Back in the 1960s Flannery O'Conner wrote a short story: "Everything That Rises Must Converge." It had to do with generational insensitivity between a mother and son and between generations on the issue of race in society. In reading a recent piece by Tom Edsall ("The Lobbyist in the Gray Flannel Suit," New York Times, May 14, 2012) this title came to mind in a totally different context. The context is the lobbying maze in Washington and the convergence of dozens of noxious weeds in the garden of government into a handful of giant predator thorn bushes now devouring that garden.
Of the handful, the largest by far is WPP (originally Wire and Plastic Products: is there a metaphor here?) with headquarters in London, over 150,000 employees in 2,500 offices spread around 107 countries. It, together with one or two conglomerating competitors, represents a fourth branch of government, vacuuming up former senators and House members, and their spouses and families, key committee staffs, former senior administration officials of both parties and several administrations, and ambassadors, diplomats, and retired senior military officers.
WPP has swallowed giant public relations, advertising, and lobbying outfits such as Hill+Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller, along with literally dozens of smaller members of the highly lucrative special interest and influence manipulation world. Close behind WPP is the Orwellian-named Omnicom and another converger vaguely called Intergroup. According to Mr. Edsall, WPP had billings last year of $72.3 billion, larger than the budgets of quite a number of countries.
With a budget so astronomical, think how much good WPP can do in the campaign finance arena, especially since Citizens United. The possibilities are almost limitless. Why pay for a senator or congresswoman here or there when you can buy an entire committee? Think of the banks that can be bailed out, the range of elaborate weapons systems to be purchased, the protection from Congressional scrutiny that can be paid for, the economic policies that can be manipulated.
This business is no longer about votes up or down on particular measures that may emerge in Congress or policies made in the White House. This is about setting agendas, deciding what should, and should not, be brought up for hearings and legislation. We have gone way beyond mere vote buying now. The converging Influence World represents nothing less than an unofficial but enormously powerful Fourth Branch of Government.
To whom is this branch of government accountable? Who sets the agenda for its rising army of influence mechanics? How easily will it be not only to go from office to lucrative lobby, but even more importantly from lucrative lobby to office? Where are its loyalties if it is manipulating and influencing governments around the world? Other than as a trough of money of gigantic proportions, how does it view the government of the United States?
Keep in mind: America's Founders knew one thing. The republics of history all died when narrow interests overwhelmed the common good and the interests of the commonwealth.
O'Conner took her story title from a belief of the French Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard believed that all good would rise and that all that rose would eventually converge. We pray that he was right.
But in the realm of 21st century American politics the opposite is surely coming true.
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