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Lobbying Reform

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The Harsh Light of Cromnibus.

“One of the frustrating things about covering American politics from a vaguely left-liberal perspective is that many of the left-left theories turn out to be true, or true enough. You try to point out to the street protesters and tenured Marxists that things are more complicated than Noam Chomsky and the late Paul Sweezy would have you believe, and, all too often, it turns out they aren’t much more complicated. The richest 0.1 per cent really is getting richer and richer while most Americans see their living standards stagnate. The C.I.A. really did torture people in secret prisons overseas, and the N.S.A. has just received authorization to carry on gathering all of your phone records. The big banks and corporations really do run Washington—or, at least, that’s how it seems on this chilly December day.”

As the terrible-idea-filled, regulation-gutting “CRomnibus” became law earlier this month — thanks to a tag-team lobbying operation by Barack Obama and Jamie DimonThe New Yorker‘s John Cassidy laments what it means for American democracy: Namely, the banks clearly write the laws. “‘It’s morally reprehensible,’ Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat, told reporters. ‘They’re saying government bailouts are back.'”

By the way, if the bad news is too much to handle these days, there was one silver lining to the godawful CRomnibus: Crom may laugh at the four winds, but it does alright by space. Otherwise, well…

Revolving Doormen.

“One afternoon in San Francisco, Lehane explained his operating principle this way: ‘Everyone has a game plan until you punch them in the mouth. So let’s punch them in the mouth…In most situations,’ Lehane continued, ‘there are people who either have dirty hands or their own agendas. Whenever somebody complains that this stuff has happened to them, I say, “There’s a long line of people behind you.”‘”

Ever feel like maybe part of the problem with both our Party and our politics is that they tend to reward amoral, money- and power-driven, self-aggrandizing douchebags? Hey, you’re right! Exhibit A: Chris Lehane, previously Al Gore’s flak in 2000 (he also had a small part to play in Dean’s demise in 2004), who’s given the soft-focus treatment in this week’s New York Magazine. “‘You are only seeing 10 percent of what I do,’ Lehane said. The private clients have included Goldman Sachs, Michael Moore, the Weinstein Company and Boeing.”

And here’s Exhibit B: Peter Orszag, who’s currently trying to shield his big Citibank payday from public scrutiny. “Typically, documents in a civil-court proceeding are accessible to the public, but Orszag succeeded last year in quietly convincing a judge to seal financial records submitted in the case, including the salary he makes as a Citigroup vice president, from public view. In that request, Orszag worried that disclosure of his income might harm his career and ‘damage any eventual return to Federal Government service or other public office.'”

Yeah, because everybody’s clamoring for that. Sigh, This Town. Lehane’s right about one thing, tho’. Everywhere you look in DC, there are people who don’t know anything about anything strenuously clambering up the ranks, their only two skills of note shameless self-promotion and a brazen flexibility with regard to what should be basic Democratic principles. Or, as I put it more charitably a few years ago:

“That’s my rub too, and it dovetails with larger problems I have with DC political culture. More often than not, the people who tend to succeed here are the ones who keep their head down, play the DC game, stay resolutely non-ideological and unobtrusive in their opinions. never go out on a limb, never say or do anything that could hurt their bid to be a Big (or Bigger) Shot down the road. (Hence, the whole phenomenon of The Village.)The problem is, these plodding, risk-averse careerist types are exactly the type of people you don’t want making decisions in the end, because they will invariably lead to the plodding, risk-averse and too-often rudderless politics of the lowest common denominator.”

But I guess, as the The Wire made clear years ago, that’s pretty much the rule in any institution or industry, so there’s not much use in complaining about the way things are and have always been. Game’s the same, just got more fierce.

The Can Likes Kickbacks.

“In 2014, for the first time in three years, the vote to extend the nation’s debt ceiling did not bring the US to the brink of default in a high-stakes game of slash and burn…It was a striking turnaround for the forces of austerity. One of the biggest losers? The Campaign to Fix the Debt, the $40 million AstroTurf austerity group, financed by Pete Peterson and other Wall Street big wigs, and fronted by Maya MacGuineas, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Call it Alan Simpson’s last harrumph.”

