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How big business buys politicians

March 5, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7

JOHN KERRY says that the lobbyists of Corporate America are "scurrying around Capitol Hill" trying to buy political favors. If only we vote for him, Kerry says, he'll "free our government from the grip of the lobbyists." John Edwards says that the lobbyists need to be "cut off at the knees." Howard Dean tells his supporters, "Only you have the power to send those lobbyists home."

The Democratic Party's campaign for the White House in 2004 has put a spotlight on big business influence in Washington. And no wonder. George W. Bush's presidency is openly devoted to helping the rich and powerful. One problem, though. The Democrats are up to their eyeballs in corporate cash, too.

As the two dominant parties in the U.S., the Republicans and Democrats both rake in huge sums from wealthy "special interests"--in exchange for allowing these interests to shape laws to their advantage and gain "access" at every level of government. Most of the time, this favoritism takes place behind the scenes--though the politicians sometimes come up with a public justification for helping out their big business buddies, like the lie that Bush's tax cut giveaways to the super-rich are really about creating jobs. Either way, the Washington system revolves around money.

"[T]he real powers that be are not on any ballot," writes Charles Lewis, of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and chief author of the Center's The Buying of the President 2004. "They are accountable to no one." ALAN MAASS explains why Washington is for sale.

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MOST PEOPLE take it for granted that politicians sell political influence to the highest bidder. According to The Buying of the President 2004, 84 percent of people polled say that members of Congress will be more likely to "listen to those who give money to their political party."

Of course, if anyone doubts the influence of big business in Washington, there's always the example of George W. Bush. In 2003, a year before the presidential election, Bush raised $130 million, already surpassing the record-breaking total that he took in for the 2000 election--and he doesn't even face an opponent for the Republican presidential nomination.

Obviously, that kind of cash doesn't come from ordinary working people. The biggest donors to Bush's campaign for the last three months of 2003 is a who's who of Corporate America's biggest financial institutions: Pricewaterhouse Coopers, MBNA Corp., Deloitte & Touche, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch & Co.

All of Bush's major corporate donors were linked to the campaign's Pioneer and Ranger programs--individual fundraisers who promise to bring in $100,000 or $200,000 each by "bundling" contributions from fellow executives, family and super-rich friends. Could anyone believe that the Rangers and Pioneers are handing over money out of the goodness of their hearts? Of course not.

They're looking for the same kind of access and preferential treatment enjoyed by Bush's top donor over his political career--until, that is, the Texas-based energy giant Enron went belly up at the end of 2001. Enron's previous success during the 1990s depended on having powerful friends in Washington.

Friends like former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who received nearly $100,000 in direct donations from Enron--and whose wife Wendy was hired onto the company's board of directors. Phil Gramm returned the favor when, as head of the Senate Banking Committee, he helped push through legislation that exempted energy trading--Enron's core business--from government regulation.

That allowed Enron and other giant power companies to inflate wholesale electricity prices. Consumers paid the price--especially in California, where the power bosses used a manufactured crisis to jack up utility bills and extort enormous sums from the state government.

When Bush stole the White House, Enron CEO Ken Lay became the informal chief of energy policy for the U.S. government--at least until he and his bankrupt company became too much of an embarrassment to have hanging around the White House. Some of Enron's crooked executives may actually go to jail for their crimes. But just like old times, the Bush campaign is still accepting campaign cash from executives of the reorganized, bankrupt Enron.

John Kerry talks about "freeing our government the grip of lobbyists." First, he needs to free himself. Over the past 15 years, Kerry has raised more money from paid lobbyists than any other senator--nearly $640,000. Just to underline the cynicism, much of this money came from lobbyists representing telecommunications and financial companies that show up regularly in front of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, where Kerry is a top Democrat.

Kerry brags that he has "voluntarily refused to ever take one dime of political action committee, special interest money in my elections." But this claim dodges the fact that he is one of the largest recipients in Congress of donations from individual lawyers and lobbyists.

Kerry isn't alone among contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination in grabbing corporate cash. John Edwards claims to have never taken money from a registered lobbyist, but he raked in big bucks from people who work at lobbying firms. Edwards has also hitched $150,000 worth of rides on corporate jets--among them, the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, notorious for its aggressive courting of political connections.

Wesley Clark actually worked as a lobbyist, meeting with Dick Cheney to get the Arkansas-based company Acxiom a homeland security contract. Even supposed outsider Howard Dean counts Time Warner, Microsoft, IBM and Goldman Sachs among the top 10 donors to his political career.

So what do the "special interests" think about the Democrats snapping at the hands that feed them their campaign cash? According to the Wall Street Journal, while John Kerry is out on the campaign trail using populist rhetoric about lobbyists, "a campaign adviser privately sends the reassuring message [to Wall Street] that the senator actually is 'pro-business' and will be 'more nuanced going forward.'"

Above all, Corporate America knows that it can count on establishment Democrats like Kerry to deliver. In just the last five years, for example, Kerry sponsored at least two bills and cosponsored half a dozen others sought by telecommunications companies, including industry-backed plans for winning lucrative auctions of the broadcast airwaves.

At every election, voices in the media and from the political establishment itself try to convince us that the Democrats and Republicans are polar opposites. Naturally, the Democrats themselves peddle this line. That's how they win votes.

But many people outside the party establishment--people to the left of the Democrats, who are genuinely committed to peace and justice--make the same claims. Still, when you look at the outcome, it becomes clear that elections today are more about perpetuating a common political power structure than choosing between real alternatives.

In the 2002 elections, only 19 of the 469 members of Congress who ran for re-election lost--and half of this tiny group consisted of incumbents running against other incumbents because of redistricting. The sitting members of Congress won 96 percent of the races in the last election. In the House, nine out of 10 elections didn't even feature any significant competition between the two main parties.

Even looking at the White House, with a Democrat last time and a Republican this time, the similarities are striking--between Bill Clinton's shift toward the goal of "regime change" in Iraq and George Bush's invasion, between Clinton's welfare "reform" and Bush's victim-blaming attacks on the poor. Together, the two mainstream parties are committed to a political status quo that puts the interests of Corporate America first.

"In effect," William Brock, the former Republican official, told Charles Lewis, "the parties increasingly became conduits for single-interest influence." Efforts to reform the campaign finance system have had very little effect, Lewis and the CPI found.

After an extensive study of the money flooding into the system, the CPI and other watchdog groups discovered enormous sums passing through the loopholes. "Donors we thought had given hundreds of thousands to a political party had actually written millions of dollars in checks to state party committees nationwide," Lewis writes.

The U.S. political system gives the appearance of offering a choice--without really offering one. The real powers that be operate behind the scenes, using both Republicans and Democrats to get their way.

This isn't democracy. We deserve better than a system rigged against the majority of people--where political power and influence is sold to the highest bidder.

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