(Photo: Bill Moyers Journal)
Once again we're closing the barn door after the horse is out and gone. In Washington, the Federal Reserve has finally acted to stop some of the predatory lending that exploited people's need for money. And like Rip Van Winkle, Congress is finally waking up from a long doze under the warm sun of laissez-faire economics. That's French for turning off the alarm until the burglars have made their getaway.
Philosophy is one reason we do this to ourselves; when you worship market forces as if they were the gods of Olympus, then the gods can do no wrong - until, of course, they prove to be human. Then we realize we should have listened to our inner agnostic and not been so reverent in the first place.
But we also get into these terrible dilemmas - where the big guys step all over everyone else and the victims are required to pay the hospital bills - because we refuse to recognize the connection between money and politics. This is the great denial in democracy that may ultimately mean our ruin. We just don't seem able to see or accept the fact that money drives policy. It's no wonder that Congress and the White House have been looking the other way as the predators picked the pockets of unsuspecting debtors. Mega banking and investment firms have been some of the biggest providers of the cash vital to keeping incumbents in office. There isn't much appetite for biting - or regulating - the manicured hand that feeds them.
Guess who gave the most money to candidates in this 2007-08 federal election cycle? That's right, the financial services and real estate industries. They stuffed nearly $250 million into the candidate coffers. The about-to-be-bailed-out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac together are responsible for about half the country's $12 trillion mortgage debt. Lisa Lerer of Politico.com reports that over the past decade, the two financial giants with the down-home names have spent nearly $200 million on campaign contributions and lobbying. According to Lerer, "They've stacked their payrolls with top Washington power brokers of all political stripes, including Republican John McCain's presidential campaign manager, Rick Davis; Democrat Barack Obama's original vice presidential vetter, Jim Johnson, and scores of others now working for the two rivals for the White House."
Last Sunday's New York Times put it as bluntly as anyone ever has: "In Washington, Fannie and Freddie's sprawling lobbying machine hired family and friends of politicians in their efforts to quickly sideline any regulations that might slow their growth or invite greater oversight of their business practices. Indeed, their rapid expansion was, at least in part, the result of such artful lobbying over the years."
What a beautiful term: "artful lobbying." It means honest graft. Look at any of the important issues bogged down in the swampland along the Potomac and you don't have to scrape away the muck too deeply to find that campaign cash is at the core of virtually every impasse. We're spending more than six percent of our salaries on gasoline, and global warming keeps temperatures rising, but the climate bill was killed last month and President Bush just got rid of his daddy's longtime ban on offshore drilling. Only in a fairy tale would anyone believe it's just coincidence that the oil and gas industries have donated more than $18 million to federal candidates this year, three-quarters of it going to Republicans. They've spent more than $26 million lobbying this year - that's seven times more than environmental groups have spent.
Follow the money - it goes from your gas tank to the wine bars and steak houses of DC, where the payoffs happen. Or ponder that FISA surveillance legislation that just passed the Senate. It let the big telecommunications companies off the hook for helping the government wiretap our phones and laptops without warrants. Over the years those telecom companies have given Republicans in the House and Senate $63 million and Democrats $49 million. No wonder that when their lobbyists reach out and place a call to Congress, they never get a busy signal. Do the same without making a big contribution, and you'll be put on "hold" until the embalmer shows up to claim your cold corpse.
The late journalist Meg Greenfield once wrote that trying to get money out of politics is akin to the quest for a squirrel-proof birdfeeder. No matter how clever and ingenious the design, the squirrels are always one mouthful ahead of you. Here's an example. Corporations are limited in how much they can contribute to candidates' campaigns, right? But someone's always figuring out how to open another back door. So Democrats have turned to Steve Farber. He's using the resources of his big K Street law and lobbying factory to help raise $40 million for the Democratic National Convention. Half a dozen of his clients have signed up, including AT&T, Comcast, Western Union and Google. Their presence at the convention will offer lots of opportunities to curry favors at private parties while ordinary delegates wander Denver looking for the nearest Wendy's. By the way, just as you pay at the gas pump for those energy lobbyists to wine and dine your representatives in Washington, you'll pay on April 15 for Denver - corporations can deduct their contributions.
Another back door - one quite familiar to Steve Farber and his ilk - leads to presidential libraries. Bill Clinton's in Arkansas required serious political bucks, and we're not talking penny ante fines for overdue books. Again, there's no limit to the amount donors can give and no obligation to reveal their names. Clinton's cost $165 million and we still don't know the identities of everyone who put up the dough, even though four years ago a reporter stumbled on a list that included Arab businessmen, Saudi royals, Hollywood celebs and the governments of Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar, Brunei and Taiwan. Hmmm ...
Once George W. is out of the White House, he, too, plans what one newspaper described as a "legacy polishing" institute - a presidential library and think tank at Southern Methodist University in Dallas costing half a billion dollars. Last Sunday, The Times of London released a remarkable video of one of the president's buddies and fund raisers - Stephen Payne, a political appointee named to the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
The Times set him up in a video sting, and taped a conversation in which Payne offers an exiled leader of Kyrgyzstan meetings with such White House luminaries as Vice President Cheney and Condoleezza Rice - provided he makes a whopping contribution to the Bush Library, and an even bigger payment to Payne's lobbying firm. Payne tells him, "It will be somewhere between $600,000 and $750,000, with about a third of it going directly to the Bush Library.... That's gonna be a show of 'we're interested, we're your friends, we're still your friends.'" The White House denies any connection between library contributions and access to officials, and harrumphed at the preposterous idea that Payne had a close relationship with the president. Unfortunately, there's at least one photo of Payne with the president, cutting brush at Bush's Crawford ranch. There's also one of Payne demonstrating more guts than common sense, on a rifle range with Deadeye Dick Cheney.
Payne, who now is supporting John McCain, says he's done nothing wrong, but a Congressional investigation intends to find out. So, from the financial meltdown brought on by predatory lending to global warming to tax breaks and other favors, the late California politician Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh got it right: Money is the mother's milk of politics. He knew what he was talking about, because Big Daddy swigged it by the gallon. Now it has curdled into a witch's brew.
Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.