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Washington for sale
Bought by big business

June 8, 2001 | Pages 8 and 9

WASHINGTON WAS abuzz last month about how Democratic control of the Senate would shape national politics.

But while the people who chair Senate committees may change, the corporate lobbyists will be conducting business as usual. In fact, the knife's-edge balance in Congress will mean a boom in business for lobbyists, argues Steven Weiss, of the Center for Responsive Politics.

"Lobbyists enjoy uncertainty, and this is certainly a period of uncertainty," he told Socialist Worker. "More are hired to influence the result of a vote."

More than 100 lobbyists are themselves former members of Congress--hired by corporations because they know how to put the squeeze on their ex-colleagues. As the New York Times described Washington in the 1990s: "At the Capital Grille, an expensive restaurant that opened near the Capitol in 1994, lobbyists flaunt their clients and their expensive tastes with brass names on private wine lockers...Nothing seems to restrain this new culture."

George W. Bush's takeover of the White House has only further exposed that culture. "Everywhere you turn, there's an example of the excessive role of money in American politics," Weiss says.

LEE SUSTAR and LANCE SELFA explain how the bosses run Washington.

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CORPORATE AMERICA bankrolled George W. Bush's campaign to the tune of $195 million.

And after Dubya captured the presidency, they began paying to promote his programs, too. "As President Bush and his cabinet kick off a six-week campaign to promote his agenda, U.S. corporations will be supporting it with their own multimillion-dollar drive," the Wall Street Journal reported days after Bush took office.

For example, the energy company Arctic Power hired a top public relations firm to spread propaganda about the supposed "benefits" of drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Cisco and Microsoft spent an estimated $1 million to push Bush's education plan.

The National Association of Manufacturers bankrolled the successful effort to roll back new occupational health and safety rules. And 20 industry trade groups formed a coalition for an advertising blitz to promote Bush's tax cut plan.

As an unnamed Republican operative told the Journal, "It's all part of the largest P.R. campaign this party has ever conducted. It will test if we can use the power of the White House and congressional control and the lobbying world to work our will."

Corporate America has to be happy with the opening months of the Bush administration. Consider Bush's biggest backers--the energy industry.

Energy interests gave more than $48.3 million--75 percent of their total contributions--to Republican candidates and party committees in 1999-2000. At the top of the list of contributors was Texas-based Enron Corp., the U.S.'s top electric power company, which gave $1.7 million to the politicians.

Enron CEO Kenneth Lay is a longtime Bush patron--which under the rules of the game in Washington means that he gets to run White House energy policy.

Think that's an exaggeration?

Since California's power crisis began to hit hard earlier this year, Gov. Gray Davis and other politicians have called on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to put a cap on the outrageous prices that Enron and other companies charge for wholesale electricity. So far, the FERC has refused.

And no wonder--the White House gave Lay veto power over who sits on the FERC board. Lay helped Vice President Dick Cheney interview candidates. And in January, Lay actually told acting FERC chief Curtis Hebert that he'd be more likely to keep his job if he announced his support for electricity deregulation.

Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse!

But if the former oil executives in the White House are giving their old buddies first dibs, the rest of Corporate America can't feel neglected. Look at almost any industry, and you can see what they gave to the politicians--and what they got in return.

And Bush and Co. want to keep the corporate cash flowing in. On May 21, Vice President Dick Cheney threw open the doors of his residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory for a reception for Republican donors.

So much for Bush's promise to "restore honor, integrity and dignity" to the White House after Bill Clinton and Al Gore used it to sell access with "coffees" and overnight stays.

"To be fair, there is one real difference between the Clinton-Gores' renting of the president's residence and the Bush-Cheneys' renting of the vice president's residence," wrote Washington Post columnist Michael Kelley. "The low-rent Dogpatchers set the price for entry at $50,000. The Bushies jacked up the minimum to $100,000."

How the bankers got bankruptcy "reform"

IF YOU want to see how big money rules Washington, the bankruptcy "reform" bill is a perfect example.

Credit card companies, banks, retail giants and others spent years paying off Republicans and Democrats alike to get approval for legislation that would keep people in debt literally for life.

Charles Cawley, president of MBNA America Bank, the largest issuer of credit cards in the country, was the top fundraiser for Bush's presidential campaign. He and other MBNA executives ponied up $240,000 for Dubya.

But the credit industry didn't have just Bush in its pocket. There were plenty of Democrats in there, too.

