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David Sirota Headshot

Politicians & Lobbyists Gone Wild - D.C.'s New Reality TV

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We all know that in our current system of legalized bribery, political candidates are forced to spend most of their time shaking down Big Money interests for cash. But there's something particularly nauseating when it all just floods out into the open and no one even tries to pretend our political system is anything but one giant auction. That's exactly what's happening now: everyone in Washington - Republicans, Democrats, government commissions - everyone is throwing a giant party to celebrate just how totally awesome selling out really is (come on, Sirota, being against corruption was so six months ago).

Here, for instance, is our country's top election official telling one of the nation's largest newspapers that our presidential elections are for sale, and that non-zillionaires need not apply:

Michael Toner, chairman of the Federal Election Commission, says he expects that "for the first time ever," nominees of both parties in 2008 will opt out of the public financing system for both the primaries and the general. "The stage is set for the first billion dollar presidential election," Toner says, predicting the eventual nominees will raise $500 million apiece. Top-tier prospects such as McCain, Giuliani, Romney and Clinton should plan on raising $100 million by the end of 2007, Toner says. "If you're not in that ballgame, it's going to be hard to be taken seriously."

It's one thing for pundits to say such things - but it is an entirely different thing when it becomes an official declaration from the highest election official in the land. Instead of using his platform to, say, talk about the need to publicly finance elections so that the system could be accessible to more candidates, the chairman of the FEC is telling the media that no one other than those who can raise $100 million should even consider trying. Message from the U.S. Government: the most important quality prospective commander-in-chiefs must have is the ability to get K Street lobbyists to put cash in their pocket.

Then, there is this beauty in today's Wall Street Journal, showing that it took just one month from Democrats promising a "change" to ringing the starting bell for the same old auction, just with new faces:

Democrats may be promising a clampdown on lobbyist freebies once they take control of Congress. But ahead of that push, party leaders are collecting lobbyists' checks, while Democratic staffers angle for jobs inside their well-appointed offices. Verizon Communications Inc. earlier this week sponsored a reception for newly elected Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill. Illinois Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean was the beneficiary of a Tuesday night fund-raiser in the new Capitol Hill offices of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In addition to retiring Ms. Bean's debt, Chamber Political Director Bill Miller said the reception was a chance for corporations and lobbyists who didn't back her re-election to "meet her and see what a great representative she is...Separately, Moses Mercado, the Democratic National Committee's deputy executive director, will soon be joining the Federalist Group, a lobbying group with close ties to the White House that went bipartisan about a year ago. Mr. Mercado "can help our clients deal with the new majority on Capitol Hill," says Wayne Berman, the Republican founder of the firm. Senior aides to incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also have been snatched up by lobbying shops, while Democratic lobbying firms, largely frozen out in Washington for years, are being courted by dozens of new potential clients.

Let's give a little credit to Nancy Pelosi, who the Journal notes "successfully pressed House Democrats to cancel a planned caucus ski retreat in Vail, Colo., in January because it was likely to draw dozens of lobbyists and send a message that it was business as usual in Washington." It is no small achievement to keep money-hungry lawmakers away from a Hollywood-style ski resort where they would be showered in cash by corporate shills in Gucci parkas.

But as the Journal also notes, the lobbying and ethics proposals Democrats are promising to push after this most recent dive into the corporate cash pool "won't change the campaign-finance rules that dictate giving during the political season" - that is, none of the rules actually go after the intersection of money and politics by, for instance, pushing public financing of elections.

That's not an oversight or an accident. That's deliberate. You will notice my friend Brendan Daly, Pelosi's spokesman, who told the Journal, "We will break the link between lobbyists and legislating" but then he added "People still need to raise money to run campaigns." Translation: Though Pelosi and many other Democrats have pledged in the minority to support public financing of elections, that's not on the agenda now because its time to party on. The most any national leader has been willing to say to the contrary has come from Barack Obama, who has carefully raised the possibility of authoring a public financing bill. We should applaud him for that, though (shocker) he hasn't gone ahead and actually done it (come on, Obamaphiles will say, stop ganging up on him - he's a busy U.S. Senator who can't be bothered with actually doing stuff - he's got cable chat shows to appear on).

There are many out there who want to believe in their heart that we should just sit back and trust that Democrats in the new Congress will champion the most basic agenda that protects ordinary people against those who have perpetrated a hostile takeover of our government. Yes, yes, what a comforting thought...until it meets reality.

In the last month, we've seen leading Washington Democrats say we should consider Social Security benefit cuts, we should support the deregulation agenda, we should encourage efforts to weaken post-Enron corporate accountability reforms and we can't do anything real in terms of ending the War in Iraq.

We've seen House Democrats elect to Majority Leader someone who boasted about running his own "K Street Project" at the very same time Democrats were running against the "culture of corruption." We've seen Sen. Joe Biden (D-MBNA) cheer the fact that "I don't find a lot of difference between Republicans and Democrats right now." We've seen Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) tell reporters that Democrats are planning to do a "kabuki dance" with progressives - code for the age-old trick whereby lawmakers pretend to represent the interests of ordinary people while really making sure to appease Big Money. We've seen "Democratic" lobbyists rush to reporters to brag about how many oil and pharmaceutical and financial industry clients they have racked up in preparation for the new Congress. I wouldn't be surprised if come January we see a full on, Mardi Gras style parade down K Street, with floats sponsored by lobbying firms, and the former Hill staffers and lawmakers-turned lobbyists waving to the cheering crowd of Congressmen and spraying $100 dollar bills at them from a high-powered fan.

So to the people who say we shouldn't keep Democrats feet to the fire, I say wake up from your Madison Avenue-induced fantasy where everything in America is goodness and Ovaltine and wholesomeness and Apple Pie and re-join the real world where the hostile takeover of our government by Big Money interests continues to intensify. As every single movement that has ever changed anything in American history has taught - the system will be changed only if we keep the pressure on, not for any other reason, and if you think otherwise, send me an email, because I have a piece of real estate to sell you.

There is no great savior out there who is going to magically appear. Great speeches and flowery rhetoric and talk of nebulous "bipartisanship" and faux "centrism" is the real-life version of Aldous Huxley's Soma that these politicians want us to swallow. Just shut up and get stoned off expectations that supposedly will be met, if only we keep quiet until some distant "next election cycle" that never changes anything but the parking spot assignments on Capitol Hill.

This country is angry. It is angry at a media that celebrates Old Serious People being polite to each other at a time when thousands of people are dying in a war that threatens to destabilize the most dangerous part of the world. It is angry at a political system that doesn't even pretend to care about ordinary people - a system that sells us out right in front of our faces.

If at a time of war and economic crisis the progressive movement sits back and gets consumed with the celebrity-obsessed starfucking that comes with the presidential election or the new Congress, then we will have ignored the need to support the real heroes in the People Party fighting in the trenches for us, and worse, will have thrown away any opportuntiy to actually make real change. It may be nice that you got to be on a conference call with that new House chairman, or that you met one of the presidential candidates and they said great things about the netroots or that you got to meet one of the new oh-my-god-he's-so-famous senators from Meet the Press - but unless we tell these people that there will be consequences for them becoming part of the hostile takeover, we will be sitting here ten years from now smacking back another round of whiskey wondering why the hell everything is the same.

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