Money Is Still King of the Hill And We Are All the Poorer for It: A Glance Back, and Forward

By Skip Kaltenheuser. An expanded version of an article originally published at DownWithTyranny!

In Washington, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Except when they get worse. The recent Democratic Party Presidential Debates had me thinking on the enclosed essay on campaign finance, fished out of the wayback machine, that appeared in Barron’s.

Way back, over two decades. At the time, I foolishly thought disgust with begging, with dialing for dollars would propel politicians to embrace and expand public financing. I didn’t count on their fear of risking incumbent advantage and didn’t know candidate Obama would come along to help lobotomize the concept. And I didn’t realize how entrenched and powerful the lucrative campaign finance/public relations-military-industrial complex would become, sprinkling its meth into Pandora’s Box as it greases the big money narratives from FOX to MSNBC, and beats the drums of war.

Too much of the precarious Fourth Estate, with career paths now often leading to public relations, has become subservient, to advertising dollars and/or to the overlapping interests of those who own media. Witness CNN’s Jake Tapper doing corporate PR’s bidding as a debate “moderator” during Tuesday night’s debate with Bernie and Elizabeth Warren. He sounded almost frantic trying to get the predictable knives in and cutting short responses not going his way. I half-expected to see a CNN stagehand carrying a potted plant walking back and forth behind the two progressives every time they spoke, the plant growing taller with each passage across the stage. Vaudeville, why not?

Freedom of the Press, Money and the media, by Nancy Ohanian

Forgive a few anachronisms for a piece written in late ’96. For example, this was done long before Citizens United amped up the problem exponentially, including the greasing of dark money, well in play now by both major parties, as secret funders seek out mix and match politicians. The required fundraising sums mentioned in the piece have been dwarfed, cementing the power of the fundraising/consulting class. Since the 2010 decision on Citizens United, the far-ranging impacts have even souped up the purchase of state courts, as noted in this Barron’s essay, The Price of Justice. This builds an increasingly pro-big business judiciary, which I believe contributes to the wealth gap.

To be fair, the big money does a great job promoting bipartisanship. Witness the massive subsidies for fossil fuels, not to mention military support to protect those industries abroad. It’s a bipartisan success in helping speed future mass extinctions. One of innumerable items under the radar, witness the bipartisan corporatist destruction of the US patent system regarding prospects for small entity inventors challenging the big boys. Quick tip to Bernie: You can rectify a mistake by pushing a proper fix. It’s the perfect progressive issue on every level. Not addressing it means a power-dive for American innovation and the gobbling of our seed corn.

One other thing that’s happened since the essay is an astonishing increase in the wealth gap, and in the concentration of political power that goes hand in hand. What does the Big Money want? As noted here, what the Big Money wants is more.

American Dream Revisited, by Nancy Ohanian

In the oops category,my bad, (really bad), in the essay I lauded then-Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig’s regulations “modernizing” the finance industry. It appears Ludwig was complicit in Bill Clinton’s undermining of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933’s separation of commercial and investment banking. It’s still a great example of the issues phonies like Chuck Schumer dance around and speak out of both sides of their mouths about in order to generate campaign contributions from competing interests. But allowing banks to muddy the waters between commercial and investment banking, with tax-payers on the hook, brought about one of government’s greatest catastrophes. I’d sure like to disappear any favorable connotations in that example from the essay. So it goes.

You’ll note my essay below was triggered by illegal foreign money contributions to Bill Clinton via bag men like John Huang, an affair known back then as Chinagate. The Clintons were ahead of their time in so many ways. Since then, Citizens United has made the barriers to influence via campaign money from foreign interests laughable, as predicted in the grand dissent by the late Justice John Paul Stevens, as noted in The Intercept

Into the Time Machine:

Collusion 3: The System, by Nancy Ohanian

King of the Hill: Disclosure alone won’t topple campaign money as the ruler of Congress.

(Barron’s Other Voices, Jan. 13, 1997)

Not long ago the Clinton Administration crowed about agreements with a number of countries to curb bribery in business abroad. Wide implementation of measures such as tax-deductibility of bribes is still a long march away. Still, the laudable effort reflects the belief in U.S. charges that corrupt practices such as bribery in foreign procurement produce inefficiency, surprise derailments and social instability. The stock retort from parties resisting reform: There isn’t a dimes difference between bribery abroad and the U.S. campaign-finance system.

Plenty have professed to be shocked – shocked! – when the White House was caught Huanging it. Alas, many commentators conclude that stricter limits on donations and spending won’t work and that the only real solution is “absolute disclosure.”

