The scandals suppurating around the White House and the GOP Congress, coming on top of the campaign finance and pardon scandals of the Clinton administration, have led 88% of Americans in a recent poll to conclude that politics is in varying degrees "corrupt." Though much of their cynicism is headline-deep, some is deeply informed—not only by the national media ("Three members of Congress have been linked to efforts by lobbyist Jack Abramoff...") but by stories in regional papers as well. Recent features in the Toledo Blade and the Nashville Tennessean are two such examples.
In a series this past December titled "Presidential Pipeline: Bush's top fund-raisers see spoils of victory," the Blade documented the killing to be made in investor politics. Where else, the paper asked, could an investment of $75 million net billions in return? The investors they profiled were 200 of the 548 so-called "Pioneers" and "Rangers"—fundraisers who collected at least $100,000 or $200,000 respectively for Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. The returns included "targeted tax breaks, regulatory changes, pro-business legislation, high-profile salaried appointments, and federal contracts." "Timber barons" got lower taxes on logging sales and a freer hand to cut down the national forests. Oil and other energy producers "dodged legal fees and clean-up costs after federal officials revised clean-air standards." United Technologies and The Washington Group, two defense contractors who had fared well under Clinton, won $6 billion in contracts to supply U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and rebuild their infrastructure. Top fundraisers from the mining industry were rewarded with rule changes that "opened swaths of hills and forests to their backhoes and left once-protected streams vulnerable to pollution." Wall Street and multinational fundraisers paid for legislation allowing them to repatriate "hundreds of millions of dollars they earned or stored abroad ... at reduced rates." The Blade calculated that the thirty Pioneers and Rangers in Ohio had gotten upwards of $1.2 billion "from taxpayers since 2001 for their companies and lobbying clients ... Other Pioneers and Rangers hope Mr. Bush's policies will add to their wealth soon." They range from "doctors seeking caps on their lawsuit liability" to "the wife of the chairman of the Hallmark greeting card company" seeking lower postal rates. They can only hope they do as well as the credit-card companies whose executives contributed $200,000 to Bush in 2000, procuring a bankruptcy "reform" bill worth $3 billion a year. Speaking in jest at a black-tie dinner of GOP funders, Bush famously said, "Some people call you the elite. I call you my base." The president never spoke truer words.
Earlier this month, a front-page story, "Hastert, Frist said to rig bill for drug firms," lifted the curtain of democracy for readers of the Tennessean to reveal the low devices of oligarchic rule. In what the Republican staff director of the Senate Appropriations Committee called "an absolute travesty" of the legislative process, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and the senior senator from Tennessee, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, to quote the Tennessean, "engineered a backroom legislative maneuver to protect pharmaceutical companies from lawsuits" over the sometimes awful side-effects of their vaccines. How? By slipping wording into last year's defense appropriations bill that, it appears, no member of Congress had seen and certainly had not voted on, including the thirty-eight conferees from the House and Senate who negotiated the details of the bill. The leading Senate conferee, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, claimed Frist had run it by him. But the statement quoted above from the director of Stevens's committee would seem to contradict this. It would be superfluous for me to point out that the drug industry contributes heavily to Frist's campaigns.
Try this thought-experiment: would Frist have jeopardized his presidential ambitions by rigging that bill for his funders if congressional campaigns were publicly-funded and broadcasters required to carry campaign messages free of charge? The national media will undoubtedly pick up this story in the '08 cycle. John McCain's press people will see to that. With McCain running in the Republican primaries and his partner in reform, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, running in the Democratic primaries, the issue of corruption will drive the campaign. But who will expose it as a systemic issue rather than a trivial matter of lobbyists providing tickets to basketball games? Who will come out for full-funding and free broadcast time as the only remedy? The disillusion of the American people with politics, their veridical sense that legislation is "rigged" for the special interests, may provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity for true reform—and a true reformer.