Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is also the founder of the Real News Project , a new not-for-profit investigative journalism outlet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The intense focus on individual cases of corruption on Capitol Hill, such as those involving Representatives William Jefferson, D-La., and Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., masks the broader problem of an institution deeply compromised by money.
The triumph of the current culture of corruption can be traced to the actions of the Republican Congressional leadership, who sold off the decision-making apparatus to the highest bidders in virtually all areas of governance. From Newt Gingrich’s Trojan horse “Contract with America” to Tom DeLay’s “K Street Project,” the Republicans have made corporations a fourth branch of government, with the power to write and block regulations and legislation.
It follows that in upcoming elections the corruption issue should be the single most potent weapon in the Democratic arsenal. But the Democrats can’t make full use of it for a simple reason. Though they publicly bemoan the “culture of corruption,” Democratic leaders and operatives privately acknowledge that they see no means of regaining power without cozying up to the real “special interests.” And so, albeit to a lesser extent, the would-be reformers find themselves fighting the quicksand of corporate entanglements.
Though they profess a need for campaign finance reform and other policies that prioritize the common good, many key figures in the Democratic pantheon personally earn a living helping corporate interests advance the very causes that their party publicly deplores.
A new study by the Real News Project, a nonprofit noncommercial investigative reporting entity I founded, shows the extent of the problem. Examining 25 key Democratic consultants, advertising and public relations execs and lobbyists, we discovered a veritable witches’ brew of odious agendas.
These include helping Wal-Mart improve its image rather than addressing the practices that created the image problems in the first place, staving off accountability for companies involved with global warming and asbestos, squeezing the consumer even further on credit policy, promoting wasteful military/homeland security boondoggles, fighting off universal health insurance and affordable prescription drugs and much more. Democrats on K Street are increasingly partnered in their influence-peddling and spin machine firms with Republicans.
Jack Quinn, who served as Vice President Gore’s chief of staff, and later as counsel to President Clinton, is a textbook example. After serving at the top of the Clinton-Gore administration, in January 2000 he left what was still a Democratic White House and formed Quinn Gillespie with GOP operative Ed Gillespie. This firm was among the pioneers of the one-stop-shopping approach that has since swept Washington.
Quinn helped secure a controversial pardon for the fugitive financier Marc Rich as Clinton was leaving office. Gillespie periodically leaves the firm to help the GOP; from July 2003 to January 2005 he headed the Republican National Committee. In May 2005, Gillespie sponsored a table at a Tom DeLay tribute dinner at the height of DeLay’s ethical and legal troubles, sitting with DeLay at the head table. He also shepherded the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito, and is treasurer of George Allen’s presidential PAC.
But the firm’s regular client list is what is most troubling, starting with the infamous Enron. It continues with the American Petroleum Institute, which tried to lift the federal ban on offshore drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf and Alaska, and fought a proposal to raise taxes for oil companies by changing the way profits are calculated. The Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care opposed a proposed Medicare reform that would have cut $1.5 billion in add-on payments to nursing homes—and was indicted in late 2004 for a $100,000 illegal contribution to DeLay's PAC. The Partnership to Protect Consumer Credit wants to preempt tougher state and local laws designed to protect consumers, and the International Dairy Foods Association opposes the introduction of more healthful dairy substitutes in school lunches.
Then comes the “Ax the Double Tax" coalition, which sought to eliminate the individual tax on corporate dividends and has worked on legislation that would allow Hewlett-Packard to repatriate profits from foreign subsidiaries at a lower tax rate; and Bank of America, which fought stricter consumer data-protection legislation proposed after they suffered a big data breach. All use Quinn Gillespie to push their agenda on the Hill.
Jack Quinn is hardly unique. Many of the Democratic consultants cited in the Real News Project report worked in the Clinton-Gore administration and continue to have close ties to leading Democrats, from Hillary Clinton to Harry Reid. They are likely to help whoever gets the Democratic nomination set her or his platform and rhetoric.
If the Democrats are serious about presenting the public with a meaningful alternative in 2006 and 2008, they have to pull themselves off the morphine drip of corporate money. In the long run, this can only be accomplished through reform of contribution laws (and related rulings by judges appointed by a future president who is committed to change). But in the short run, Democrats can start by taking two steps:
They can make public the names of their top advisers and require full disclosure of their clients and potential conflicts of interest. And they can start seeking funding from donors who don’t insist on a pound of flesh and who don’t see the public interest as inimical to their own. Most importantly, Democrats must build a contributor base of millions of ordinary people, through Internet prospecting on a scale as yet unseen.
Of course, the Democrats won’t be able to attract that wide base without making a strong case that the party truly represents the public interest. One way to do that is to talk openly about their own K Street problem—and to boldly begin to fix it.