THE BLOG
12/12/2014 12:44 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

The Best Government Wall Street and the Billionaires Can Buy

Win McNamee via Getty Images

The past few days have provided vivid evidence that the U.S. government has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Wall Street and other wealthy special interests and no longer a government of, by, and for the people.

It's only five weeks since the 2014 mid-term elections which cost $3.67 billion. Fewer, but larger, donors provided those funds than in past elections. The candidate who spent the most money won their race House race 94.2 percent of the time.

Yet despite the colossal sums spent on campaign ads, how many candidates ran on a platform promising to let banks make risky, taxpayer-guaranteed bets on the kind of complex financial derivatives that tanked the economy in 2008 and led to the government bailing out the big banks while millions of ordinary Americans lost their jobs and their homes? How many ran on a platform promising to gut what's left of the McCain/Feingold campaign finance reforms and allow millionaires and billionaires to donate 10 times the current limit to political parties, up to $1,296,000 a couple in a 2-year election cycle?

The answer, of course, is that almost no political candidates ran promising to enact such disastrous policies. And hardly any voters went to the polls hoping that their elected representatives would do these things.

Yet in buried riders to the just-passed omnibus spending bill, a majority of the House and Senate -- with votes from both Republicans and Democrats -- did exactly these things that are bad for the vast majority of Americans and good only for Wall Street and other billionaire special interests who fund elections. And when some progressive Democrats led by Elizabeth Warren rebelled, President Obama lobbied Congress to put down the rebellion and ensure the bill passed so he may sign it.

If it wasn't clear before, it's crystal clear now that government enacts the will of its campaign contributors, not the will of the voters.

And what of President Obama, who doesn't have to raise money for another political run and in theory shouldn't have to worry about what bankers and billionaires think of his actions? Well, former President Bill Clinton helped set a model in which the presidency is just another revolving door through which middle class politicians can parlay the presidency into becoming multimillionaires after they leave office.

According to Hillary Clinton, the couple was "dead broke" when they left the White House. Well, that didn't last long. Bill Clinton earned $104.9 million in speaking fees between 2001-2013 -- largely at secret events of business executives closed to the press. $19.6 million was from banks and financial firms alone. He was hired by Goldman Sachs to give 8 speeches for $1.35 million.

Does any sane person think these banks would be paying Bill Clinton hundreds of thousands of dollars for an hour of his time to listen to him say the government should break them up and their bonuses should be slashed? Of course not. The only rational explanation is that these fees were reward for services rendered in deregulating the banks during his presidency and a down payment on further influence over his wife Hillary.

Moreover, Bill Clinton earned tens of millions using his influence to help private equity firm Yucaipa Companies bring in business, before resigning to avoid potential embarrassment to Hillary during her 2008 presidential campaign. As the New York Times reported in 2006, the arrangement was "an unusual one for a former president, giving him the potential to make tens of millions of dollars without great effort and at virtually no risk."

And lest anyone think President Hillary Clinton would represent a change from this pattern, since leaving public office Hillary Clinton earns roughly $200,000 a pop for giving behind-closed-doors talks to private equity firms like the Carlyle Group and KKR.

So would it be foolish to think that, faced with the promise of such riches when he leaves office in two years, Barack Obama might also be influenced by the opinions of big banks in supporting legislation that lets them bet on risky derivatives with taxpayer money and increase their political contributions to buy further influence?

Bill Clinton may have upped the ante, but parlaying the presidency into private wealth is a thoroughly bipartisan enterprise. George W. Bush, who was already wealthy, earned $15 million giving private speeches, mostly to business groups. An Alzheimer-addled former President Reagan earned $2 million for giving just 2 speeches in Japan. And does anyone think a former President Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz wouldn't follow a similar path?

As presidential historian Julian Zelizer said, paid speeches by former presidents are "another version of the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street".

With government so corrupted by big money, is it any wonder that only about 1/3 of the electorate thought their vote mattered enough to bother going to the polls in 2014? Is it any wonder than fewer small donors made campaign contributions this year, while the size of large campaign contributions increased? Just when a citizen revolt against the oligarchy is most needed, more and more Americans are unfortunately just giving up on our corrupted democracy.