Improvements in disclosure are needed, but by itself disclosure is woefully inadequate. Lip service for disclosure as the only route for reform is the fallback position of those in the lobbying world – givers, incumbent receivers and the growth industry between them. They’ll mumble anything to head off public anger at the low art of the thinly disguised bribe.

Reform is a tricky puzzle. Before accepting disclosure not as a tool but as a panacea, consider this: Most voters lack either the ability or the time to adequately decipher the true meaning of campaign contributions. Who figures the National Wetland Coalition for oil and land-development interests? Witness past parades of donors calling themselves housewives, large contributors’ most frequently listed occupation.

Some contributors, like the tobacco industry, have readily identified goals. But others aren’t so easy to figure. How many voters will sort out the quid pro quo of folks like Dwayne Andreas, who gives piles of money to everyone and has a long list of diverse objectives? How many will plumb the desires of a patent-law firm whose favored clients are foreign companies? What of domestic subsidiaries of foreign companies? Try tracking “soft money,” wonderfully malleable stuff that is laundered by the political parties themselves, often comes from equal-opportunity givers and goes wherever the parties want to put it.

Organizations and competitors already rush to filter the info for voters, but much of their messages turn to mush in the flood of interpretations. Voters must also decipher the political spin and agenda of groups offering to do the voters’ homework. Let the press do its job? Presumably it already tries in the limited space it’s allotted, but shining a light on all the shell games is a daunting task and anyway, would lead to information overload.

I once asked a top staffer for former U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, the California Democrat, how the senator coped with the flood of cash. He deadpanned: “People think if they give you a lot of money, they’re buying influence. But all they really buy is access.” Charles Keating must have thought the fictional wall between influence and access a hoot.

Just as corruption abroad results in inefficiencies that harm American companies, many U.S. government inefficiencies, including bloat and waste, are traceable to our system of campaign finance. Political action committees and trade associations are dominated by members who are the most active because they seek the most. They are bidders in a political bazaar focused on the short term. A legislator’s response, “We’re looking closely at this,” is often code for, “It’s on the block, open your wallets.” Because so many politicians are unable to move for fear of alienating contributors, matters are often not taken up until a crisis arrives.

One example of legislative paralysis is in the arena of finance. According to the Center of Responsive Politics, interested parties seeking to influence the House and Senate banking committees spent nearly $60 million in campaign contributions in the first 18 months of the 1995-96 election cycle, exceeding all other industry and labor groupings, and totals are expected to rocket when the final five months are compiled. Did this advance a rational, comprehensive modernization of the financial-services world? No. Competing interests fought to a standstill. Finally, Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig, whose patience had run out, issued regulations that will accelerate modernization of the industry. Pros like William Seidman, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., praise Ludwig’s action as strengthening safety and soundness but Republican Alfonse D’Amato of New York, says he is “deeply troubled” by the comptroller’s action, and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, a member of the House Banking Committee, says the regulations’ impact on bank safety “is far too serious to be left to the discretion of regulators (in other words, open your wallets and we’ll get up another game). (Note: before you jump on me for this example’s naive appraisal of modernization, see the “in the oops category” paragraph in the post intro above).

As for rifle-shot legislation that succeeds, take a peek at our tax code. And from airwaves to sugar beets, gasohol to guns, the correlation between votes and contributions is startling.

One often hears that, in our $6 trillion economy, soft-drink advertising eclipses what is spent on campaigns. But it isn’t the amount, it’s where it goes, who gives it and how many on Capitol Hill spend most of their time seeking it. Senators raise an average of 15 grand or so a week, every week. Leon Panetta, the departing White House chief of staff recently estimated that legislators spend 60%-80% of their time with their palms out. He figures the madness continues because politicians are too insecure to tackle the system they know and which got them into office. Do we really want the chief criterion for the performance of our leaders – and often their staffs – to be their ability to raise money?

Even more repugnant to democratic ideals is the flip side of politicians’ money-raising – the threat, not at all thinly veiled, of retaliation against companies that give money to the opposition.

Oddly, one proposed solution to this state of affairs is to simply take off all limits and let politicians glide with a few fat-cat backers, restrained only by full disclosure. Including soft money, the top 1% of income earners already provide the vast bulk of campaign cash, exceeding PACs. Politicians needn’t be rocket scientists to know the majority of people in the top 1% view many issues – such as uncapped interest deductions on loans for high-priced homes – pretty much the same way. Again, disclosure falls short of revelation.

If you think we have funny races now, turn all our candidates into horses owned by the biggest bettors. As they won’t differ much on real issues, we will be treated to demagoguery. Their strategies will center not on better ideas but on engineering the failure of the opposition.

