Over the last few days, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have made the case that Harvard professor and Congressional Oversight Panel chairwoman Elizabeth Warren is too controversial a figure to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency. This, then, raises the revealing question of how Washington defines "controversial"?
Recall that the charge of "too controversial" was not made by Senate Democrats (or at least not at the volume they are being made against Warren) against Gary Gensler, the former Goldman Sachs executive appointed by President Obama to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. It was not made by most Senate Democrats against Larry Summers, a hedge fund executive subsequently appointed to a top economic position in the administration. It was not made against Citigroup executive Jack Lew when last week he was appointed to head the Office of Management and Budget. And it wasn't made against Tim Geithner, who orchestrated massive taxpayer giveaways to major banks during his time at the New York Fed.
And yet, according to Democratic-run Washington, D.C., Elizabeth Warren -- an academic not connected to the financial industry or past corrupt governmental decisions; a regulator working to protect taxpayer's bailout money -- may apparently be too controversial to be confirmed by a Democratic Senate.
The message to both today's generation and the future generation of citizens who may aspire to work in government is pretty clear: If you are personally/financially connected to private for-profit corporations -- even those that helped destroy the economy -- that underwrite political campaigns, Washington has no problem with your appointment to a position overseeing those same private corporations. But if you forge an independent path and are not connected to those corporations and to that sluice of corporate campaign cash, you are suspect -- and probably will have trouble getting a job in government. Why? Because the former cadre of insiders poses no real threat to the economic status quo -- while the latter kind of independent outsider like Elizabeth Warren might actually rock the boat. Defining "controversial" this way, thus, creates a perverse incentive system: Going through the revolving door is rewarded as noncontroversial, while refusing to go through the revolving door is effectively punished as too controversial.
This is how corruption tends to work most often in D.C. On a day to day basis, it's far less the brazen money-for-votes schemes, and far more the narrowing of the political debate and the distortion of political language itself. In this case, it's the hijacking of the concept of "controversial" so as to marginalize an agent of change. And if that hijacking ends up preventing Elizabeth Warren from heading the CFPA, then, indeed, the status quo will have won.