Washington's Two-Headed Pig
It's getting easier and easier for business to influence Washington policymakers. That's because the Republicans in control of the White House and Congress have the dubious distinction of some of the closest ties in history to various corporate benefactors. This only continues, argues Waldman, because the American public is too distracted by major issues like war in Iraq to be concerned about seemingly arcane policy. That's why it's up to Dems to take a cue from the GOP playbook and make the impact of these laws vivid.
Paul Waldman is editor in chief of the Gadflyer.
When the 2001 Bush tax cut was passed, business interests supported it enthusiastically, despite the fact that it contained no new tax breaks for corporate America. They knew that the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress would get around to them soon enough; their time would come.
And come it has. A “new mood,” has taken over Washington, The New York Times reported last week; one which “has emboldened corporate lobbyists to ask for and receive more from lawmakers, who no longer seem to be concerned about recrimination at the polls.”
And why should they be? Though the effort to dismantle Social Security is going poorly, it would seem naïve to predict that Republicans will pay a price for genuflecting before the altar of corporate profit. The recently passed bankruptcy bill is just the latest in a line of moves unabashedly serving corporate interests at the expense of ordinary Americans. These are moves that Congress has made with President Bush’s blessing, including limits on class-action lawsuits and voting down an increase in the minimum wage. And they’re just getting warmed up: Next up are moves to limit medical liability (a boon to the insurance industry), and “tax reform"—for which some are actually advocating doing away with corporate taxation altogether. This comes at a time when—according to a General Accounting Office report last year—the corporate share of federal taxes has fallen to its lowest point since 1983 and the second-lowest since 1934.
How did we arrive at this era of unprecedented corporate influence in Congress? In the wake of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress—as a 2003 Washington Monthly article explained—the GOP and Washington lobbyists joined forces to become a kind of two-headed pig feeding at each other’s trough. Where lobbying firms used to spread their contributions around to win support from both sides of the aisle—and hedge their bets for the day when control of either chamber changed hands—a new regime is in place, one where K Street deviance from strict loyalty to the GOP is swiftly punished. In exchange, the lobbyists are granted more than they could wish for.
Let’s take the bankruptcy bill, which made it harder for Americans to declare bankruptcy and get out from under their debts. Naturally, the credit card industry—which will give a pre-approved platinum card to your goldfish, and charges interest and penalties worthy of the most ruthless loan shark—has been pushing for the bill for some time. In an almost farcical exercise in pounding the gavel on the interests of regular Americans, Republicans voted down amendment after Democratic amendment that would have protected veterans, seniors and victims of medical catastrophe (who, according to a recent study, make up more than half of all bankruptcies)—but made sure that wealthy people would be able to shield their assets in special trusts.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics , in the 2004 election cycle finance and credit companies gave just under $5 million—64 percent of their total contributions—to Republicans. The top contributor, credit card behemoth MBNA, gave 74 percent of its contributions to Republicans. During the campaign, the Center for Public Integrity reported that MBNA had surpassed Enron to become George W. Bush’s number one lifetime contributor. It looks to have been a wise investment.
Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind
The most important fact about the federal government’s fawning service to corporate America is that most of it happens with barely anyone noticing. Particularly when we are concerned with weighty issues—war or the potential dismantling of the New Deal, for instance—the seemingly minor matters that concern corporate interests will be unable to compete for the public’s attention. And it has been true for some time that corporations have even more success getting their way in the regulatory process, which occurs almost entirely out of public view.
But in truth, the political process is remarkably responsive to public opinion, if we think of public opinion as the sum of what people understand, believe and are willing to act on when it comes to politics. Ignorance and inattentiveness are their own kinds of public opinion. When the public has the time and inclination to learn and think about an issue—as they are now doing with Social Security—it becomes much harder to subvert their interests and wishes. If you were to conduct a poll, it would be surprising if one in 10 Americans knew that a major revision of our bankruptcy laws just passed the Congress—let alone what the bill actually contained.
But it takes something more than just the will—or even the votes—to act against Americans’ interests. Among the many differences between the parties today is a yawning audacity gap. Democrats seem eternally worried about how things will look, whether they will be subjected to the horror of a scolding editorial in The Washington Post . Republicans, on the other hand, just don’t care.
Telling The Tale
They also know that their opponents are unlikely to make much of a fuss, and— if they try to—as likely as not it will fail to resonate with the public (and we shouldn’t forget that 18 Democrats voted for the bankruptcy bill). That's not because Democrats aren’t right on the merits, but because they haven’t bothered to tell a story about the corporate-GOP nexus that people can understand.
For decades, Republicans have been better at finding the stories that can make public issues concrete and vivid. When Ronald Reagan wanted to attack welfare, he invented the mythical “welfare queen” driving her Cadillac to pick up her checks. When Newt Gingrich wanted to go after Democratic social programs, he assailed “midnight basketball,” spending federal money to give no-good kids something to do at night (and yes, the racial subtext in both was unmistakable). George W. Bush paraded before the cameras “tax families” who attested to the life-transforming effects of his tax cuts. Republicans don’t start by wondering what the merits are. They start by wondering what kind of a story they can tell.
But there are opportunities for Democrats. Consider the eddies of scandal beginning to swirl around House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, from a potential indictment for political money-laundering in Texas to a seemingly endless string of influence-peddling allegations. The juciest bit is that corporate lobbyist and one-man scandal machine Jack Abramoff seems to have paid for DeLay to take a trip to Great Britain, where he stayed at the Four Seasons and played golf at St. Andrews. If the Democrats know what they’re doing, they won’t stop talking about this one. Foreign trips, swanky hotels, elite golf course dates? That’s something anyone can understand.