Applaud any tightening of disclosure, but the only way to curb undue influence, from both international and domestic sources, is to curb undue influence. That means curbing money. Banning soft money and giving teeth to the Federal Election Commission would be a big start. Voluntary participation in a system with spending limits, meaningful media access and citizen financing – which would also free politicians – with tough limits on contributions from every source would be even better. The public cost would be a pittance compared with the savings from more government decisions based on the merits; consider just the cost of delayed oversight of the thrift industry.

Those who would limit reforms to disclosure cite the difficulty, both judicial and legislative, in keeping both foreign and domestic money from finding indirect routes. But that difficulty also applies to the proper disclosure of the routes money takes into one pocket and out the other. That’s why real contribution limits are necessary.

Until the Supreme Court wises up and admits that unlimited money isn’t unlimited speech, participation in a public financing system will have to be voluntary. But polling shows strong, consistent support for public financing. Access to meaningful media formats at reduced cost must be a component. As voters rebel against the cynicism expressed by turn-of-the-century writer Elbert Hubbard, “Government is a kind of legalized pillage,” big spenders who scoff at a serious reform system are likely to suffer backlash.

The confused message our system sends abroad, and perhaps at home, was made clear recently when the bureau chief of a South American TV network asked me: What is wrong with influence from foreign contributions? After all, we live in a global economy.” I answered that if nothing were wrong with it, folks like Lincoln couldn’t pen phrases like “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” but I don’t think I was persuasive.

Conventional wisdom on the last campaign is that a wary public balanced a Democratic White House with a Republican Congress. But a nationwide agreement between voters to neutralize parties was less a factor then the money-raising power of incumbency.

That power is the enemy of reform. Vice President Gore, Rep. Dick Gephardt and others seeking the White House are already pulling levers on the fund-raising machinery, as are congressional incumbents. The desire for another day, another dollar won’t abate unless the public insists that this is a matter of national shame. Then real reforms may become an irresistible avenue for a White House mea culpa and political absolution. Restoring credibility to government will enhance elected officials ability to carry a tough sell, such as entitlement reform, to the public, without being handed their hands.

If the fallout from John Huang brings about real campaign-finance reforms – perhaps the greatest accomplishment the President and Congress might achieve – we should all take Mr. Huang to lunch. Campaign money, like rainwater, will always seek the leaks in our democratic roof, but that’s no reason not to keep plugging the holes. People who wait only for fixes that are absolutes will be waiting for Godot. Voters know our system of campaign finance attacks the concept of one person, one vote, and their sense of disenfranchisement just provided the lowest Election Day turnout since 1924.

Political Corruption, by Nancy Ohanian

So that was the view from yesteryear, and as mentioned the continuum only tilts in the wrong direction. “Realpolitik”– politics based on the (alleged) practical instead of on moral or ideological considerations – has completed its takeover of the party leadership of both parties. A major selling point for Nancy Pelosi holding the reins is her fundraising prowess. From my perspective that’s simply her ability to pawn policy while putting the Democratic Party in hock to the big money. And so we’re treated to the once-laudable Pelosi and her staff both publicly and behind the scenes undercutting Medicare for All. Run for it, Desdemona! Iago has nothing on Pelosi’s style as she sows seeds of doubt. Same for Pelosi’s quiet eloping with the center-right and fossil fuels resistance to the Green New Deal.

Corrupt Lawmakers, by Nancy Ohanian

Benjamins on the march. And so we have Joe Biden telling wealthy donors that nothing fundamentally would change if he were president. I can’t ignore the feeling that Kamala Harris, whom I believe to be one of Wall Street’s Manchurian Candidates, let Goldman Sachs alumnus and current Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin off the hook after his predatory piracy in California via his OneWest Bank to send a strategic signal to Wall Street because she anticipated seeking Wall Street campaign largess. It may not always be immediately apparent, but nearly everything in government is twisted and distorted by the hunger for campaign contributions, which makes politicians as calculating as junkies looking for a fix.

Pardon the digression but remember when Eric Holder, the original Wall Street Manchurian Candidate for 2020, announced in April of 2018 his desire to be President? The response was a wet fuse, but Holder still waits in the wings. Perhaps he’s waiting to be called onto a compromise ticket, or to a cabinet fiefdom, or maybe a door-prize Supreme Court appointment. If instead of Sanders and/or Warren someone like Biden prevails, Holder is at least guaranteed influence and a big ka-ching from Wall Street for exercising it. Holder’s using an anti-gerrymandering group, All on the Line, as his stalking horse. The group’s entreaties mimic campaign-style fundraising as he creates a list of potential supporters.

