Wednesday, January 01, 2014

It’s the System Stupid – Part II

One day in the Senate, a notably cantankerous and contentious member rose to speak, and in a loud and angry voice exclaimed, “Half of this Senate is composed of corrupt, double-dealing, bribable politicians.” The rest of the Senate exploded in anger demanding that the outspoken member retract his statement, or be expelled. After a long pause, the irascible member agreed saying, “OK! I withdraw my previous allegation. Half of this Senate is not made up of corrupt, double-dealing politicians.”

Although this may be humorous, it is not really funny since the view of voters is not too far from that of our perverse senator. Voters continue to believe that most members of Congress are for sale and that their own representative is as guilty as the rest. Those are the conclusions from a recent Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finding that “60% of likely U.S. voters now believe that most members of Congress are willing to sell their vote for either cash or a campaign contribution.” The report then maintains, “While many in Washington dismiss such perceptions by claiming that people hate Congress but love their own representative, voters are skeptical of their own representative as well. In fact, 57% think it’s likely that their representative in Congress has traded votes for cash. That includes 28% who believe it’s very likely.”

Polls are Telling

While accusations that political contributions affect legislative voting are difficult (but not impossible) to prove, the fact that money does influence election results is less so. For example, at the end of the 2012 election, The Center For Responsive Politics ran a controlled experiment in 435 instances to determine whether there is a correlation between the amount of money spent and actual election returns. The conclusions were not surprising. An analysis of this election cycle revealed that 93.6 percent of the time winners of House races in 2012 were the top spenders, which is an increase from 86 percent in 2010. In the Senate, the top spending candidates won 79 percent of the time, a slight decrease from 2010 when top spending Senate candidates won 81.6 percent of the time.

Overwhelming results of this nature, clearly validating that money buys votes, form the basic reason for the apparent compulsive and obsessive emphasis on political fund raising, the issue that permeates and dominates our legislators’ daily activities. Of course, the prime objective of political parties is to get their candidates elected, and their legislative agendas passed. They obviously recognize the dramatic role that money plays in achieving their goals, and they have learned how to game the system.

A Blockbuster Book

But gaming the system has another dark side even beyond the fact that legalized bribery dominates both the electoral, and the legislative process. In October of last year a virtual shockwave emerged in the form of a book titled, “Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes and Line Their Own Pockets.” The author, Peter Schweizer, is not some liberal do-gooder. In fact he is just the opposite––a very Conservative author and a research fellow at the Conservative Hoover Institute located at Stanford University. He also serves as President of the Government Accountability Institute, a self-styled non-partisan research organization that focuses on government cronyism and corruption

Although much of his investigative research, as well as previous books he has authored, vilify and defame, let’s say, those of a different political persuasion than that of his own, his new book is somewhat more bipartisan since he does include some Conservative party politicians. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times headlined, Extortion Racket, Schweizer wrote this: “We have long assumed that the infestation of special interest money in Washington is at the root of so much that ails our politics. But what if we’ve had it wrong? What if instead of being bribed by wealthy interests, politicians are engaged in a form of legal extortion designed to extract campaign contributions?”

Schwiezer elaborates by referring to what he terms as the Permanent Political Class in Washington that is “made up of individuals from both political parties {using} its coercive public power to not only stay in office but to threaten others and to extract wealth, and in the bargain pick up private benefits for themselves, their friends, and their families.” That’s quite an indictment, but using specific examples, he attempts to prove it.

Tactics Tell the Tale

Schweiser describes some of the tactics used by politicians to extract funds. “Take the maneuver known inside the Beltway as the ‘tollbooth.’ Here the Speaker of the House or a powerful committee chairperson will create a procedural obstruction or postponement on the eve of an important vote. Campaign contributions are then implicitly solicited. If the tribute offered by those in favor of the bill’s passage is too small (or if the money from opponents is sufficiently high), the bill is delayed and does not proceed down the legislative highway.”

