A Corrupt Political System is #SoProgressive

A corrupt political system has a bigger chance of surviving if not being corrupt comes at a personal cost to politicians. By being principled you make it harder for yourself to win elections in a corrupt system. The principled man and woman are in a disadvantage, because they apply harder standards for themselves than for their many peers. A higher standard for oneself could be a spending limit in a political campaign, while other politicians have unlimited spending limits.  

To be ethical in an unethical world isn’t free and often comes with a price to pay. It is hard and has its own risks. The biggest reward of being ethical is your feeling of self worth by fighting for constructive changes. Being ethical in ones political conduct in the long term is better for all the people of a country and humanity as a whole. Someone has to start with ethical leadership and others have to join over time for constructive changes to be possible:

I do not feel that the end justifies the means because the end is preexistent in the means, and I believe firmly that we must follow moral means to secure moral ends. - Martin Luther King Jr.

We can succeed only by concert. It is not “Can any of us imagine better?” but “Can we all do better?” Object whatsoever is possible, still the question recurs, “Can we do better?” - Abraham Lincoln

A corrupt political system, a pattern of certain corrupt practices which keeps returning, is something that already existed long before the United States of America existed. It is not particularly new. In his book on the life of Julius Caesar historian Adrian Goldsworthy explains how systematic corruption worked in the Roman Empire around 70 BC:

Men spent lavishly to win elections at Rome and frequently went to their province desperate to pay off their massive debts. Governors were not salaried, although they received modest expenses, but they were the supreme power in their province, able to bestow or withhold favours to provincials or businessmen. The temptation to take bribes was great, as was the urge to confiscate as plunder anything they desired. The poet Catullus would later give ‘How much did you make? as the first question a friend asked him after his return from a junior post on the staff of a provincial governor.

Part of the incentive for Roman politicians to participate in corrupt practices was to pay back the big sums of money spent for elections. I can imagine that politicians of Rome said they needed to spend “lavishly” to be able to win elections. Not being corrupt in Rome probably would have made it a lot more difficult to win elections, if not almost impossible, because you would have had a lot less of money to spend on your campaign. In the 2012 and 2016 US-elections these kind of arguments are often used by Democrats to keep a corrupt political system in place. Democrats seem to argue that they have to be as corrupt as Republicans are for them to be able to win elections. 

During the 2012 elections journalist Jane Mayer of the New Yorker wrote a piece on President Barack Obama and fundraising with the title “Schmooze or loose.” The premise of the story is basically that politicians feel that they need to accept all the money they can get to be able to win elections. If in 2012 Obama wouldn’t have accepted Super PACs spending money on his re-election, the chance that he would stay in power would have probably have been slimmer, because “the rules are what they are, they cannot play by a different set of rules”, “we cannot unilaterally disarm”, “you don’t get to change the rules if you’re not in control of the car”, or “the Obama campaign says it doesn’t want to fight with one hand tide behind its back”. These arguments reinforces the believe that only with a lot of money you can become, and stay, President of the United States of America. These are apparently the rules of the game in the “greatest” democracy of the world.

Don’t bank on the statements of change by politicians alone for the delivery of new and better policies on campaign finance. There is such a thing as repetitive discussions on issues every four years. And then nothing really changes. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” a phrase coined by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the nineteenth century. And a great song by Bon Jovi.

In a previous blog I wrote on what needs to be done to get money out of politics with specific proposals which have been made by American lawmakers and campaign finance activists. To get these changes passed effectively is not going to be easy. It has been tried before and in the end failed miserable. Ask Barack Obama.

It is important to understand why things haven’t succeeded in the past, so that campaign finance activists are better prepared in the present to achieve the changes they want. I would like you to read the following long part of a campaign speech Bill Clinton made in 1996 in Santa Barbara on campaign finance reform. Then I will take some parts out of his text to see how much has really changed in 20 years time, from 1996 up to now. But, first the President of the United States of America between 1993 and 2001, Bill Clinton:

When I ran for President 4 years ago, I said I wanted to give our Government back to the people. I wanted a Government to represent the national interests, not narrow interests, a Government that would stand up for ordinary Americans. And I have worked hard to do that. When I became President, I barred top officials from ever representing foreign Governments when they leave our service. I barred top officials from lobbying their own agencies for 5 years after leaving office. The days of the revolving door, when top trade negotiators left to work for the very countries they were negotiating against, are over.