In general, I think victory laps are a bad idea, especially since sequestration continues and it’s not like austerity is suddenly out of fashion in this godforsaken town. Nonetheless, The Nation‘s Mary Bottari looks at how citizen and netroots activism helped beat back (for now) the deficit witchhunt, and much of the corporate rapacity and profiteering attending it.

The pic above is my friend Alex Lawson crashing a Pete Peterson Astro-Turf event a few months ago. “‘Aaar!’ he said. ‘Fix the debt, but let me keep my corporate booty! Fix the Debt’s founders have more than $500 million in offshore corporate booty.'”

With Friends Like These.

“If the reporter’s own mother was losing $90 of foods a month out of an already-meager allotment, or the reporter’s son or daughter, I very much doubt that reporter would describe that loss as merely symbolic. I don’t know that reporter thinks their own breakfast, their own lunch, or their own dinner is merely symbolic. This is real money coming out of the grocery carts of real families.”

In Salon, former USDA official Joel Berg reads the riot act to lazy journalists and spineless Dems over the soon-to-pass Farm Bill, which cuts Food Stamps for the poor while expanding crop insurance subsidies for wealthy farms. “It infuriates me, that we live in a country with tens of thousands of actual loopholes that benefit the ultra-rich, [whereas] this is a provision authorized by law, perfectly legal, perfectly sensible, that governors of both parties have utilized…[Calling Food Stamp cuts “closing a loophole” is] basically a fabricated excuse. And it’s a smokescreen to obfuscate the fact that they’re taking food away from hungry families.”

Berg goes on: “George W. Bush proposed a billion dollars in cuts to SNAP, and virtually all these people were aghast at how horrible it is. For them to then turn around and justify cuts that are [eight] times as large as what George W. Bush proposed is a little hard to swallow. I do think our political system is basically evil versus spineless now.”

This. It’s the same dynamic you see on the NSA, on the Grand Bargain, and on countless other issues. And this is why I hard to find it to take so many Dems seriously anymore. Here’s the bill passage pablum from Senate Ag Chair Debbie Stabenow: “Congress is on the verge of taking bipartisan action that will create jobs and help reduce the deficit. This is not your father’s Farm Bill. It implements major reforms and ends unnecessary subsidies…Congress can pass a bipartisan bill that helps take us into the future and beyond the policies of the past.” And here’s the missing subtext: “Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has received more contributions from the crop production industry than any other senator.”

Ain’t no use jiving, ain’t no use joking. Everything is broken, and we need to stop enabling it or it will never, ever get better.

Cthulhu Fhtagn!

“The National Reconnaissance Office, tasked with watching the earth through largely classified satellite programs, recently launched a new rocket into space. That rocket’s classified contents were marked with an incredibly subtle image: an octopus spreading its tentacles across the globe, over the words “nothing is beyond our reach.” Charming!”

Er, yeah, not sure what they were thinking there. In any event, in honor of this dubious messaging, Popular Science offers eight historical examples of octopi taking over the world. Above is Standard Oil, smothering both ends of Congress with its undulating, oleaginous reach.

Too Big to Countenance.

“Today, the nation’s four largest banks — JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo — are nearly $2 trillion larger than they were before the crisis, with a greater market share than ever. And the federal help continues — not as direct bailouts, but in the form of an implicit government guarantee. The market knows that the government won’t allow these institutions to fail. It’s the ultimate insurance policy — one with no coverage limits or premiums.”

Joining ranks across the partisan divide, Senators Sherrod Brown and David Vitter introduce legislation aimed at ending Too Big To Fail: “The senators want the major banks to increase their own tangible equity so that shareholders, and not just taxpayers, take responsibility for their risky actions. They want the banks to have greater liquidity by holding more assets they can immediately turn into cash in a financial crisis. They say they want to keep Wall Street banks that enjoy government backing from gaming the financial system with credit derivatives and other risk-inflated schemes, which even JP Morgan Chase’s own employees failed to catch until too late.”