And Names Are Named

Then comes a specific accusation. “House Speaker John A. Boehner appears to be a master of the tollbooth. In 2011, he collected a total of over $200,000 in donations from executives and companies in the days before holding votes on just three bills. He delayed scheduling a vote for months on the widely supported Wireless Tax Fairness Act, and after he finally announced a vote, 37 checks from wireless-industry executives totaling nearly $40,000 rolled in. He also delayed votes on the Access to Capital for Job Creators Act and the Small Company Capital Formation Act, scoring $91,000 from investment banks and private equity firms, $32,450 from bank holding companies and $46,500 from self-described investors — all in the 48 hours between scheduling the vote and the vote’s actually being held on the House floor.”

To even things up, Schweizer then sets his sight on “Another tactic that politicians use is something beltway insiders call “milker bills.” These are bills designed to “milk” donations from threatened individuals or businesses. The real trick is to pit two industries against each other and pump both for donations, thereby creating a “double milker” bill.

“President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. seemed to score big in 2011 using the milker tactic in connection with two bills: the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act. By pitting their supporters in Silicon Valley who opposed the bills against their allies in Hollywood who supported the measures, Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden were able to create a sort of fund-raising arms race.” After pouring in over $4 million, the film industry thought it had the bill for its own, apparently however, at the last minute, the tech industry came through and the bill was killed.”

Mr. Schweizer explains, “The reason these fund-raising extortion tactics succeed is that politicians deploy them while bills are making their way through Congress, when lawmakers possess maximum leverage. That’s why at least 27 state legislatures have put restrictions on allowing state politicians to receive contributions while their legislatures are in session.” He maintains this restriction should be incorporated into federal legislation as well.

Mr. Schweizer then points out another form of extortion. “Of the thousands of bills introduced in Congress each year, only roughly 5 percent become law. Why do legislators bother proposing so many bills? What if many of those bills are written not to be passed but to pressure people into forking over cash?”

The book emphasizes strong belief that those corporations, unions, or even individuals who are large providers within the fundraising “industry,” do not give money out of some ideological or political belief system, but because “they are fearful that if they don’t, something bad will happen to their company.” He provides a number of examples where officials of oil companies and financial companies such as Shell Oil and Goldman Sachs have been called before Congressional investigating committees (you probably remember some of those) and are questioned and castigated for their actions. Yet after the committee meeting, these same officials are approached, either by staff or email, suggesting that in order to “better understand the company’s position,” the congressman might want to consider holding a fundraising event for him. Now, if you were the head of the company, what would you do? You would probably say, “Is tomorrow too soon?” Isn’t that a form of extortion?

The List Goes On

Here is a short list of other segments of the book that will give you a flavor of the breadth of what could only be considered extortionist activities:
  • The never-before-seen secret “price list” each political party charges politicians for top Congressional committee assignments—positions that in turn provide maximum extortion opportunities.
  • How 14 members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, bagged hundreds of thousands of dollars using a secret, unethical self-loan loophole.
  • How Washington politicians use little-known Leadership PACs to bankroll lavish lifestyles and purchase each other’s loyalties.
  • How the Department of Justice has taken vaguely written criminal laws and used them to shake down and extort wealthy targets and political opponents on behalf of the Obama administration.
  • Obama’s “Protection Money.” How the Obama Administration targeted industries for criminal investigation but chose not to pursue key political donors.
  • The “Slush Fund.” How politicians extract “campaign contributions” and then convert them to bankroll lavish lifestyles complete with limos, private jets, golf at five-star resorts, fine wines, and cash for family members.
  • Capitol Hill’s “Underground Economy.” How congressmen use a little-known loophole that allows them to secretly link their votes to cash.
As verification that at least much of Schweizwr’s views are factual comes from a very knowledgeable and reputable source, former Senator Russ Feingold. He is quoted in the book as saying, “It’s not like businesses and business leaders call up politicians and beg them, could I please give you some money? It goes the other way, which is that people are called constantly by politicians when you have a system like this, or their representatives, or their allegedly independent agents, and it’s more like extortion than it’s like bribery.

Here is how Black’s Legal Dictionary defines extortion: Extortion consists in any public officer unlawfully taking, by color of his office, from any person any money or thing of value that is not due to him, or more than his due. To paraphrase, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s extortion.

Schweizer provides this illuminating thought: “Extortion finally makes clear why Congress is so dysfunctional: it’s all about making money, not making law.” And don’t forget – it’s the System Stupid!


Post a Comment

<< Home