The industry shelled out $25.6 million in the 2000 election. The Republicans got $15.4 million, and the Democrats got $10.2 million. So when the bankruptcy bill came up for a vote in March, the bankers could count on Democrats to provide the margin of victory in the House. Two-thirds of Senate Democrats voted for it, too.

That's the kind of "bipartisanship" that Corporate America likes.

"Party of the people" rakes in big bucks

IT'S HARD to imagine a more brazen fundraising-for-favors operation than the Bush gang's. But Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey might qualify.

Torricelli faces indictment for arranging foreign trips and State Department action on behalf of a New Jersey businessman who lavished gifts on him. David Chang, a major contributor to Torricelli and the Democrats in the 1990s, used his connections with the senator to stitch up business deals in North and South Korea.

In 1999, Torricelli arranged a meeting with South Korea's prime minister and finance minister--under the pretense of discussing important economic and military issues. Instead, he brought along Chang--who spent the meeting trying to win Prime Minister Kim Jong-Il's support for his plan to buy a failing South Korean insurance company.

The U.S. was forced to issue an embarrassed apology.

The Democrats today are running away from Torricelli. But it was precisely because he was so effective at squeezing donors that Torricelli was chosen to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

With his close connections to Wall Street, Torricelli became a hero for delivering more "soft money" donations--unregulated contributions funneled to parties and issue-based ads rather than candidates--than the Republicans managed last election.

But even if Torricelli takes a fall, it won't make a dent in Washington's fundraising machinery, said Jeff Cronin, a spokesperson for the Common Cause watchdog group. "It's always easier to prove the petty, tawdry cases of corruption than it is to prove the quid pro quos on a massive scale," he told Socialist Worker. "That's our problem with soft money--it gives plausible deniability to both the donor and the recipients, with the parties playing the role of middleman during these transactions."

With Torricelli under a cloud, the Democrats prefer the clean-cut image of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

But Daschle himself is a master at collecting corporate cash. His top donor--at $44,150--is Northwest Airlines, where his wife is a top lobbyist.

Still wondering why Daschle kept his mouth shut when Bush vowed to ban a planned strike by Northwest machinists?

Next on Daschle's donor list--at $39,000--is Citigroup, the financial services behemoth with huge credit card operations in South Dakota.

Any guesses why he voted for bankruptcy "reform" legislation?

Daschle's corporate donations might seem low. As a senator from a small state, he doesn't need to rake in as much money as other politicians. Still, almost 80 percent of his corporate cash comes from outside South Dakota--which shows who really pulls the majority leader's strings.

The supposed "party of the people" has plenty of experience at selling political influence for campaign contributions. Because when it comes to the collecting corporate cash, Washington is perfectly bipartisan.

Two parties with one agenda

IT'S NO secret that ordinary people lose out in the big money game in Washington.

For years, large majorities of Americans have supported the goal of national health insurance. Yet the health care industry spent millions to defeat Clinton's watered-down "reform" proposal in 1994.

Majorities support the idea that government money should be spent on Social Security, Medicare and education rather than the military. Yet Democrats and Republicans alike have nickel-and-dimed essential social programs while filling the Pentagon's trough.

Majorities oppose Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well. But the White House's energy plan--drawn up in secret with industry leaders--proposes to do just that.

No wonder most Americans are cynical about politicians.

Earlier this year, the Senate passed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill--which is aimed, its supporters say, at curbing the worst excesses of the money-soaked Washington system.

It's still a long shot to pass the House--or survive a presidential veto. But even if it were to become law, as it stands now, McCain-Feingold still leaves many loopholes in the campaign finance system for corporations and the rich to exploit.

For instance, the legislation doubles the limit from $1,000 to $2,000 on "hard money" contributions to politicians. Needless to say, working people aren't likely to come up with $2,000 to give to a politician as a campaign contribution. Yet companies like MBNA will have no trouble tapping executives and bundling big bucks to give to their favorite candidates.

Even if McCain-Feingold passes, the system of legalized bribery that funds U.S. "democracy" will continue.

That's one reason why Ralph Nader's presidential campaign last fall struck a chord with millions of people. In denouncing the Democrats and Republicans as two faces of the same corporate party "wearing different makeup," he took aim at the big business stranglehold over Washington.

As President Woodrow Wilson admitted near the beginning of the 20th century, "Suppose you go to Washington and try to get at your government. You will always find that while you are politely listened to, the men really consulted are the men who have the big stake--the big bankers, the big manufacturers and the big masters of commerce...The masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States."

We need to build an alternative to a system that's corrupt to its core.

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