We passed the most sweeping lobby reform legislation in 50 years. From now on, professional lobbyists must disclose for whom they work, what they are spending, and what bills they are trying to pass or kill—for the first time ever. I challenged the Congress to ban gifts from lobbyists, and they did that.

We passed a line item veto so Presidents can strip special-interest pork in general legislation. We passed the motor-voter law, which has enabled millions of people to register more easily and will add millions to the voting rolls next Tuesday. We passed the Congressional Accountability Act and then the White House accountability act to apply to Congress and the White House the same laws that we pass and impose on everyone else in America.

All these actions will serve to make Washington work better for you. But there is still more to do, and special interests still have too much say. We have clearly one more big job to do: curbing the power that special interests have in our elections. Everybody knows the problems of campaign money today. There is too much of it. It takes too much time to raise. And it raises too many questions.

The parties are engaged in an escalating arms race. In the past 2 years—listen to this—in the past 2 years, the Democratic Party and its House and Senate campaign committees have raised $241 million. The Republican Party and its Senate and House campaign committees have raised $399 million. Raising that much money strains the political system. We have played by the rules, but I know and you know we need to change the rules.

I proposed a tough campaign finance bill when I came into office, but the Congress would not pass it. The Republicans have been reluctant to give up their access to big money. Led by my opponent, they filibustered the bill I proposed to death. In fact, campaign finance reform has come before the Congress six Congresses in a row, and my opponent filibustered it five times. He blocked the last one right before he left office.

In 1995, I met with Speaker Gingrich at a townhall meeting in New Hampshire. And when we were there a citizen asked us if we would create a bipartisan commission to come up with a campaign finance reform proposal that we would then try to pass. We both agreed. I thought it offered a real chance for bipartisanship and action. And frankly, I was excited about it. I even appointed two distinguished citizens, John Gardner and Doris Kearns Goodwin, to help get it started. But the Republicans walked away. My opponent now says he would support such a commission. But when we had a real chance to succeed, he wouldn’t help us start it.

Now we have a chance—we had a chance to take bipartisan politics—or partisan politics out of this issue this year as well. I supported a strong bipartisan bill introduced by one of my opponent’s strongest supporters, Senator John McCain, and Senator Fred Thompson and Democratic Senator Russ Feingold from Wisconsin. They’ve got a good approach. It’s based on principles I advocated back in 1992. We should curb the power of special interests by restricting political action committees and dramatically reducing the amount they can give to candidates. We should ban contributions from lobbyists to those who lobby. That’s what I believe. We should end the big money contributions to political parties known today as soft money. We should ban corporations and unions from directly giving to parties to help Federal candidates they can no longer help directly. And for the first time ever, we should restrict the virtually unlimited amount of money individuals can now give to parties. We should set voluntary spending limits for candidates. And we should give free TV time so that all candidates who observe the voluntary limits—but only those who observe the voluntary limits—can talk directly to voters.

And parenthetically, I might say we made a beginning on that approach this year, and I would like to thank those networks which offered Senator Dole and me the opportunity to speak directly to the voters at various times in 90-second or 2-minute messages. I thought that was a very good public service. It’s the beginning of seeing how we might do it on a sustained, regular, disciplined basis, because we have to have access to the voters and if you have to purchase it all, it is extremely expensive. So the voluntary spending limits and the free time must work together.

This is a good approach. It was endorsed by Common Cause and every other major reform group. It was bipartisan. It was tough. It was real reform. But my opponent opposed it. He refused to bring it to the floor for a vote. And after he left Congress to run for President, the Republican leaders finally allowed the legislation to come to a vote, and then they killed it.

There is one more issue that reform must deal with. Today it is legal for both parties to receive contributions from corporations that are completely owned by foreign corporations or interests and from individuals who live in the United States legally but are not citizens. Many of them have lived here many years and have employees and interests in this country. The Democratic Party has raised money this way, and so has the Republican Party. In fact, the Republican Party has raised much more money in this way than the Democrats, but that’s not the point. It’s time to end this practice as well.

