07/18/2007 10:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Will "Centrists" Next Claim That Bill Gates Is Destitute?

Attention: This piece in the Roll Call newspaper today is not a story from The Onion, even though you may think it is. The story informs us that an army of former Senate staffers who have now become high-paid K Street lobbyists have organized a fundraising unit to siphon corporate cash to a group of so-called "centrist" (read: lobbyist-compliant) senators. The list of lobbyists includes Joe Lieberman's former aide who went on to become an Enron lobbyist, and Max Baucus's old Finance Committee chief of staff who, after helping write the Medicare bill, went on to become a drug industry lobbyist.

But that's not what's laugh-out-loud funny about this story. What will make you think this story just can't be real is the public rationale for the organization's creation. According to this group of senators, who have been among K Street's most reliable allies, they need this new money-raising vacuum because their so-called "centrism" makes it hard for them to raise money.

I'm not kidding, here. Check out the excerpt (sorry - full story is behind a firewall):

"They said that while several policy-oriented organizations currently exist to provide assistance and resources for ideological moderates in the Senate -- including Third Way, the New Democrat Network and the Democratic Leadership Council -- there is little to no financial support mechanism attached to those efforts. 'These groups are all doing policy work on behalf of moderates,' said one of the organizers of the new PAC. 'There really isn't an entity that is providing fundraising for these same people.'"...Having no set constituency from which to draw contributions can often prove daunting, [Sen. Mark Pryor] said. 'In general terms, the way the fundraising world is geared right now, you do very well if you are firmly to the left or firmly to the right,' Pryor said. 'But if you are in the middle it can be much harder to raise funds for your election or re-election.'"

In the movie Spaceballs, Rick Moranis memorably asks that his starship move from Light Speed to Ludicrous Speed. This story is Washington's version of Ludicrous Speed - a story with a rationale so utterly ludicrous, so totally and profoundly absurd that you really might mistake it for a Mel Brooks-style parody.

The poor senators who supposedly have so much trouble raising Big Money and who this new PAC thus is coming to save include Delaware's Tom Carper, Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln and Pryor, and Montana's Max Baucus, who is also the head of the Senate Finance Committee - the premier K Street money-vacuuming position in the Congress. A quick back of the envelope estimate using Center for Responsive Politics data shows that these four senators together have raised more than $40 million in the last 17 years - that includes almost $13 million from corporate PACs alone (and that PAC total doesn't count individual contributions from corporate executives). Additionally, each senator lists "lobbyists" as among their top 10 contributors by industry. Oh, and this doesn't even include the $4.6 million these four senators have raised for their "leadership" PACs - PACs almost exclusively funded with corporate cash that are used to finance lavish travel, recreation and other high-class frolicking associated with today's Senate club. To give you some sense of what these numbers really mean, consider that these four supposedly campaign-cash-starved senators have raked in an average of $14,000 a week from corporate PACs every single week for the last 17 years.

But beyond the overwhelming nature of these numbers in the face of the insanely dishonest "it's hard for us to raise big money" meme is the very rationale of these senators' so-called "centrism." From supporting tax cuts geared to a tiny handful of superwealthy donors, to trade policies designed to reward Wall Street elites, to health care policies that enrich the insurance industry, many of these lawmakers take support positions on economic issues that attract the label "centrist" inside of Washington, D.C. but are far outside the center of American public opinion. And at least some - if not all - of the motivation for taking such fringe positions comes precisely FROM their desire to raise huge amounts of corporate money for their reelection campaigns. Put another way, their brand of faux centrism doesn't make it harder for them to raise money in a system dominated by corporate cash - their faux centrism is perfectly calibrated to MAXIMIZE the amount of money they can raise. And the organizations like the Democratic Leadership Council that they claim have "little to no financial support mechanisms" have long ago been unmasked by investigative reports as corporate front groups designed with the not-so-secret intention of connecting Washington politicians with major Big Business donors.

But no, these senators and their good and decent former staffers-turned-K-Streeters would like us to believe that, in fact, they are the ones we should feel sorry for, because it has always somehow been easier for the Paul Wellstones, the Bernie Sanderses and the Sherrod Browns to raise huge amounts of money. Yes, these people who run to Roll Call reporters to plead their case would have us believe that the progressive lawmakers who have the guts to go up against the drug companies and the health care industry and Wall Street and the oil companies are the ones who have it easy and get all the campaign contributions, while the supposedly embattled "centrists" and their courageous defense of the little guys like Pfizer and Citigroup is what makes it so hard to raise money in today's Beltway culture - so hard that they need a whole new organization of staffers-turned-corporate-shills to help them get by. I mean, really - what's next? Are we now going to start seeing Senate press releases bemoaning how poor Bill Gates and Steve Schwartzman are so that these same bought-off lawmakers can justify their ongoing refusal to raise taxes on the superwealthy in order to prevent massive tax increases on the middle class?

Of course, embedded in this story is one important nugget of truth, even though it is obscured by rhetorical spin. Lawmakers who prioritize Corporate America's agenda over the middle-class (again, the position that gets you the "centrist" label in Washington) have lots of trouble raising money from regular people. And they are basically admitting as much. Yet rather than moderate their positions on economic issues to actually come into congruence with the majority of the country, they are instead digging in on behalf of their K Street allies, which compels them to rely even more heavily on a tiny handful of lobbyists and their corporate clients for campaign resources.

That a newspaper could write the story without so much as mentioning the financial reality of the situation is typical in today's culture of Stenographic Journalism. That these lobbyists and their Senate automatons could peddle this story to reporters without laughing - now that, indeed, is a feat.

Cross-posted at Working Assets