Previously published on BillMoyers.com.
We've been watching Congress since the mid-term elections and reading Zephyr Teachout's terrific history book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United. That snuff box was a gift from King Louis XVI of France. His Majesty was a good friend of the American Revolution but when he gave Benjamin Franklin the gold box, featuring the monarch's portrait surrounded with diamonds, some of our Founding Fathers objected. They worried that the gift would corrupt his judgment and unduly bias Franklin in France's favor.
The framers debated the meaning of corruption at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and Americans have been arguing about it ever since. Today, gifts to politicians that were once called graft or bribes are called contributions. The Supreme Court has granted corporations the rights our founders reserved for people, and told those corporations they can give just about anything they want to elect politicians favorable to their interests. Diamond and gold snuff boxes are as outmoded as the king's powdered wig. Now we're talking cash -- millions upon millions of dollars. Quadrupled, quintupled and then some -- and it's not considered corruption.
Consider the new report from the watchdog Sunlight Foundation: From 2007 to 2012, the two hundred most politically active corporations in the United States spent almost $6 billion for lobbying and campaign contributions. And they received more than $4 trillion in US government contracts and other forms of assistance. That's $760 for every dollar spent on influence, a stunning return on investment.
Peter Overby at National Public Radio reported that "Military contractors lead the list of contract recipients, and they hover in the upper ranks of companies with the biggest campaign contributions." Raytheon, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin -- all of them made hefty political donations to Republican campaigns. Not coincidentally, this year the Pentagon is due to spend $163 billion on research, development and procurement.
Then look at who's expected to be the new Republican chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee -- Thad Cochran of Mississippi. Breathlessly, The Washington Post writes, "This could mean additional funding for the Navy to modernize its fleet and potentially benefit contractors such as shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls." Guess what company describes itself as "the largest manufacturing employer in Mississippi and a major contributor to the economic growth of the state," not to mention a major contributor this year to Thad Cochran's re-election campaign? Why, shiver our timbers, it's Huntington Ingalls.
"The other dominant corporate sector is finance," Overby said. "Some of the country's biggest financial institutions -- Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and others -- are the top recipients of federal aid. That's because it cost so much to rescue the financial sector after the 2008 market crash."
Throw in the health insurers, media and telecommunications, retailers, Big Pharma -- no wonder Washington's K Street is lobbying's road to Paradise. But it runs in both directions. NPR's Overby talked with political scientist David Primo, who thinks Congress may be spending more time studying The Godfather than Robert's Rules of Order. Primo told him, "The conventional wisdom out there is that businesses are going to Washington, writing checks and expecting big returns. But the other side of the story is that members of Congress may implicitly threaten businesses that if they don't change their policy, or if they are not heavily involved in the political process, that bad things might happen to them."
It's not personal, Sonny, it's strictly business. Our government has become a clearing house for corporations and plutocrats whose dollars grease the wheels for lucrative contracts and easy regulation. It's all pay for play, and look the other way. Partisans of the system say, hey, it's just business as usual, but that, of course, is the problem. We were struck by this headline in The Washington Post after the November elections: "Parties head back to Capitol to begin carving up spoils, remains from midterms." Right: Not only leadership posts and committee chairmanships, but carving, dividing up the spoils also means divvying up the loot. And those contributions were not made for the sake of charity.
Once upon a time the GOP stood for Grand Old Party -- now it stands for Guardians of Privilege, and this is payback time for everything from fracking to getting the big banks off the hook; from doing away with the minimum wage and coddling off-shore corporate tax avoiders to privatizing Medicare and Social Security; to gutting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency, even the U.S. Postal Service.
And that's just for starters. House Speaker John Boehner, his majority now greater than ever, will govern as you might expect from the man who once handed out checks from the tobacco industry to members on the floor. And Mitch McConnell, finally in his ascendancy as Senate Majority Leader, will manipulate more powerfully than ever the Capitol Hill and K Street mechanisms that he has mastered -- helped along by the clever placement of loyal former staff members in positions of influence. They assist him in the dispensation of favors to donors from on high. "We're very excited," one Republican lobbyist told the Post, the understatement of the century.
Democrats, meanwhile, are so compromised by their own addiction to Big Money they have forgotten their history as champion of the working stiff, the little folks down there at the bottom. The great problems facing everyday people in America -- inequality, stagnant wages, children in poverty, our degraded infrastructure and stressed environment -- are not being seriously addressed because the political class is afraid to offend the people who write the checks -- the corporations and the rich. Everyone else can be safely ignored.
Watch this weeks show with Lawrence Lessig and Zephyr Teachout on "How Public Power Can Defeat Plutocrats"