At some point we’ll glance at what Holder, with John Brennan and sainted Robert Mueller (!), did to whistleblowers like John Kiriakou, an intelligence operative who exposed CIA torture. But the point for now is that beyond his huge legal fees for servicing bankers, and beyond Wall Street’s early support of Obama, it was also Holder’s anticipation of future Wall Street financial support that underpinned his kid-gloves approach to Wall Street’s criminals. When the next finance sector debacle is inflicted on America and on the world, it can be laid at the feet of “Hands-Off Holder” and at campaign fundraising by both major parties as they whittle away on the wobbling Dodd-Frank.

Bought and Paid Justice, by Nancy Ohanian

Some encouragement comes from the smaller dollar contributions championed by Bernie, coupled with the rise of alternative media not in lock-step with the mainstream. Also to the good, less expensive Internet strategies to spread town-meetings and stump speeches, establishing beachheads against the campaign finance/public relations-military-industrial complex. As the motivations of those gleefully referred to by Calvin Trillin as the Sabbath Gasbags are increasingly viewed with suspicion, the scripted propagandists will fade into their own echo chambers.

But encouragement is quickly dampened. The other day NPR’s 1A Speak Freely show interviewed Cory Booker. At the end of the show, I was pleased to hear questions I’d sent in, the fruits of reading Wall Street On Parade asked nearly intact:

Please ask Senator Booker if he would push to reinstate the Glass Steagall Act of 1932 that separated commercial and investment banking.

Also, is Senator Booker concerned about four Wall Street banks holding $177 TRILLIONin face amount of derivatives, which is 89% of all derivatives held by Federally-insured banks? 

Additionally, would a President Booker end the Wall Street advantage of high frequency trading, and end the practice of opaque trading in dark pools that skirt government oversight?

In other words, what measures would a President Booker do to curb our exposure to another financial meltdown like 2008?

After which Booker opted to answer his own question, lauding himself for admittedly important efforts to get financial services to underserved communities. But he completely ignored each of my questions. Which means, whatever rhetoric is convenient at the moment, he’ll ultimately continue to knock on Wall Street’s door.

Cory Booker, by Nancy Ohanian

I know two who can and will reliably answer these questions: Bernie and Elizabeth Warren, neither of whom will ever raise suspicions of stealth agendas on behalf of Wall Street or of other incarnations of the Big Money. Both can lay out their cases in ways to help people better understand and voice what they see going on about them. If you believe as I do that Wall Street’s financial and political power is among the gravest threats to our country, then you’ll understand why my dream ticket is Bernie/Warren. I give Bernie the nod to the top because the time is ripe for the bully pulpit of a Howard Beale. Not a fraud like Trump but a Beale who remains sane, authentic and uncowed when corporate power puts on the squeeze. Warren has great strengths and is polishing her game nicely. But Bernie’s particularly popular in the critical Upper Midwest and in Pennsylvania, and I think he’ll do very well with Independents who feel betrayed by Trump. Bernie will round that course and come from behind like Seabiscuit.

Bernie 2020, by Nancy Ohanian

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  1. The Rev Kev

    This article was reminding me of the neocon Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson who was nicknamed “the senator from Boeing”. You know, the United States is like a lot of countries in how its present political system could be changed to reflect the present reality so I will use the United States as an example here. So, at the moment the United States has about 400 people in the House of Representatives representing the people and 100 people in the Senate representing the States. Let’s change this then. The House of Representatives will be the people on the Forbes 400 Ranking of the Richest Americans List then. See? Much simpler and so you would have Senators Bezos, Gates, Zuckerberg, Ellison, Page,etc. Now the Senate. That could have representatives from America’s 100 wealthiest corporations just for balance. Sure somebody like Bezos would then have a vote in each house but that would be no different to having donors having control of a rep and a senator at the moment. You wouldn’t even need the Supreme Court but could use the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism that the TPP wanted to have. And the President? Why just keep on using a reality star just to provide the people entertainment value. Sound Good?

    1. Inode_buddha

      Rev, I think you’re actually describing what actually is happening. Pretty accurately too, I must add.

  2. milesc

    I always like The Cardboard Box Reform, which traced the source for today’s debt, inequality and partisanship back to 1970 and… the removal of the secret ballot. There’s a video on YouTube that is a bit too long but still very interesting.

    The other thing that happened in the US around the same time is, of course, the dropping of the gold standard.

    Take your pick.

  3. Ian Perkins

    “If you believe as I do that Wall Street’s financial and political power is among the gravest threats to our country, then you’ll understand why my dream ticket is Bernie/Warren. I give Bernie the nod to the top”. Dream ticket indeed.
    As Chomsky never tires of saying, Sanders is the most trusted politician in the US according to polls, and it looked to me like he would have had a very good chance of a landslide win in 2016. Which wouldn’t have boded well for Wall Street’s financial and political power.
    So the US was given the nightmare choice of Clinton or Trump instead.

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