Now, McCain-Feingold would end all corporate contributions, so it would take care of that part of the problem. But we should also end contributions to either party from individuals who are not citizens. There are many immigrants who play an important role in our country, and all of you in California know I have done my best to defend legal immigration and the rich contribution it makes to the United States of America. But if the essence of a democracy is its citizens decide, and only citizens can vote, then I believe only citizens should be able to contribute. That is not anti-immigrant, it is simply stating the fact: Those who vote should finance the elections that they vote in.

There is no more excuse for waiting. I tried to form a commission, but now is not the time for a commission. This is a time for action. Once again, I call upon the Congress to enact real reform. Delay will only help those who don’t want to change at all. When McCain and Feingold introduce their bill next year, I will introduce it with them. Real reform will mean a Government that is more representative, not less. And I ask you, every one of you, to help us to pass real, meaningful campaign finance reform in Washington. Will you do that? [Applause]

Now, let me say one other thing. We should also understand that in a recent case the Supreme Court has made it impossible to enforce some of the strictest limits. And this bill will not solve all of our problems. Even as it establishes limits, it will still allow, because of the Supreme Court’s decisions, a millionaire or a billionaire to spend endless sums running for office. It may be that further measures are needed. But in the meantime, that’s not an excuse to do what we can. We must act, and we must act now.

“The days of the revolving door, when top trade negotiators left to work for the very countries they were negotiating against, are over.”

In the 2016 election the issue of the “revolving door” is still a big issue. Nowadays the discussion is less about working for governments of different countries, and more about the switching of positions between government and (global) corporations. For example, a former employee of a big bank who becomes the finance minster. Or, a former minster of finance who becomes an employee at a big bank. In other words, you’re going to work in a field which is related to the work you have done. The revolving door is a problem, because there is the appearance of a conflict of interests. A person who comes through the revolving door is potentially biased to move policies in a certain direction. The revolving door doesn’t just take place at the top of an organization, but also at lower ranked government and business positions.

Bloomberg reported that the revolving door between the FED and banks has been rising rapidly since 2008. As you might remember we had a global financial crisis in 2008, which needed to be dealt with. A lot of people were extremely angry at the bankers for almost blowing up the financial system in its entirety. On the other hand you needed people who understood the banking system, how it works day-to-day, to help you fix the problem. The impulse of the FED to get the bankers in to help clean up the mess they created is understandable. Who else had the expertise to over see the damage and how to repair it?

The first thing people look at when you apply for a job is the former experience you have had in that field. A bank when hiring people for compliance to financials regulations will obviously look to people who have experience in that field. Former financial regulators at the government can be a great asset to banks in that regard. A revolving door between government and corporations such as banks can be a good thing too. 

Unfortunately, the revolving door is not only used to find experienced people, but also to influence public policies in a certain direction. Former bankers in government are accused of coming up with and supporting pro-bank policies. People who came into government via the fossil fuel industry might take a less harden stance on climate change. And former executives of retail companies in government could be against raising the minimum wage. Off course, top bankers could be for strict financial regulations, fossil fuel executives for bold action on climate change, and corporate leaders for increasing the minimum wage. In reality they are often more inclined to be persuaded by their money interests, making a bigger profit, than the public concerns. 

In the beginning of August progressive organizations found it necessary to remember Hillary Clinton on her campaign promise to stop the revolving door. Among other things they stated in their letter to her:

The result of this practice is that the interests of elites are over-represented in Washington. Ordinary Americans understandably feel they lack a seat at the table. In an administration dominated by revolving door appointees, policies challenging powerful interests face a harder road to enactment, and government priorities tend towards those of well-connected elites.

(...)

As you begin to consider who would serve in your administration, we write to urge you to follow through on these commitments and the general spirit behind them. By doing so, you will ensure that your public positions on issues ranging from trade to Wall Street reform will not be undermined by executive branch appointees.

When you hire someone for a government position you want that person to have the knowledge, experience and judgment to be able to fulfill that job. At the same time you want that person to stand up for the public interests and not interests of a certain industry, or as Bill Clinton stated in 1996 “a Government to represent the national interests, not narrow interests.” In 2016 this is still organized in a way that doesn’t satisfy the majority of the American electorate. The revolving door is still seen as a problem which hasn’t been tackled.

