Bill Moyers is joined by the heads of two independent watchdog groups keeping an eye on government as well as on powerful interests seeking to influence it. Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics and OpenSecrets.org, and Danielle Brian, who runs the Project on Government Oversight, talk to Bill about the importance of transparency to our democracy, and their efforts to scrutinize who’s giving money, who’s receiving it, and most importantly, what’s expected in return.
Worth the 20 minutes with your morning coffee. These passages caught my eye:
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 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. ….
DANIELLE BRIAN: It’s really I think 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.
First, I’m really not sure how useful the “revolving door” metaphor really is. Suppose the door were locked, and everybody working for the State did that for the rest of their lives, and everybody working in Civil Society did that. Would policy outcomes change that much, either for worse or for better? I’m not sure. I think it might be more useful to think of a single, fluid “political class.” Then, if we freeze the political class with a snapshot at any point in time, some members of that class will be seen to wield the violence that is the (putative?) monopoly of the State, and others to be engaged in the contractual or (putatively?) voluntary associations that make up the network of Civil Society. (I know; potted Gramsci. State does the coercion; civil society does the hegemony. Do feel free to propose superior tools!) Take a snapshot, and different players will be found in different roles, maybe even different uniforms, but the playbook, the plays, and the game will all remain the same.
Second, in some ways, I’m not even sure that it’s the corruption of policy that matters the most. As in so many places (Cooper Union) we have a governance issue, and part of what keeps current governance systems in place (this would be the hegemony part) is TINA — There Is No Alternative, apparently coined in honor of Margaret Thatcher, bless her heart. Here’s an example (hat tip DCBlogger) of how TINA works:
An essential and successful element of the Peterson strategy is to create an environment where it is widely if not universally believed that there is no alternative to his vision. … A review of the proceedings of the Fiscal Summits of the last three years makes agonizingly clear that most of the journalists who conducted interviews or moderated panel discussions both reflected and amplified the Peterson worldview — entirely unselfconsciously, it would seem.
So, for example, Lesley Stahl, the CBS “60 Minutes” reporter, was fully a part of the Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson deficit-cutting team during her interview with both men: “You are going to have to raise taxes and cut things, big things, put restrictions on Social Security. Everybody knows that.”
Virtually none of the reporters thought to ask about or suggest an alternative path, such as preserving Social Security benefits and bolstering the system’s reserve by raising the cap of wages subject to Social Security taxes (currently annual wages above approximately $110,000 are not subject to any Social Security tax).Journalists working at Peterson Fiscal Summits, 2010-2012
Maria Bartiromo, 2011 (host, CNBC’s “Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo”)
Tom Brokaw, 2012 (former anchor and managing editor, NBC Nightly News)
Erin Burnett, 2012 (host of CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront”)
John F. Harris, 2012 (editor-in-chief of Politico)
Gwen Ifill, 2011, 2010 (senior correspondent of “PBS NewsHour”)
Ezra Klein, 2011 (columnist, Washington Post)
Jon Meacham, 2010 (former editor-in-chief, Newsweek)
Bob Schieffer, 2010 (host, CBS “Face the Nation”)
Lesley Stahl, 2010 (reporter, CBS “60 Minutes”)
George Stephanopoulos, 2012 (host, ABC’s “This Week”)
David Wessel, 2012, 2011 (economics editor, Wall Street Journal)
George Will, 2011 (columnist, Washington Post)
Judy Woodruff, 2012, 2011 (host, “PBS NewsHour”)
And most questioning proceeded either on the false assumption that deficits were derived from excessive spending on entitlements or as though they had mysteriously, but inevitably, come to pass.
Many journalists fairly shouted their personal desire to see greater cooperation and “compromise,” with groups realizing the importance of submerging their interests to the greater good. Who should do the submerging? In 2012, Tom Brokaw had a suggestion in the form of a question to former President Bill Clinton: after Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pushed through a bill undermining the right of union members to collectively bargain, shouldn’t those workers have just sat down and negotiated with Walker as, Brokaw said, “has been traditionally done in this country” instead of “gather[ing] outside the capitol”?
There were a couple of exceptions to the rule. In a session moderated by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post in 2011, Klein posed a number of questions that reflected an unwillingness to operate from within the Peterson framework. For example, Klein asked New York Times columnist David Brooks whether, instead of blaming Americans for simply wanting benefits without paying for them, the causes of the debt should be located in the Bush tax cuts, two unfunded wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), and the federal government’s emergency response to the financial crisis.
Judy Woodruff, of the PBS NewsHour, generally asked questions from within the Peterson frame, but, at one point in 2012, posed a question that perhaps all the journalists should have been thinking about as well. She asked Rep. Christopher Van Hollen, Jr. (D-Md.) if “Democrats like you, by participating in forums like this one that is all focused on austerity, on cutting the deficit and the debt…really become also window dressing for a conservative agenda that is anti-jobs and anti-recovery and wrongheaded economics?”
Over the course of the three years of fiscal summits that Remapping Debate examined, the other journalist interviewers and moderators hewed strictly to the conventional Peterson wisdom. What follows are annotated illustrations of this recurring problem.
“Remapping Debate” indeed! I’m not even sure whether Peterson’s work comes under the heading of corruption at all (even if many of the journalist were also on Peterson’s payroll as moderators). Is a sincere belief, shared with all one’s colleagues, family, friends, and the usual suspects on the Acela — that is, in the political class — really corruption? And if all the players believe in TINA, no matter which side of the revolving door they are on, does the revolving door really matter that much? Readers?