Try to Stop This Meme

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With “Go Ahead, Try to Stop K Street,” Todd Purdum in the Sunday Times Week in Review today kicks off one of the press’s favorite memes whenever Washington’s endemic pay-for-play corruption hits the front pages: “But will things really change?” he asks, and then answers his own cynical question with a series of familiar tropes, all designed to lead the reader to embrace the reporter’s world-weary resignation about the possibility of positive social change.

It’s moments like these when you really see the corporate media reinforcing some very conservative assumptions about the role of government, and those of us who believe in government as a tool for good have to push back hard.

Trope #1: There’s Nothing New Under the Sun. Purdum starts by dragging out a historical parallel to corruption past, both to say, “you see, this has been going on forever,” and to argue that even bigger scandals led to little change. Thus, he gives us a reference to “the rampant influence peddling of Ulysses S. Grant’s administration,” which led to calls for reform and even a intra-party challenge, but didn’t prevent Grant’s re-election. (I’m not a historian, but I’m sure the historical arc of corruption/reform didn’t end with Grant’s re-election.) This is the first part of the meme that we must stop, that corruption in Washington is like the cherry blossoms blooming in spring.

Trope #2: It’s Human Nature. To bolster this point, Purdum trots out a hoary old Washington hand for more world-weariness. In this case it’s Democracy 21′s Fred Wertheimer, who is the press’s Mr. Rent-a-quote on ethics and campaign reform. I suspect Fred had plenty of other better lines that he gave to Todd, but the one printed conveys this notion that corruption has been going on since the beginning of civilization. In other words, no need for the public to get too outraged by present-day selling of the public commonwealth to private high-bidders. Move along, folks, move along…

Trope #3: Big Government is the Real Problem. Then Purdum moves to his central point, climbing in bed with the anti-government crowd at the Cato Institute, who have long argued that the real problem isn’t private interests feasting at the public trough, but Big Government itself, which supposedly creates the need for intense lobbying. Making this point for him is the media’s amazing new darling of ethics reform, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose 1994 Contract With America was written by business lobbyists, who misused tax-exempt education groups to build his political operation and paid a $300,000 fine for misleading a Congressional investigation into his practices.

Gingrich rolls out the Big Lie, the second half of this meme we must kill: “There is $2.6 trillion spent in Washington, with the authority to regulate everything in your life,” he said. “Guess what? People will spend unheard-of amounts of money to influence that. The underlying problems are big government and big money.” If we don’t shrink government, we won’t shrink the influence-peddling business.

This seems logical, until you examine the underpinnings. Purdum cites a lot of compelling statistics showing how the influence industry has exploded. “Between the early 1970′s and the mid-1980′s, the number of trade associations doubled; in the first half of the 1980′s alone, the number of registered lobbyists quadrupled, according to The Washington Monthly.” This, he says, is “a growth that has tracked the growth of the federal government itself. The rise of government regulation – first in the New Deal and then in the 1960′s and 70′s – spawned a parallel rise in the private sector’s efforts to master the new system.”

But government spending and regulation didn’t double between the early 1970s and mid-1980s; nor did it quadruple in the first half of the 1980s. What did happen then was the organization of a massive business backlash against the social and economic reform movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which did seek to extend government’s benevolent role to do such things as make sure black Americans got an equal chance in life, insure Americans clean air and clean water, treat women equally to men, improve worker health and safety, and make sure business paid its taxes and played by the rules. It’s not a coincidence, I think, that the number of registered lobbyists jumped just as the business backlash took power with Reagan and “Gucci Gulch” opened to make sure every fatcat and Fortune 500 company got a juicy tax break or subsidy.

Furthermore, it’s not true that a shrunken role for government would lessen the efforts of private interests to seek favors from Uncle Sam. In the election of 1896, when the regulatory government that Gingrich so wants to kill was almost non-existent, businessman and RNC chairman Marc Hanna raised about $7 million in direct contributions from banks, insurance companies, railroads and other corporations to support William McKinley against the Democrat/Populist William Jennings Bryan, who raised one-tenth as much. In today’s that would be about $155 million, which may seem low until you recall that only 14 million votes were cast in that election. And, another problem for the anti-government trope–political corruption was rampant then too.

Business (organized money) invests in controlling government because it fears the power of organized people. The problem isn’t “big government”–the problem is private greed.

Trope #4: Lobbyists are Useful Since Congressmembers are Dumb. It’s hard to argue with the latter half of that statement, and Purdum rolls out a funny example of one Member in a meeting on high-definition TV standards who had barely ever even flown on an airplane before being elected to Congress. His point: lobbyists often “educate” Members on specialized subjects they don’t have the time or resources to track closely.

But no one is arguing that lobbying itself be outlawed. The issue is actually whether much legislation is skewed to the benefit of those who can afford lobbyists, to the detriment of the rest of us.

Cast your mind back over the bulk of legislation passed by Congress in the past two decades of Big Money running Washington and the question answers itself: bankruptcy “reform” written by credit card companies to screw poor debtors; deregulation of the banking, securities and insurance sectors that led to rampant corporate malfeasance and greed and the destruction of the retirement plans of millions of small investors; deregulation of the telecom sector producing media conglomeration and cable industry price gouging; rampant overpricing of pharmaceutical drugs and the creation of false scarcity (i.e. no reimports from Canada) to keep those prices high; blocking of any increase in the minimum wage (except for one larded with billions in subsidies to big business), etcetera, etcetera.

Trope #5: They’ll Always Find a Loophole. This is the final nail in the coffin of change, from Purdum’s perspective. He writes, “Of course, the record suggests that for every loophole any new law might close, lobbyists will find a way to open another. The ban on so-called ‘soft money’ contributions to political parties led to the rise of new special-interest spending groups, for example. Entrenched industries – and entrenched incumbents of both parties – can be expected to resist change that would threaten the way they know how to do business.”

So, what to do?

With the Abramoff-DeLay scandal spreading and government investigators on the trail of misbehavior by several Congressional offices, we can be sure that the corruption story is going to continue to stay on the front-burner, even as other fights, like the Alito confirmation hearings, take precedence. And with that, we have to be on the watch for this corrosive meme, that nothing can really be done about the theft of the public good by private interests.

The same argument, that it was always thus, was made by opponents of the abolition of slavery, by opponents of women’s suffrage, of labor rights, of environmental protection, of greater openness in government, and so on. It is a reactionary and fundamentally anti-democratic sentiment to suggest that we cannot strive to perfect democracy in each generation. It’s not easy, it’s not perfect, but it is possible.

Just look at states like Arizona and Connecticut–big scandals involving the selling of government favors to the highest bidders have led to fundamental reforms ending candidates’ dependence on private donors to finance their campaigns, by providing full public financing for their races. That reform, more than any other change in lobbyist behavior, has got to be our gold standard for real change, in my humble opinion.

This doesn’t mean that we can legislate away political venality, any more than passing laws to stop child abuse will abolish that practice. We should still pass those laws. And we can make it possible for the many good people who do want to go into public service to do their jobs without having to spend hours every day raising money and turning to well-heeled lobbyists to host fundraisers and pay their bills. And we mustn’t led the cynics in the corporate media tell us otherwise.

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