“We passed the most sweeping lobby reform legislation in 50 years”

The revolving door is even a hotter issue when it comes to lobbyists. When Barack Obama came into office in 2009 one of the first things he did was to rein in some of the power of lobbyists via an executive order. Measures which this order contained included a lobbyist gift ban for any appointee of the government and restrictions for government appointees who were registered lobbyists.  A registered lobbyist was not allowed to participate in “any particular matter on which he lobbied” within the 2 years before the date of his appointment. And a registered lobbyist was not allowed to participate in “the specific issue area in which that particular matter falls”; or seek or accept employment with “any executive agency that he lobbied” within the 2 years before the date of his appointment to government. This kind of restrictions makes it harder to hire lobbyists to the government. Politico reported that Obama over his two terms issued four waivers to exempt individuals who had been registered lobbyists from the rules of his executive order.

That there are “registered lobbyists” is thanks to among others Bill Clinton and a law that passed under his leadership: “the Lobby Disclosure Act of 1995”. In 2007, under the leadership of George W. Bush, this law was amended and made somewhat stricter by “the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.” For many this is still not strict enough. A ban of only one or two years with regard to the revolving door is a joke. Democratic senators Michael Bennet and Al Franken therefore proposed more serious legislation called: “Close the Revolving Door Act of 2015.” Senator Bennet summarizes the main points of their proposal as follows:

  • Permanently bans representatives and senators from lobbying after they retire.
  • Increases the statutory staff restrictions on lobbying from one year to six years. Prohibits lobbyists from working for members of Congress and Committees with whom they had a substantial lobbying contact for a period of six years.
  • Increases disclosure for lobbying activities.
  • Increases penalties for violating the Lobbying Disclosure Act from $200,000 to $500,000.  

Hillary Clinton however seems to have other priorities. The first signal of more problems to come was the reversal by Clinton of the DNC ban put in place by Barack Obama. The DNC under the leadership of Obama was not allowed to receive donations from federal lobbyists and political action committees. This policy ended this year under pressure of Hillary Clinton. Now her team seems to be pressuring Obama to also reverse his executive order with regard to the revolving door for registered lobbyists. Even an insignificant ban of two years for registered lobbyists is too much for Hillary Clinton. This also means it is very likely, if not for sure, that a president Hillary Clinton will not be in favor of the “Close the Revolving Door Act of 2015” of Bennet and Franken. She doesn’t want to make regulations stricter for registered lobbyists, but do exactly the opposite and make already weak existing rules less hard for lobbyists.

We have clearly one more big job to do: curbing the power that special interests have in our elections. Everybody knows the problems of campaign money today. There is too much of it. It takes too much time to raise. And it raises too many questions.

This said the man who created the White House “Hotel”. Bill Clinton let some of his top donors of sleep over in the White House when he was president. With both of the Clintons this is a problem: too much hypocrisy. Saying you’re for campaign finance reform and at the same time doing things which undermine real campaign finance reform.

Bill Clinton said about his opponent in 1996 elections, Republican Bob Dole: “In fact, campaign finance reform has come before the Congress six Congresses in a row, and my opponent filibustered it five times.” In general I think it is fair to say that one has a lot bigger chance with Democrats to change campaign finance laws for the better than with Republicans. And the Clintons are Democrats, and have tried to make better rules with regard to money in politics. At the same time the Clintons in their practices with regard to money politics give a lot of worries. We will get to a few of those.

In January of 2010 President Barack Obama in his weekly address had the following to say about the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United and the influence of money in politics:

One of the reasons I ran for President was because I believed so strongly that the voices of everyday Americans, hardworking folks doing everything they can to stay afloat, just weren’t being heard over the powerful voices of the special interests in Washington.  And the result was a national agenda too often skewed in favor of those with the power to tilt the tables.

