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Lance Simmens Headshot

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

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The contemporary political environment is so toxic that it has rendered calls for transparency from both the left and right. Yes, in one of the cruel twists of irony that governmental dysfunction, blatant corruption, gross incompetence, historically unprecedented economic inequality, and a seemingly callous disregard for any notion of public interest, public service or for that matter anything public at all, Tea Party zealots and progressives find themselves in uneasy harmony against unreasonable secrecy.

The lack of confidence in a fruitful consideration of the public good amongst the political classes at all levels of government combined with an arrogance of power that is the direct result of a system that allows for purchase of the worst outcomes money can buy have spurred calls from the two ends of the ideological spectrum for a more open system of decision-making. I have written about the process of globalization (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lance-simmens/forging-partnerships-thro_b_4164171.html) that currently is wending its way to conclusion through the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a mammoth trade pact involving a dozen countries that would essentially render laws, regulations, and policies adopted by governments moot in the face of multi-national corporations seeking to maximize not only profits, but "expected profits". An appeal to an international tribunal of trade lawyers would be the final arbiter of lawsuits alleging encroachment on the unalienable rights of corporations to realize expected profits to the detriment of the citizens supposedly protected by any semblance of democratic government. Under this regime the inalienable rights of corporate profits take priority over the inalienable rights of people to things like clean air, drinkable water, public health and safety and the pursuit of happiness.

The Obama Administration has decided to accept the high costs of environmental exploitation by the most profitable corporations in the history of mankind (oil and gas interests). The Administration is spearheading the TPP negotiations and wishes to invoke a fast track Trade Promotion Authority through Congress that would allow for only an up or down vote on a 29 chapter agreement, when only 5 of the chapters deal with trade. And Congress is not even afforded the opportunity to view the negotiating texts that have been drafted by nearly 600 "advisors", most of whom represent the industries affected by the pact, without agreeing to an effective gag order that prevents them from discussing what they have seen.

Too fantastical to be true, you may retort? Unfortunately such is not the case. It is a complex, complicated and largely secret document that will effectively govern 40 percent of the world economy. It is not even a power- grab but more a power give-away to corporate interests that continue to lavish untold wealth upon a political system so totally corrupted by money that no conflict of interest nor appearance of impropriety can sufficiently stop or slow the inevitable consequences that will adversely affect ordinary citizens, you know the little people.

While I firmly believe that the stranglehold upon the Republican Party is largely a result of anti-government, anti-science ultra-right-wing fanaticism and that this has led to an asymmetrical dysfunction as outlined by Ornstein and Mann in their important book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks", the emergence of a highly "Secretive Society" finds both political parties complicit in its construction under the fear of offending big-money interests that now effectively control our society.

Thus, there is plenty of blame to go around for the state in which we currently find ourselves and nowhere is this more vividly illustrated than in our continuing death march to fossil fueltility. Our pernicious advancement of an energy paradigm dependent upon and wholly sustained by fossil fuel development is strangling our future. Yet in a rare show of bipartisan acquiescence our policy makers willingly engage in destruction so sinister and so chilling that it defies adequate description.

And seemingly there is no corner of the country that can escape the wrath of a fossil fuel industrial complex so intent on profit that it is capable of sacrificing even their own children, because all the money in the world will not provide a safe haven from the ultimate ravages that mother nature will exact in revenge for the damage we are doing to her.

Even here in California, a place that is traditionally held in high esteem as a guardian of the environment and a steward of progressive thought we find ourselves losing to the corruptive influences of oil and gas interests. A recent news article captures the depth of despair with regard to how we as a State are proceeding to address the seminal issue of our time: namely, climate change.

An article was printed in the Sacramento Bee's Capitol Alert yesterday details the extent to which our system of legalized bribery operates. The article, entitled "Oil industry treated California legislators to $13k dinner as fracking bill loomed," reveals how a dozen lawmakers and two staff members were treated to a $13,000 dinner the evening before an important legislative discussion of legislation that would essentially pave the way for extensive oil exploration throughout the so-called Monterey Shale which runs from Monterey Country to Los Angeles. This was no ordinary dinner. At nearly a thousand dollars a pop these public servants must surely have been hungry. But not as hungry as the special interests entertaining them were to secure their support for public policy that reflects a reaffirmation of the corporate conscience.

The article reports that three oil and gas entities spent the most money lobbying the legislature between July and October of this year: namely, Chevron ($1,696,477); the Western States Petroleum Association ($1,269, 478); and Aera Energy LLC ($1,015,534). It continues to add that several of the legislators, Henry Perea, Lou Correa, Ron Calderon, and Norma Torres also were feted at an $11,000 dinner last year. So one could say these four certainly got their money's worth. Is this really acceptable behavior for those guarding the public interest? Is it legal? Does it happen on a regular basis? Where is the moral compass? What about the ethical constraints? I know this happens, and it happens across the political/ideological spectrum

But if the appearance of impropriety were not enough of an inducement to keep these folks and others from lavishly allowing their palates to be satiated what about conflict of interest or maybe even a degree of shame given that many of their constituents barely eke out an existence on less than the cost of those two dinners alone? I have been involved in politics and government for nearly four decades and I have heard the justification that one is capable of accepting gifts from people while not feeling as though they owe them a political favor. But seriously, common sense defies that baloney and the fact that public servants feel they can conspicuously flaunt such nonsense without paying a price politically is due to the loss of confidence and trust in our institutions and leaders. And in the end the oil and gas industry got what they wanted, a watered down bill allowing them to proceed to scour the land for profit.

Former Louisiana Senator John Breaux once intoned that his vote could not be bought but could be rented. The insanity of a political system that allows votes to either be bought or rented has brought us to where we are today. It must stop. The concept of public service, indeed the nobility of public service is irreparably damaged by such actions. And if it can happen here it can and does happen everywhere. At best this is an example of an exercise in very poor judgment, at worst it exemplifies a broken down system. Either way, it must be addressed.