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March 01, 2006

Moyers on Saving Democracy

National treasure Bill Moyers is giving talks across California on the challenges facing us.  He uses Dick Cheney's accident and the glimpse we took into the way the wealthy hunt as his starting point to talk about power and the salvaging of our democracy.  Common Dreams has the speech.  It's pure Bill Moyers:

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.

Moyers shifts to the issue of increasing income inequality, providing many examples of which the following is but one: 

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.”

He takes us to the next step:

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.”

Moyers goes on to talk about the sky-high costs of running for office and the horrendous price that we all, and candidates and public officials in particular, pay for this. 

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.”

Hm. So who do you suppose provides all that money? "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."

There are now 65 lobbyists for every member of Congress, a total of 34,785 registered lobbyists last year. And what do those (highly-paid) lobbyists buy for the people paying their salaries?

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.

Moyers takes a few swipes at Democrats in the corruption department, particularly 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.

Moyers provides an incredible history of the "K Street Project" and Tom DeLay's part in that.

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. . . . 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's own people took 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.

<snip>

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.

The impact of this corruption?  Talking about the Medicare bill, he says:

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 five hundred billion and one 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.”

That's just what DeLay has managed to do in Congress with help from Jack Abramoff, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed.  Moyers has example after example, enough to make you sick.  He then points out the obvious:

Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue were now in sync. George W. Bush had created his own version of the K Street Project. Remember how he emerged from the crowded field of Republican candidates in early 1999 and literally blew several of them out of the water? He did so by drowning his opponents with money. In just his first six months of fundraising, Bush collected some $36 million – nine times more than his nearest opponent, John McCain. The money came from the titans of America business and lobbying who understood their contributions would be rewarded. You’ve heard of the Pioneers and Rangers – people who raised at least $100,000 and $200,000 for Bush. Among them were people like Tom DeLay’s brother, also a lobbyist; the CEO of Enron, Kenneth (“Kenny Boy”) Lay; and hundreds of executives from the country’s banks, investment houses, oil and gas companies, electric utilities, and other companies.

While Tom DeLay kept a ledger on K Street, ranking lobbyists as friendly and unfriendly, the Bush campaign gave every one of his Pioneers and Rangers a tracking number, making sure to know who was bringing in the bucks and where they were coming from. In May of 1999 the trade association for the electric utility industry sent a letter to potential contributors on Bush campaign stationery. He told his colleagues that Bush’s campaign managers “have stressed the importance of having our industry incorporate the tracking number in your fundraising efforts…it does ensure that our industry is credited and that your progress is listed…”

The bounty was waiting. A score of Pioneers and Rangers were paid off with ambassadorships. At least 37 were named to post-election transition teams, where they had a major say in selecting political appointees at key regulatory positions across the government. Remember the California energy crisis, when Enron traders boasted of gouging grandmothers to drive up the prices for energy? Well, Enron’s Kenneth Lay had been Bush’s biggest campaign funder over the years and what he asked now as a pay-off was appointment to the Energy Department transition team. This is how Enron’s boss got to name two of the five members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who looked the other way while Enron rigged California’s energy prices and looted billions right out from the pockets and pocketbooks of California’s citizens.

There are, as I said, no victimless crimes in politics. The cost of corruption is passed on to you. When the government of the United States falls under the thumb of the powerful and privileged, regular folks get squashed.

This is an old story and a continuing struggle. . . . It is time to fight again. These people in Washington have no right to be doing what they are doing. It’s not their government, it’s your government. They work for you. They’re public employees – and if they let us down and sell us out, they should be fired. That goes for the lowliest bureaucrat in town to the senior leaders of Congress on up to the President of the United States.

Although Moyers paints a bleak picture, he is also pretty certain we can combat it.  We can, to use Howard Dean's words "take back our country".  And it starts in the states.

But look at what has happened in Connecticut, one of the most corrupt states in the union. Rocked by multiple scandals that brought down a state treasurer, a state senator, and the governor himself with convictions of bribery, tax evasion, and worse, the people finally had enough. Although many of the parties had to be forced, kicking and screaming to do it, last December the legislature passed clean money reform and the new governor signed it into law. The bill bans campaign contributions from lobbyists and state contractors and makes Connecticut the very first state in the nation where the legislature and governor approved full public funding for their own races.

<snip>

In places where clean elections are law, we see more competition for legislative seats and a more diverse group of people running for office. In David Sirota’s words, they “are encouraged to run on their ideas, their convictions and their integrity instead of on how effectively they can shake down the big money.” And there are policy results as well. In Arizona, one of the first acts of Governor Janet Napolitano, elected under the state’s public financing program, was to institute reforms establishing low-cost prescription drug subsidies for seniors. Compare that to the Medicare debacle going on at the national level. In Maine, where clean elections has been in place since 2000, there have also been advances in providing low cost pharmaceutical drugs for residents, and in making sure that every state resident has medical coverage.

Speaking in California where public financing of elecions is a possibility, he says,

Think about this: Californians could buy back their elected representatives at a cost of about $5 or $6 per California resident. Nationally we could buy back our Congress and the White House with full public financing for about $10 per taxpayer per year. You can check this out on the website Public Campaign. [www.publicampaign.org]

Public funding won’t solve all the problems. There’s no way to legislate truly immoral people from abusing our trust. But it would go a long way to breaking the link between big donors and public officials and to restoring democracy to the people. Until we offer qualified candidates a different source of funding for their campaigns – “clean,” disinterested, accountable public money – the selling of America will go on. From scandal to scandal.

The people out across the country on the front lines of this fight have brought the message down to earth, in plain language and clear metaphors. If a player sliding into home plate reached into his pocket and handed the umpire $1000 before he made the call, what would we call that? A bribe. And if a lawyer handed a judge $1000 before he issued a ruling, what do we call that? A bribe. But when a lobbyist or CEO sidles up to a member of Congress at a fundraiser or in a skybox and hands him a check for $1000, what do we call that? A campaign contribution.

Moyers then harkins back to Theodore Roosevelt who took on the political bosses and big money for committing “treason to the people.”

We are standing for the great fundamental rights upon which all successful free government must be based. We are standing for elementary decency in politics. We are fighting for honesty against naked robbery. It is not a partisan issue; it is more than a political issue; it is a great moral issue. If we condone political theft, if we do not resent the kinds of wrong and injustice that injuriously affect the whole nation, not merely our democratic form of government but our civilization itself cannot endure.

And Moyers concludes with:

We need that fighting spirit today - the tough, outraged and resilient spirit that knows we have been delivered a great and precious legacy, you and I - "government of, by and for the people" - and, by God we're going to pass it on.

Thank you, Bill Moyers, for staying involved and for bringing it all together for us.   

http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0224-20.htm

Posted by Lynn Allen on March 1, 2006 at 11:12 AM in National and International Politics | Permalink

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Comments

To make democracy work, I suggest:

Fixed maximum terms for all elected officials.
Public financing of elections and strict curbs on all other funding.
Automatic voter registration of all citizens based on proof of place of residence on election day and citizenship [sworn oath]. This could be done by paid enumerators who are paid based on performance.
Increased salaries for elected officials but no pension benefits and expense accounts.
Free hunting trips for lobbyists with Mr. Cheney.

Posted by: grey sells | Mar 2, 2006 5:27:09 AM

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