In my first year in office, we pushed back on that power by implementing historic reforms to get rid of the influence of those special interests. On my first day in office, we closed the revolving door between lobbying firms and the government so that no one in my administration would make decisions based on the interests of former or future employers.  We barred gifts from federal lobbyists to executive branch officials.  We imposed tough restrictions to prevent funds for our recovery from lining the pockets of the well-connected, instead of creating jobs for Americans. And for the first time in history, we have publicly disclosed the names of lobbyists and non-lobbyists alike who visit the White House every day, so that you know what’s going on in the White House – the people’s house.

We’ve been making steady progress. But this week, the United States Supreme Court handed a huge victory to the special interests and their lobbyists – and a powerful blow to our efforts to rein in corporate influence. This ruling strikes at our democracy itself. By a 5-4 vote, the Court overturned more than a century of law – including a bipartisan campaign finance law written by Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold that had barred corporations from using their financial clout to directly interfere with elections by running advertisements for or against candidates in the crucial closing weeks.

This ruling opens the floodgates for an unlimited amount of special interest money into our democracy. It gives the special interest lobbyists new leverage to spend millions on advertising to persuade elected officials to vote their way – or to punish those who don’t. That means that any public servant who has the courage to stand up to the special interests and stand up for the American people can find himself or herself under assault come election time.  Even foreign corporations may now get into the act.

I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest. The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington, or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections.

All of us, regardless of party, should be worried that it will be that much harder to get fair, common-sense financial reforms, or close unwarranted tax loopholes that reward corporations from sheltering their income or shipping American jobs off-shore. 

It will make it more difficult to pass commonsense laws to promote energy independence because even foreign entities would be allowed to mix in our elections.

It would give the health insurance industry even more leverage to fend off reforms that would protect patients.

We don’t need to give any more voice to the powerful interests that already drown out the voices of everyday Americans.

And we don’t intend to. When this ruling came down, I instructed my administration to get to work immediately with Members of Congress willing to fight for the American people to develop a forceful, bipartisan response to this decision.  We have begun that work, and it will be a priority for us until we repair the damage that has been done. 

A hundred years ago, one of the great Republican Presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, fought to limit special interest spending and influence over American political campaigns and warned of the impact of unbridled, corporate spending. His message rings as true as ever today, in this age of mass communications, when the decks are too often stacked against ordinary Americans.  And as long as I’m your President, I’ll never stop fighting to make sure that the most powerful voice in Washington belongs to you.

As I wrote in the beginning of this blog Obama embraced Super PACs in the 2012 election, which came in existence after and were made possible because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United. The argument of (the aides of) Obama was that he needed to embrace Super PACs, or take the big risk of losing the presidential race from Mitt Romney. The Obama presidency won’t go into history for ending the corrupting influence of money in politics. For all the great words spoken in real actions he didn’t came through. In the end Obama kneeled for a corrupt system he despises in order to win the 2012 elections. His small effort with the executive order out of 2009 does not change that fact. Obama did not reform the way campaign finance works in the United States of America.

The credit you can give Obama is that even as he participated in a corrupt political system he was always troubled by it, which made him more careful than the Clintons. That Obama embraced Super PACs, appeared at two Super PAC events, and did not reform campaign finance seriously is major little potatoes compared to the many much more disturbing stunts of the Clintons.

The stories breaking with regard to (foreign) donors to the Clinton Foundation are troubling. A donor who’s placed in an important government position with regard to security of the nation by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Domestic and foreign donors of the Clinton Foundation who bought access to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Giving speeches for huge sums to special interests, like Goldman Sachs, after she was Secretary Of State is troubling. Not only because we don’t know what’s said and maybe promised in those speeches. It buys these corporations influence with Hillary Clinton. The AP reported:

The AP review identified at least 60 firms and organizations that sponsored Clinton’s speeches and lobbied the U.S. government at some point since the start of the Obama administration. Over the same period, at least 30 also profited from government contracts. Twenty-two groups lobbied the State Department during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. They include familiar Wall Street financial houses such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., corporate giants like General Electric Co. and Verizon Communications Inc., and lesser-known entities such as the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and the Global Business Travel Association.

The network of Super PACs that David Brock has set up for the Clintons is troubling. Among other things, David Levinthal, Senior Reporter of the Center for Public Integrity wrote the following in Newsweek: 

And these pro-Clinton super PACs are intimately linked.