Naturally, the banks will be fighting this with everything they have, and Goliath usually wins these fights in Washington. They’re already leaning on one of their favorite Senators, Chuck Schumer, to block Brown from ascending to Chair of the Senate Banking Committee. Nonetheless, the progressive-conservative alliance here suggests, at the very least, a new wrinkle in the game.

In related news, companies are also wheeling out the Big Guns to threaten the Securities and Exchange Commission over potential new corporate disclosure rules for political spending — namely, making businesses disclose their campaign donations to their shareholders. Seems innocuous enough, but of course, “[t]he trade associations lining up in opposition to the rule amount to a roll call of the most politically influential — and highly regulated — industries in the country.”

The Doctors Get Paid.

“This is basically never mentioned in the US health care policy debate but the reason why foreign prices are lower is not mysterious — they have laws forcing the prices down. The fact that we allow such high prices is why health care in America is hard to afford. The high prices make private health care extraordinarily expensive to patients and employers, and the same high prices make it difficult for the government to cover everything through public sector insurance. Canada, where the prices are lower, manages to have a more robust welfare state without higher taxes for precisely this reason.”

As Matt Yglesias points out, one of the many reasons health care is so expensive in the United States: doctors are paid way too much. See also: 21 graphs that show America’s health-care prices are ludicrous. And after that: The Serpent on the Staff.

Along with pretty much always being on the wrong side of reform, the American Medical Association has contributed heavily to this problem. First, by working to artificially limit the supply of doctors for decades, and thus helping to ensure the doctors we do have are burdened with crushing amounts of debt. Second, by pushing for a cap on Medicare-supported residencies in 1997, further decreasing the US supply of doctors — They’ve since reversed course on that. And third, by continually skewing Medicare payment models and reimbursement rates. Don’t expect this issue to be resolved anytime soon.

Pay-to-Play, Enshrined. | The Veal Pen.

[I]n establishing OFA and through it extending an open palm to Washington’s corps of lobbyists and their masters, Obama is in danger of hitting the history books as a president who gamed, exploited, and ultimately joined a corrupt system rather than cleaning it up…Millions of Americans voted for Barack Obama thinking he understood what’s happening and would do something about it. Instead, he’s making things worse.

Common Cause president Bob Edgar reads Obama the riot act for his many transgressions on the campaign finance front. “He still has time to change course and I’m enough of an optimist to hold out hope that he will. But it’s getting tougher.” On this as on so many other fronts, I myself am no longer that optimistic. (Obama Lucy picture via this Atlantic Monthly article.)

“We talk a lot about broken models. The DC progressive model is broken. It does nothing but facilitate the injustices readily evident in this case.” In related news, and in the wake of his recent Salon piece about the administration’s phantom financial fraud task force, Dave Dayen argues its time for progressive organizations in DC to get adversarial or go home. Well-meaning people all over this country concerned about any number of issues hand over their hard-earned money to these groups, and they aim to speak broadly for liberal values. The accountability doesn’t stop on Wall Street. It needs to be shared by the DC progressive community.”

Update: “There’s a certain conventional wisdom that President Obama wants stronger campaign finance laws, and to protect our democracy from the corrupting effects of money in politics. It’s a story that you should no longer believe.” The Sunlight Foundation weighs in against Obama as well. “The arc of the Obama presidency may be long, but so far, it has bent away from transparency for influence and campaign finance, and toward big funders.”

The Best Republic Money Can Buy.

In the 2010 election cycle, 26,783 individuals (or slightly less than one in ten thousand Americans) each contributed more than $10,000 to federal political campaigns. Combined, these donors spent $774 million. That’s 24.3% of the total from individuals to politicians, parties, PACs, and independent expenditure groups. Together, they would fill only two-thirds of the 41,222 seats at Nationals Park.

According to a recent report by the Sunlight Foundation, 0.1% of the country made almost a quarter of the campaign donations last year. It’s a great system, tho’.

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