitol Hill were still writing amendments on their laptops and forwarding them to House leaders.
The Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, famously told the lobbyists: “If you are going to play in our revolution, you have to live by our rules.” Tom DeLay became his enforcer.
The rules were simple and blunt. Contribute to Republicans only. Hire Republicans only. When the electronics industry ignored the warning and chose a Democratic Member of Congress to run its trade association, DeLay played so rough – pulling from the calendar a bill that the industry had worked on two years, aimed at bringing most of the world in alignment with U.S. copyright law – that even the House Ethics Committee, the watchdog that seldom barks and rarely bites, stirred itself to rebuke him – privately, of course.
DeLay wasn’t fazed. Not only did he continue to make sure the lobbying jobs went to Republicans, he also saw to it that his own people got a lion’s share of the best jobs. At least 29 of his former employees landed major lobbying positions – the most of any Congressional office. The journalist John Judis found that together ex-DeLay people represent around 350 firms, including thirteen of the biggest trade associations, most of the energy companies, the giants in finance and technology, the airlines, auto makers, tobacco companies, and the largest health care and pharmaceutical companies. When tobacco companies wanted to block the FDA from regulating cigarettes, they hired DeLay’s man. When the pharmaceutical companies – Big Pharma – wanted to make sure companies wouldn’t be forced to negotiate cheaper prices for drugs, they hired six of Tom DeLay’s team, including his former chief of staff. The machine became a blitzkrieg, oiled by campaign contributions that poured in like a gusher.
Watching as DeLay, with the approval of the House leadership, become the virtual dictator of Capitol Hill, I was reminded of the card shark in Texas who said to his prey, “Now play the cards fair, Reuben, I know what I dealt you.” Tom DeLay and his cronies were stacking the deck.
They centralized in their own hands the power to write legislation. Drastic revisions to major bills were often written at night, with lobbyists hovering over them, then rushed through as “emergency measures,” giving members as little as half an hour to consider what they may be voting on.
The Democratic minority was locked out of conference committees where the House and Senate are supposed to iron out their differences with both parties in the loop. The Republican bosses even took upon themselves the power to rewrite a bill in secrecy and move it directly to a vote without any other hearings or public review.
Sometimes this meant overruling what the majority of House members really wanted. Consider what happened with the bill to provide Medicare prescription drug coverage, as analyzed by Robert Kuttner in The American Prospect. As the measure was coming to a vote, a majority of the full House was sympathetic to allowing cheaper imports from Canada and to giving the government the power to negotiate wholesale drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries. But DeLay and his cronies were working on behalf of the big pharmaceutical companies and would have none of it. So they made sure there would be no amendments on the floor. They held off the final roll call a full three hours – well after midnight – in order to strong-arm members who wanted to vote against the bill.
It was not a pretty sight out there on the floor of the House. At one point DeLay marched over to one reluctant Republican – Representative Nick Smith – who opposed the Medicare bill – and attempted to change his mind. Smith, who was serving his final term in office, later alleged that he was offered a bribe – $100,000 for his son’s campaign to succeed him. When he subsequently retracted his accusation, the House Ethics Committee looked into the charges and countercharges and wound up admonishing both Smith and DeLay, who admitted that he had offered to endorse Smith’s son in exchange for Smith’s support but that no money or bribe were involved. Timothy Noah of Slate.com has mused about what DeLay’s endorsement would nonetheless have meant in later campaign contributions if Smith had gone along. While the report of the ethics committee never did find out the true story, Noah asks: “Who did whisper ‘$100,000’ in Smith’s ear? The report is full of plausible suspects, including DeLay himself, but it lacks any evidence on this crucial finding. You get the feeling the authors would prefer to forget this mystery ever existed.”
There are no victimless crimes in politics. The price of corruption is passed on to you. What came of all these shenanigans was a bill that gave industry what it wanted and gave taxpayers the shaft. The bill covers only a small share of drug expenses. It has a major gap in coverage – the so-called ‘donut hole.’ It explicitly forbids beneficiaries from purchasing private coverage to fill in the gap and explicitly forbids the federal government from bargaining for lower drug prices. More than one consumer organization has estimated that most seniors could end up paying even more for prescription drugs than before the bill passed.
Furthermore, despite these large flaws the cost of the bill is horrendous – between 500 billion and 1 trillion dollars in its first ten years. The chief actuary for Medicare calculated a realistic estimate of what the bill would cost, but he later testified before Congress that he was forbidden from releasing the information by his boss, Thomas Scully, the head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who was then negotiating for a lucrative job with the health care industry. Sure enough, hardly had the prescription drug bill become law than Scully went to work for the largest private equity investor in health care and at a powerful law firm focusing on health care and regulatory matters.
One is reminded of Senator Boies Penrose. Back in the first Gilded Age, Penrose was a United States senator from Pennsylvania who had been put and kept in office by the railroad tycoons and oil barons. He assured the moguls: “I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under which you make money… and out of your profits you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money.”
Gilded Ages – then and now – have one thing in common: Audacious and shameless people for whom the very idea of the public trust is a cynical joke.
Tom DeLay was elected to Congress by the ordinary people of Sugar Land, Texas. They had the right to expect him to represent them. This expectation is the very soul of democracy. We can’t all govern – not even tiny, homogenous Switzerland practices pure democracy. So we Americans came to believe our best chance of responsible government lies in obtaining the considered judgments of those we elect to represent us. Having cast our ballots in the sanctity of the voting booth with its assurance of political equality, we go about our daily lives expecting the people we put in office to weigh the competing interests and decide to the best of their ability what is right.
Instead, they have given the American people reason to believe the conservative journalist P.J. O’Rourke was right when he described Congress as “a parliament of whores.”
When this story was posted in March 2006, this was on the front page of PCOL:
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