Two of them—American Bridge 21st Century and Correct the Record—share space in a Washington, D.C., office building at 455 Massachusetts Ave. NW—“its exquisite interior is appointed with materials of the finest quality,” building developers boast.

Federal records show all four super PACs regularly shuttle millions of dollars in cash and resources among themselves. This means an initial, anonymous contribution to one super PAC can flow through any of the rest before it’s finally used to help Clinton.

Using loopholes in legislation to extract as much money from the state parties as possible, bundling to avoid legal spending limits by Hillary Clinton, is troubling. Bloomberg reported:

Of the transfers that state parties made to the DNC for which donor information was available, an overwhelming proportion came from contributions from maxed-out donors:

On average, 83 percent of the money that was sent from the state committees to the DNC in July originated with a donor who had already given the maximum $33,400 to the national party.

The Hillary Victory Fund was formed almost a year ago to combine the fundraising power of Clinton’s campaign and 33 state Democratic parties. Campaign finance watchdogs have questioned whether the arrangement is proper, and news reports have shown that the state parties have been paying most of the money they receive back to the national party.

The committees haven’t been accused of any wrongdoing, and election lawyers say the practice doesn’t appear to violate campaign finance law. It’s unclear whether the donors are aware of the transfers.

The Washington Post reported in April that half of all Super Pac money comes from only 50 donors. Let me be clear, these practices are wrong even if the goals sometimes are admirable. In the article it is written: “The biggest overall contributor to super PACs so far is San Francisco environmentalist and former hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer, who has put $17 million into a super PAC he formed to support candidates committed to combating climate change.” If you’re against super PACs and the corrupting influence of money in politics: you’re against all super PACs, even if they fight for your interests.

In October of 2015 the New York Times reported that just 158 families had provide half of the early money for efforts to capture the White House. The reporters note: “But regardless of industry, the families investing the most in presidential politics overwhelmingly lean right, contributing tens of millions of dollars to support Republican candidates who have pledged to pare regulations; cut taxes on income, capital gains and inheritances; and shrink entitlement programs.”

In 1996 things were a little better: not 50 percent, but 20 percent of the (soft) money came from a select group of people, at the Democratic side. In an article of the Atlantic on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform the following is written: “Of the $122 million that the Democrats had raised in soft money during the 1996 election cycle (in which the Republicans raised $141 million), nearly $25 million—roughly 20 percent of the whole—had come from just 168 people.”

In the long term, even if Hillary Clinton is a blockbuster fundraiser today, the politics of money favors the Republicans, not the Democrats, and not the Progressives. But, even if it would favor Democrats and Progressives more, would it be a just and fair Democratic system? Is it “We The People” or “We the 158 families”?

“This is a time for action. Once again, I call upon the Congress to enact real reform. Delay will only help those who don’t want to change at all.”

Barack Obama didn’t succeed in the ending the corrupt practices. The next president of the United States of America is less concerned with ethical behavior than Obama. Trump on everything. Clinton for sure on political corruption and money in politics, unless you find the few examples of her behavior above acceptable from a political leader. I don’t.

How is all of this knowledge going to help you? It will not help you if you settle for it or become a defeatist. Don’t surrender. Keep on fighting for what you know is right. Realize it is an uphill fight which will take a lot of energy and time to win. Realize you cannot do it alone and that you need to cooperate with others to get serious campaign finance reform passed. Realize you’re on the right side of history. With enough and permanent pressure from many ordinary Americans serious campaign reform will happen.

Don’t accept half measures. Don’t accept that the little measures that are in place, like Barack Obama’s executive order, will be reversed by Hillary Clinton. Every millimeter in this struggle matters. Support outside groups not infected by the corrupt system in their struggle to realize campaign finance reform. Support ballot-initiatives of the people for stricter campaign finance reform, in states where that’s possible. Protest in the capital. Do online actions. Write blogs and share information (see my previous blog). Put as much pressure on your elected officials as possible to change the corrupt political system in the United States of America.

Be aware of the fact that actions speak louder than words. Support those politicians who really are taking legislative action, and who don’t give up the fight when things get rough. Be a champion and find your champions! Don’t stop until your democracy is healthy functioning system. Your, and our future depends on it.

 

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