Posts Tagged ‘lobbyists’

Duty and Honor

Author: Gary Hart

Of the many reasons for public discontent with government generally and Congress particularly, none is more obvious than the wholesale movement of former members of both Houses of Congress into the lobbying business.  The massive lobbying industry is quick to remind us that lobbying is perfectly legal, or perhaps it is better to say not illegal, and that it has been going on from the beginning of parliaments.  That may be technically true, but it neglects the critical point that, when conducted by former members of Congress, and now increasingly their wives and children, lobbying is a sophisticated way of trading titles provided by voters for substantial personal gain.

No one truly believes that John Doe is as valuable to his lobbying firm and its corporate clients as former Senator John Doe is.  Senator John Doe adds prestige to the firm.  More importantly, he can open doors in the offices of his former colleagues.  In the lobbying business, that is pure gold.  The core and centerpiece of the lobbying business is ACCESS.  It is possible to count on the fingers of one hand the number of members of Congress who refuse to see a former colleague.

My relatively few years in elective office spanned a critical transition time.  Very few of my Senate colleagues from the 1970s became lobbyists.  For most of the great ones it was a matter of self-respect and personal honor.  By the time I retired from office in the later 1980s, not only former Senators but also their wives and sons and daughters were joining or forming lobbying firms and making a very great deal of money.  It would take more than blog space permits to analyze the reasons for this transformation.  But much of it had to do with the triumph of money over that earlier sense of personal honor.  No American has the right to trade an office and a title bestowed upon him or her by the people for personal gain.

Senators Michael Bennet and Jon Tester are sponsoring legislation to bar Senators from lobbying for life.  I would find it amazing if there were even committee hearings on this proposal, let alone a vote on the floor of the Senate.  But such a measure would do more to demonstrate that the current Senate is serious about recapturing its dignity, its respect, and its sense of honor than any other single step I can think of.  And perhaps most of all, it would go a very long way to restoring the confidence of the people in their government.

Students of American history find it remarkable how struggles of the founding days continue to repeat themselves down through the decades and centuries.  That is because so many of the founding disputes were based on differing views of human nature, and human nature seems to change very little.

Currently, we are locked yet again in one of our recurring half-century battles over the size of banks.  In this case, size matters because size equals power.  Here again we see Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton head-to-head.  Hamilton wanted a very large and powerful national bank, and banking system, to foster large-scale investment, economic expansion, and competition with older European systems.  Jefferson opposed this scheme because he anticipated the inordinate political power such concentrated wealth would have within the democratic process.

Jefferson saw a handful of bankers controlling vast economic power, encouraging speculation, manipulating investments and currency values, and warping the political process to its own ends.  He knew that money equaled power and that it distorted political systems, including republican ones, throughout history.  What a surprise!

Yet, here we are now, two and a quarter centuries later, and, though Jefferson was clearly right, Hamilton has won…yet again.  Now the few giant banks, combinations of traditional banking and rampant, largely unregulated speculation, not only too big to fail–and thus guaranteed against collapse by everyday taxpayers–but also too big to be brought under public regulation.  An army of lobbyists, upwards of 1,500 or more, many former members of Congress and their families, swarming the halls of the peoples’ Congress, warning of apocalypse if they are required to be transparent, even with public money, protecting astronomical bonuses (distributed as a nose-thumbing thank you to those of us who bailed them out), and trading campaign contributions for influence.

Expecting the predictable tut-tutting about how I’ve traded my chance for statesmanship for populist ranting, my response is: Jefferson, once again, was right, and I’m proud to be on his side.

Who Owns Anger?

Author: Gary Hart

Tell me the complaint, says the doctor, and I can prescribe the remedy.  For those who are not tea-partiers, it is difficult to understand clearly the nature of the complaint.

This may be in part due to the diverse nature of the party.  Looking on from the outside, anger seems to be the glue holding together anarchists, libertarians, conservatives of various kinds, and groups harboring complex grievances.

It is necessary to tread lightly in commenting on the tea party phenomenon, as I’ve learned, to avoid being considered part of some mysterious elite that, as one angry man wrote to me, “talks down to people.”  My interest in trying to understand the tea party lies in the hope of some kind of communication.  But it is hard to hold a conversation with someone who insists on shouting or who seems to want to get rid of a duly-elected president in the middle of his term or who is mad at the  Congress, every member of which was elected by a majority of voters in his or her district or state.

One thing needs to be made clear.  If anger is the admission dues for membership, then I qualify.  I’m as angry as any tea-partier.  So tea-partiers have to get over the notion that only they have a right to be angry.  A lot of Americans are angry who don’t necessarily therefore want to impeach Barack Obama, or spit on Congressmen, or scream at town hall meetings, or bring down the government of the United States.  No one, including the tea party, has a corner on anger.

For myself, I’m mad as hell about the corrupt lobbying system in Washington.  I’m mad as hell about former members of Congress, and their families, who make millions trading on a title the voters gave them.  I’m mad as hell at people who like government when their side occupies it but think they have a right to bring it down when their side loses.  I’m mad as hell at a government that wiretaps my phone or throws me in jail without a warrant.  I’m mad as hell at people who claim to revere the Constitution and hate the institutions it created and the elected officials who inhabit them.  No one in the tea party, including former governor Palin, is more angry than I am at Wall Street bankers.  They are the greediest bunch of human beings I’ve ever seen. 

Let’s get one thing straight: the president and members of Congress are elected by the people of the United States.  If you don’t like that, there are lots of other countries where this is not the case.  If you are angry at Barack Obama, or any member of Congress, you are angry at your fellow citizens who voted for them.  There is a name for this process: we call it democracy.

Simply losing an election is not sufficient grounds to advocate overthrow of the government.

If tea party anger is more complicated than losing an election, then what is it?  Is it losing a job, losing a house, having medical bills, living on food stamps, or all the above?  If so, damn straight.  I’d be angry too.  The university where I work could fire me any day, without notice.  It hasn’t happened yet, but it could.  Would I be angry if it did.  You bet.  But if this anger is something else, let’s say bitterness at a black couple in the White House, or women being more equal, or medical care for poor children, or efforts to create a more decent and humane society, then there is little we can talk about.

If the tea party draws up a manifesto to clean up the air and water, to outlaw former elected officials from lobbying, to get rid of nuclear weapons, to take care of sick children and have Wall Street bankers pay for it, to provide decent care for wounded soldiers, to lock up drug dealers and clean up ghettos, to create jobs for working people, and to enforce the Fourth Amendment, I’ll be the first to sign it.