That wickedly satirical Ambrose Bierce described politics as "the conduct of public affairs for private advantage."
Bierce vanished to Mexico nearly a hundred years ago - to the relief of the American political class of his day, one assumes - but in an eerie way he was forecasting America's political culture today. It seems like most efforts to reform a system that's gone awry - to clean house and make a fresh start - end up benefiting the very people who wrecked it in the first place.
Which is why Bierce, in his classic little book, "The Devil's Dictionary," defined reform as "a thing that mostly satisfies reformers opposed to reformation." So we got health care reform this week - but it's a far cry from reformation. You can't blame President Obama for celebrating what he did get - he and the Democrats needed some political points on the scoreboard. And imagine the mood in the White House if the vote had gone the other way; they would have been cutting wrists instead of cake.
Give the victors their due: the bill Obama signed expands coverage to many more people, stops some very ugly and immoral practices by the health insurance industry that should have been stopped long ago, and offers a framework for more change down the road, if there's any heart or will left to fight for it.
But reformation? Hardly. For all their screaming and gnashing of teeth, the insurance companies still make out like bandits. Millions of new customers, under penalty of law, will be required to buy the companies' policies, feeding the insatiable greed of their CEO's and filling the campaign coffers of the politicians they wine and dine. Profits are secure; they don't have to worry about competition from a public alternative to their cartel, and they can continue to scam us without fear of antitrust action.
The big drug companies bought their protection before the fight even began, when the White House agreed that if they supported Obama's brand of health care reform - not reformation - they could hold onto their monopoly. No imports of cheaper drugs from abroad, no prescriptions filled at a lower price by our friendly Canadian neighbors to the north.
And let's not forget another, gigantic health care winner: a new report from the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity says the battle for reform has been "a bonanza" for the lobbying industry. According to the center's analysis, "About 1,750 businesses and organizations hired about 4,525 lobbyists, total - eight for each member of Congress - and spent at least $1.2 billion to influence health care bills and other issues."
But while we're at it, a cheer for the federal student-loan overhaul - Democrats managed to pass that reform with an end run around powerful lobbyists, cleverly nestling it in the health care reconciliation package.
Nonetheless, under pressure from the lending industry, it, too, was watered down from its original intent. The three Democratic senators who voted against it - Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor - have all received campaign contributions from Nelnet, the student loan company based in Nelson's home state of Nebraska, or its lobbyists.
(And would you be amazed to learn that one of the student loan industry's lobbyists used to be Blanche Lincoln's chief of staff? The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call described Kelly Bingel as Lincoln's "alter ego," and cited a former colleague saying Bingel was "first on the list of the Senator's callbacks," words that would sound like heaven to any Washington lobbyist's ears.)
Another case of reform gone off track: this week, a year and a half after Wall Street brought us so close to fiscal hell we could smell the brimstone, a crippled little financial regulation bill seems to be hobbling out of the wreckage, but still faces an array of well-armed forces gunning for it.
No wonder. In the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, members of the Senate Banking Committee - which sent the bill to Congress this week - received more than $39 million from Wall Street and the banks; members of the House Financial Services Committee raked in more than $21 million - so far. Just how serious do you think they're going to be about true reform?
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd of Connecticut has sounded like a champion of reform ever since he announced he will not run for reelection. It's about time. Since 2005, his top ten campaign contributors have included Citigroup, AIG, Merrill Lynch and the now-deceased Bear Stearns, all front-line players in bringing on the financial calamity.
Then there are the Republicans, shamelessly hawking their favors en masse to the highest bidder. The Web site Politico.com reports that the reelection campaign of Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker - who's one of the key negotiators on financial reform - sent an email to Wall Street lobbyists and others soliciting contributions of up to $10,000 for a chance to meet or grab a meal with the senator.
Informed of the email, Corker was shocked - shocked! - saying the email was "grotesque and inappropriate." But did House Republican leader John Boehner think it was inappropriate last week when he advised the American Bankers Association to fight back against the proposed rules and regulations?
This is, of course, the same John Boehner who in the summer of 1995 walked around the floor of the House of Representatives handing out checks to his fellow Republicans - checks from a tobacco company. And the same John Boehner who was the grateful recipient of campaign contributions from the four Native American tribes represented by Jack Abramoff, the corrupt lobbyist currently cooling his heels in a federal corrections facility.
So wouldn't it have been fascinating to have been a fly on the wall earlier this year when Boehner sat down for drinks with Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase? Reportedly, he invited Dimon and the rest of the financial community to pony up the cash and see what good things follow.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Republicans already were receiving an increasing share of campaign contributions from the Street. In the game of reform, it's the political version of loading the dice.
We can't know for sure what Ambrose Bierce would have made of all this; what "The Devil's Dictionary" author would say about the current DC scams. But he might have agreed that the only answer to organized money is organized people. That would be one hell of a reformation.